The other day I went to collect a parcel from a local shop. It being the third time that I had collected something from that particular outlet, the woman recognised my tête anglaise and remembered that I had a verb masquerading as a surname.
Just as she was about to hand over the package, she asked to see my identity card. Catastrophe. I did not have one, I said: us Brits don’t, generally. After the obligatory expressions of shock and bewilderment at the notion that a person could exist without an identity card, non, she said, I cannot give you ze parcel because you do not have your carte d’identité. I proffered my carte vitale—my social security card—which bears my full name and a photo of me, but this was rejected. I did not have my driving licence because for some reason my husband had it in his wallet. Votre passeport alors ? Mais non, surprisingly, given that I had no intention to leave the country that day, I had not slipped it into my handbag before leaving the house. Well then, there was nothing to be done. Without the correct documentation, my parcel would remain in the shop.
This, for me, was an example of the mistrust, both institutional and social, that is written into every transaction that takes place in everyday French life. It did not matter that the woman in the shop knew who I was: her role was to mistrust me. Presumably my two previous, legitimate, visits had all been part of an elaborate ruse to trick her into allowing me to make this third visit, unsupported by any passport, during which I would somehow, somehow… well, do something incredibly méchant, that’s what.
Such mistrust is not confined to postal transactions. Industrial and political mistrust is currently wreaking havoc with ordinary French lives: it even touches the lives of the ordinary British people who have opted to live in the pitchfork waving hexagon.
A week ago, finding the petrol tank in our car running low, I decided to fill up. I turned into the forecourt of the nearest petrol station, only to discover that there were barriers in front of every pump bearing improvised signs which announced that the patrons were desolés, but that both petrol and diesel were en rupture. Feeling slightly jittery, I crossed the river to another petrol station where, happily, there were a number of cars on the forecourt. It was not until I had swung cheerfully in that I realised that there were chains across all the petrol pumps. Only diesel was available: petrol was, here too, en rupture.
Now in fully-blown panic, I drove to a third petrol station, even further away. I kept my speed right down, eliciting furious honks all round, for fear of burning up too much of the now-precious resource in my petrol tank. Fortunately, two of the ten petrol-dispensing pumps at the next station were in operation, and I was able to fill up. There was, however, a long queue of similarly nervous-looking people, and the notices heralding limited availability made me worry for the people at the back of the line.
The petrol shortage that I was experiencing was caused by a strike by workers at French petrol plants, large numbers of whom were protesting about the controversial loi travail being proposed by the Government. This being France, you will already have deduced that the strike was not confined to petrol workers. Beh non. They were joined in their outraged disquiet by numerous other disgruntled workers, notably in the domain of transport. Across France, as trains were cancelled willy-nilly, planes grounded, and the roads clogged with those cars that dared to use their last litres of fuel, people were seen desperately dusting off bicycles that they had not ridden for 20 years in a last-ditch attempt to salvage their daily commute. Rumour has it that even Madame Lipstick remembered that she had a pair of feet that had skills other than depressing the accelerator pedal.
Depending on the point of view that you (mis)trust the most, the loi de travail is either there to enact much-needed reforms to the labour market that will help get the one in three young people who are currently unemployed into work and boost the stagnating French economy, or to remove the last skimpy vestiges of protection from the already embattled French worker. (See here or here for a more reliable summary of this parlous state of affairs).
No matter what the rights and wrongs of the matter are, I have been astonished by the levels of deeply ingrained mistrust that I have heard expressed on the subject. One acquaintance informed me in solemn tones that the proposed law signalled the end of France’s fine socialist tradition. It was about allowing the grand chefs, every last one of whom was deeply and intrinsically evil, to force their employees to work during August and then to fire them unceremoniously in order to fill their posts with cheap foreign labour, or possibly even robots. Were all patrons necessarily evil, though? I was met with a disbelieving stare. Mais, oui : il faut se méfier d’eux tous. There we had it: mistrust of one’s employer was a prerequisite: as obvious and necessary as buying one’s daily baguette.
On the other hand, in the rarefied air of our local commune, the opposite sentiments are equally caricatured. C’est la guerre, remarked one otherwise mild-mannered, red corduroy-sporting neighbour: zese people will hhhhruin the Frunch economy. Ziss week, plus d’essence. Next week, they will be guillotining people devant la Mairie. (Personally, I think the strikers resemble less a set of bloodthirsty Robespierres than a set of stroppy toddlers, but there you go.) The Unions, too, it seems, can never be trusted.
All this mistrust seems to me to create a series of set piece tableaux: whichever side you belong to, there is the goodie and there is the baddie. The goodies are good. The baddies are bad. The one should never trust the other. The two can never be reconciled. I put this down to too many stimulants in the form of black coffee and red wine. Perhaps if the French learned to drink a good milky cuppa, they’d imbibe with it the art of the compromise, or just the good old British art of a fudge.
For a more jolly view of French life, I would recommend visiting the #AllAboutFrance linky…
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