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Graffiti protest in the 2007 French elections

Graffiti protest in the 2007 French elections

Infamous leader of the French far right, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has predicted that Griffin’s appearance on Question Time will boost the Brit’s popularity. Certainly Le Pen’s own performance on a similar French chat show proved a great boon for him.

Before he appeared on the prime-time show L’Heure de Vérité in 1984, his Front National had seen little press coverage and was polling at 3.5 %. Afterwards, they went on to score 11% in the European elections that year.

No wonder Le Pen called his TV stint “the hour that changed everything” and said the BNP “could now enjoy a surge in support” in an interview with the Evening Standard this week.

And his heure de vérité in 1984 was only the start. Le Pen went on to shock the French nation by coming second in the French presidential race in 2002, beating the former prime minister Lionel Jospin.

So far, so bad. But if we’re truly to understand the impact that Griffin’s Question Time performance might have, we need to look at what happened after Le Pen’s first round success in the 2002 elections.

Le Pen was totally trounced in the second round, winning 18% of the vote to Jacques Chirac’s 82%. Determined to stop the nightmare scenario of Le Pen Le Président, even voters who despised Chirac were prepared to, as the slogan ran: “Vote for the criminal, not the fascist.” (Chirac was suspected of corruption at that time).

More interesting was the “Le Pen effect” in the 2007 elections. There was an exceptional turnout of 84%, with 8 million more people voting than in 2002.  As a French friend of mine explained at the time:

I’m not particularly enamoured with either Sarko or Ségo but I’m determined to exercise my right to vote. We can’t have another embarrassment like 2002.

Success can be a double-edged sword for extreme parties. More people voting for them – or perceived to be voting for them – will lead more moderate voters who had been wavering to cast their ballots against them.

In Le Pen’s case 2002 also proved to be his peak. A million fewer people voted for him in 2007  and he came fourth in the first round. He’s now back on the fringes where he belongs.

So perhaps we can hope that the BNP’s success in the recent European elections and Griffin’s raised profile thanks to Question Time will actually be his downfall in the long term. Perhaps the spectre of an emboldened BNP will push more of us to vote than the mere 61% who turn out last time.

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French shops could soon open on Sundays for the first time if Sarkozy gets his way

A controversial and complicated debate is raging across France this week after the French parliament’s lower house voted on Wednesday by a narrow majority – 282 to 238 – to loosen restrictions on Sunday trading.

If ratified, the bill would allow shops to open on Sunday in 500 tourist areas and cities with more than a million inhabitants. Previously Sunday was designated a day of “repos”. All commercial activity in France was banned, although there were certain exceptions including markets and grocers.

But the bill is yet to be ratified. It still has to get through the Senate and even if the upper house approves it, it could still be blocked. The Socialist Party, which voted against the law has threatened to go to the Conseil Constitutionnel, arguing that the law would be unconstitutional. They maintain it would create inequality among workers, forcing some to work on Sunday, allowing others to keep this traditional day of rest.

In Britain, we’ve long taken for granted that shops should be open at our convenience but the issue of whether to keep dimanche sacré is dividing France. A poll for Libération revealed that 55 per cent of French people were opposed to allowing more Sunday trading.

The divide is not totally along left-right lines – even within Sarkozy’s UMP, despite pressure from the top, 10 mps voted against the law and 15 abstained. Rather the debate centres on the question of whether to move towards a more free market Anglo-Saxon model.

The law’s critics claim allowing more large discount stores and supermarkets to trade on Sundays would lead to smaller traditional shops going out of business. Its supporters say the changes would boost public spending and the economy.

So, as Guillaume Perrault declares in Le Figaro, despite the bill passing through the lower house:

« La bataille du travail le dimanche n’est pas encore achevée »

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Take a look at this promo video a French friend sent me. If you watch it through you’ll notice something strange. It’s meant to be a video crossing linguistic and cultural barriers – by the youth of Europe for the youth of Europe – urging them to vote in the European elections.

Yet the British are conspicuously absent. The English subtitles and a few good attempts by (my guess is) a Scandinavian at an English accent cannot mask the fact that our fellow countryman have not got involved in this project.

From my experience of living in France, Brits have a bad reputation when it comes to politics. According to the stereotype, we’re too busy drinking tea to get down to the polling booth.  

Poor British turnout in the 1999 European elections seemed to confirm this. Just under 23% of us voted, compared with the 50% of Europeans who cast their ballots.

Our performance in the last European elections was, however, much better, with 39% of Brits turning out.  In 2004 we showed Europe that, although are feelings towards it are often at best ambivalent, we at least cared enough to have a say on its policies. Unlike France, there has actually been an upward trend in Britain in voter turnout in the European elections.

Whatever the reasons for us not being involved in Five Friends for Europe campaign, we can still show our amis across the channel that we’re politically engaged enough to vote in the EU elections.

Still unsure? Try votematch – a quick online questionnaire which works out which parties you agree with most by getting you to click “agree” or “disagree” to different policy statements. Even if it doesn’t throw up the party your heart tells you to vote for, at will at least get you thinking about the issues.

See you at the polling station…

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I recently went to see Palme d’Or-winning French film The Class, or as it was called in the original, Entre Les Murs. The semi-autobiographical work is based on a book by former teacher François Bégaudeau, who plays himself in the film.

Over 120 minutes, we are shown a strikingly realistic depiction of Bégaudeau’s experiences of teaching at a high school in the 19e arrondissement in Paris. The film culminates in a pupil being expelled.

It was really interesting for me to see how this incident shows the French school system to be at once more liberal and more authoritarian than the English system.

Before the student is expelled he is invited to a tribunal where he can defend himself. The teachers then vote on whether he should stay or go. I cannot imagine this happening in England. Instead it would no doubt be a case of the headmaster laying down the law.

However, the chain of events which lead up to the student’s expulsion start with him disrespecting his teacher by tutoiying him i.e. using tu rather than the more polite vous. Would this have been looked upon so harshly in England?

This got me thinking about the differences between the French and English education systems. So I decided to interview French students at City University, London, who have gone through both systems, to see what they thought. See video clip below.

 

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As we begin to get over our initial excitement at yesterday’s snow and start to grumble about the disruption it caused, spare a thought for our neighbours over the channel.

Today it was announced that the storm which battered south-west France last week will cost insurers up to 1.4 billion. And that figure accounts for damages alone.  It does not take into account the money which Storm Klaus has cost businesses.

It’s been ten days since the storm hit France’s Atlantic coast. Life still hasn’t completely got back to normal in the nine départements (regions) which were affected.   

According to the freesheet 20minutes, 39,150 homes are still without electricity and rail services had not yet returned to normal.

When I was searching through Flickr for photos of Klaus, I came across an appeal for victims of the storm. See post below if you’re interested in donating.   

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‘Klaus’

Originally uploaded by h de c

On Saturday the 24th of January 2009, very strong gales (later nick-named ‘Klaus’) caused serious damage across the south-west of France and Northern Spain. 60% of the forest of the Landes (consisting almost entirely of pine trees and one of the largest in Europe) was destroyed, 11 people killed in France (with more in Spain) and 2 million homes without electricity. The region, its rail network was severely damaged, was cut-off from the rest of the country. One week later, 44,000 homes remained without electricity and the local economy has been severely affected.

If you would like to show your solidarity by donating some funds to the Foundation of France which is co-ordinating relief support for those affected, then please follow this link (in French): www.fdf.org/jsp/site/Portal.jsp

I was in Pau (a city in the south-west of France, in the Pyrénées Atlantique / Béarn area) that weekend. Luckily, Pau escaped the worst with just a number of fallen trees. However, I found myself marooned as the rail networks and public transport ground to a complete halt. Finally, I was able to reach Bordeaux on one of the first replacement coaches which crossed this scarred landscape. Here is my little journey…. (Sorry for the dreadful quality of the photos!). 

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In 2006-07, I was working as a French language assistant in Sète, a smallish fishing port on the Mediterranean cost. It’s a beautiful place and I’d definitely recommend visiting it if you’re ever in the south of France.

I had a great year and was lucky enough to experience that special French event – la grève (the strike) not once, but five times.

A couple of times the teachers themselves went on strike. One time it was over working hours. The government had plans to get rid of a system whereby certain professeurs could work fewer hours in the classroom to compensate for time spent preparing for lessons.  

When I first heard about the strike, I was tempted to think it had been called as a chance to do some Christmas shopping. It was on 18th December, after all.

But I remember the heated discussion that went on in the staff room. On one side there were the teachers bent on striking to defend their rights. On the other were those who felt this was an unnecessary strike, that the pupils would suffer and that there were more important battles to be fought.

It was thrilling to witness people so passionate about politics when in England I’ve only ever encountered apathy.

Of course, it also helped that the strike meant I could have the day off. Even if some teachers were coming in, I was told that most pupils would use it as an excuse to take a day off.

 

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