Monday 27 January 2020

French retreat to give Sarkozy a clean break

John Lichfield

Most countries like to have 12 months in the year. Not the French. The official French year lasts for 11 months. It begins in September and ends in July. August is not just a time for holidays. It is a time of mass exodus from reality; a hiatus; a pause in the immutable rhythms of normal life; a time to leave home and go and sponge on Grand-mere in her house in the country.

For President Nicolas Sarkozy, the end of the month cannot come too soon. He hopes that, by the end of August, when France reopens for business, the country will have had its hard disk wiped clean by chilled rose wine, suntan cream, cheap novels, byzantine family quarrels and dense traffic jams. The French will return to their ordinary lives with only a vague memory of the "Affaire Bettencourt" and its wonderfully convoluted suggestions of hypocrisy and greed and envelopes stuffed with cash in high places.

In France, September is not just called 'septembre'. It is also called 'la rentree', or the 'great return': the true start of the year.

There is a 'rentree politique', when politicians and bureaucrats, like the inhabitants of Sleeping Beauty's castle, awaken in the hostile poses in which they fell asleep in July. There is a 'rentree sociale', in which the trades unions revive all the grievances that they had agreed not to pursue in the late spring and early summer.

One of the reasons why the May 1968 student-worker revolt failed is that it happened at the wrong time. The protests petered out as students and workers drifted away on holiday. The proper time to mount a revolt in modern France is 'la rentree', when you have at least three clear months of marching and striking before Christmas. (The revolt programmed, by common consent, for the rentree this year is a protest against Mr Sarkozy's plan to raise the normal retirement age from 60 to 62.)

There is also the 'rentree litteraire', when more than 600 new French novels -- over half of all the novels published in the year -- are tipped on to the bookshop shelves in a couple of weeks in early September.

Most disappear without trace. Others are the subject of heavy promotion, and manipulation, by the big publishing houses as they compete, and connive, for the three or four big literary prizes awarded in the late autumn.

Worst of all, there is the 'rentree scolaire' (the return to school), a period of mental torture for children and more so for their parents.

The 'rentree' is, above all, a time to "get serious". My wife once committed the social faux pas of appearing on the streets of Paris on a sweltering day in September in sandals. The Parisians, and especially the Parisiennes, looked at her in horror, as if she were wearing a bathing suit on the Champs-Elysees. This was, after all, 'la rentree'. Sandals were "so August".

France is a country of self-absorbed conformists: a country of individualism en masse.

The French are as jealous in their own way of their individual rights, and fundamental privacy, as any nation. They love to break rules, when they can get away with it, even more perhaps than other nations. (Ask Thierry Henry.) But they also expect the state to be there to clean up the mess.

Teenagers want to be left alone; they want to be permanently in revolt from the household authorities; they also expect their washing to be done for them. Many, not all, French people -- both on the political left and the right -- live in a state of constant contempt for the state but constant expectation that the state should decide and provide.

President Sarkozy was elected three years ago promising to, among other things, mess with the collective mind of the French: to make them more enterprising, more can-do, less tradition-bound and less dependent on the state. But he has, predictably, proved to be as ambivalent as the rest of France, an odd mixture of liberalism, monarchism and Etatism, with, it would appear, a typically flexible French attitude to rules. (© Independent, News Service)

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