23 Jul 2009
Despotism moderated by riot
In the UK, we elect a government, or to be precise a few of us who happen to live in the handful of constituencies that are not one-party fiefdoms, choose the party of government. The vast majority of members of Parliament are voted for not because of who they are or what they can do, but because they have been picked by the relevant party. In effect, most MPs are selected by the handful of party activists and then elected by a majority who would have voted for an ambulant green slime if it had the right party label.
The first past the post system results in hugely disproportionate results, where the great majority of votes are worthless. Perhaps the most appalling example is the 2005 election where two out of three people voted for parties other than the awful Blair and his NuLabour puppies, but he still won a large overall majority of parliamentary seats, and formed the government. The will of the people, that is the 75% who did not vote for him, was frustrated. Yet Blair's manifesto for the 1997 election promised reform and proportional representation. Not the worst of his lies and broken promises.
One NuLanour person has said that the elections are now really decided by a few thousand people in a few constituencies – and they know their names....
In the UK, MPs pass laws at the government's instruction, effectively. If the UK government proposes a new Act of Parliament it will almost without exception become law. This is because most MPs are now creatures of the Whips (the party officials in charge of discipline and control), and whatever objections they may raise to address the concerns of the people who elected them – and in very rare circumstances their own consciences - when it comes to voting they do as they are told. The term whips, incidentally is long standing and comes from fox hunting: the whips were the 'hunt servants' responsible for controlling the pack of hounds.
New laws that give this wretched government more powers, whether to increase taxes or restrict liberties, are usually applied at once. Laws that are intended to deal with issues of public benefit, such as drink driving and carrying knives, are assumed to be effective without any real enforcement. Using mobile phones while driving, for example, and other motoring offences are considered a success if about 80% of the population observe them, so there is no effort to enforce the law and prosecute those who ignore them. Most people grumble about laws they don't like, but do nothing.
France is different. New laws are enforced, sometimes with excessive zeal. But if the public, or an aggrieved sector of it, object, they take to the streets, and protest in various ways until the law is changed. Here in my part of Normandy, there are two developments that are attracting forceful attention at the moment. The first is the price of milk, which is controlled by a mix of state and commercial factors, and which is now believed by the farmers to be below the cost of production. This dispute involves a wider area than Normandy, and there have been a number of manifestations (demonstrations), some of which have been useless, such as ostentatiously pouring milk down the drain, and others quite imaginative, like the huge sculptures made from shopping trolleys they have used to construct blockades of the big supermarkets. Their next plan is to give the milk away: the public benefit, and the losers are the big dairy product companies and supermarkets. So if you see fairly rough hewn signs talking about 'Greve et don du lait', they are advertising a strike and giving away of milk.
The other issue is the creation of a very high tension power line (THT – Tres Haute Tension) from the nuclear power complex near Cherbourg down through the Cotentin peninsula to Maine. Some of those who are directly in or very near its path are furious. The agency responsible for the line are I think doing their best to involve and inform everyone. The sign in the photo above is a list of dates and villages where the detailed plans will be displayed in the Mairie, with people from the project in attendance to answer questions and explain issues. I went to one in a nearby village, and as a project manager (though not construction) I believe they are making a pretty decent fist of involving people, and planning around concerns. The line itself is going to run on the sides of hills rather than the top ridges, to reduce visual impact, and the route wobbles around to avoid villages and as many individual homes as possible. If the need for the increased power is accepted, and there may be long term arguments that it will not be needed, then the powers that control it are not doing badly.
This who object are only just getting started. Slogans, such as the one above, are appearing all over the place, signs are being knocked down, and action groups being formed, for example Un collectif d'associations locales mayennaises : "MAYENNE SURVOLTEE" s'est créé pour s'opposer à la ligne Très Haute Tension (THT) et au Réacteur Européen ... . Who knows how far some of them will go? In the last few years we have seen the local butter and cheese factory blockaded by tractors two or three times, parades of lorries blasting their klaxons and even a huge mountain of vegetables outside a larger town Mairie. There is no possibility of the THT not being built, and it is such a long term project that it will be impossible to keep up the impetus. Unless there is a huge majority against it, with massive protests, the opposition will slowly wither.
Essentially, government in France is despotism moderated by riot. The president and his ministers essentially make laws, their police and other agencies enforce them, until the public take to the streets and force the laws to be changed. The history of France since the Revolution is one of almost constant uprising, upheaval and protest.
A couple of years ago, we had a problem when a neighbour inherited a house and promptly turned the fields around it into a motocross track. The first day of practice, with three 500cc unsilenced motorbikes roaring a few yards past the front door on one neighbour, the noise drowning out a chainsaw, and echoing around the village, was enough. A few of us went to the gendarmes (you have to go to them rather than the maire for things like this), and it was stopped – for good. But before that known, I was talking to a friend from the other side of the village, a widow of almost sevety, about it, and she was furious. Now that she knew the source she said that 'il faut manifester' we must demonstrate. And many of the village would join in.