Furia Francese -- 21st-Century Version

For those who can bear to tear themselves away from the 24/7 pre-election coverage, the most compelling story in the international news has to be the continuing violent assault by French labor union members and students against the well-being of their own fellow citizens. Many of the "demonstrators" smash and burn with a feral grin that is disquieting, to say the least, as they attack in response to modest proposed changes in the French welfare state.

As someone who has long been intrigued by the social and political patterns of post-Napoleonic France, two unrelated and somewhat contradictory passages come immediately to mind:

All along the frontier in August 1914 the French infantrymen in their red trousers and blue overcoats carrying rifles with long, unwieldy bayonets broke into the double behind their white-gloved officers. Many sang the Marseillaise ... Never have machine gunners had such a heyday. The French fields became transformed into gay carpets of red and blue. Splendid cuirassiers in glittering breastplates hurled their horses hopelessly at the German machine guns that were slaughtering the infantry. ... It was horrible and horribly predictable. In that superb courage of 1914 there was something slightly reminiscent of lemmings swimming out to sea. But it was not war.
 - Alistair Horne, The Price of Glory

A young man goes to Paris, as every young man should,
There is something in the air of France,
That does a young man good.
 - Will Holt, "Raspberries, Strawberries," 1958
For decades now, the general impression which most Americans have had of the French is best summarized by the term languor, an attitude of relaxation, lassitude, or, for the harsher observers, sheer laziness. The long lunches at street cafés; the endless vacations in late summer; the relaxed attitude of sheer indifference toward the visitor, the customer, or the train passenger both attract and infuriate those who visit France from faster-paced cultures such as Germany or the United States -- or just about anywhere north of the Sahara, for that matter.

The ubiquitous Gallic shrug and the air of sang-froid present among the French when the train is late or the meat is cold or the rain is persistent can lead many tourists to wish they could export some of this attitude to their own countries, where time is money and the customer is always right. The beauty of Paris, the lovely women, the superb cuisine, the quiet of the countryside, and the pleasant lilt of the French language have their undeniable charms. It is easy to see why the Germans, themselves so uptight and over-scheduled, use the expression "as happy as God in France" to imply that even the Deity Himself would succumb to the charms, licit and otherwise, of that country.

But there is another France, one that bursts forth periodically, as in the streets of Paris these past weeks. It is a France that exhibits violent, aggressive, and often self-destructive behavior, frequently driven by what Alistair Horne, the finest historian of modern France, expressed as "extravagant, semi-mystical nonsense."

In the sacrificial political uprisings of 1848, the mindless violence of the Paris Commune in 1871, the ghastly 1914 slaughter of the French infantry in the name of irresistible French élan, the violence and turmoil of 1968 -- in all of these episodes, Furia Francese, "the fury of the French," led to bloodshed, chaos, and destruction. 

And so we are now watching the Furia Francese unleashed in the form of unionized workers who will damage and torch the City of Light before they will agree to retire at 62 instead of 60. They are being reinforced by sturm battalionen composed of perennially angry and indignant students, generally loutish losers who prefer the endless academic dole to seeking a real job in the generous French welfare state. Rounding out the mob components are the regular clusters of Anarchists, Trotskyites, Green Commandos, and assorted other bands, each with a banner and some armbands. You will have seen most of these people at any recent WTO, U.N., or OECD conference in Europe. They can travel cheaply by Euro-rail Pass.

President Sarkozy understands, as all intelligent Frenchmen do, that the current welfare state is not sustainable given demographic and financial realities. He is attempting to inject a bit of common sense into the structure to avoid the more draconian measures now being faced by other Father Christmas countries such as Greece.

Sadly, it seems as if many young French people and workers are caught up in the spirit of 1914, charging at full speed against entrenched enemies. Of course, they are not risking life and limb by attacking across open fields against dug-in machine guns, as did their forbears; rather, they are mindlessly assaulting the unmovable forces of an international economy, the euro currency structure, and the minuscule French birth rate. They may even win the day in the short term within France, but eventually they will most certainly be ground down by the forces of globalized finance.

Whether Sarkozy survives this episode or not, the French fields will ultimately be, metaphorically speaking, of course, littered as in 1914 with the bodies of those who refuse to understand that the nature of their economic battlefield has changed forever, and all the sound and furia in the world will not restore the status quo.

Some in America say that we shall be in the same position as France, with street riots, sabotaged gas pipelines, blocked airports, etc. whenever our "leaders" finally begin to get serious about reining in our own out-of-control social spending. Perhaps there will be some of that, but I do not see any real tradition of Furia Americano in this country. Oh, we have had our Haymarket riots, a few battles at U.S. Steel in the 1930s, and some shot-up coal miners now and then. We even had a bit of petulant baby-boomer "fury in the streets" back in the 1960s and early 1970s. In reality, that was all minor theater compared with the insurrections, "labor actions," and disruptions that pop up like red blotches in the pages of modern French history. I do not see us imitating our Gallic friends, but then, one can never be certain.

When watching the news accounts of the French turmoil, it is useful to remember those long-dead French infantrymen, who charged pell-mell into destruction because they were convinced that their irresistible human spirit and their violent attacks would inevitably carry the day. There is much of that mad mysticism now in the streets of Paris, and it will surely end badly.

At least back in 1914, the attacking French were motivated by national survival and revanche for the loss of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871; today's Frenchman assault their own people blindly and destructively, all for the sake of twelve weeks' vacation, free tuition, and comfortable retirement for everybody at 60.

It would appear that in France true glory is out of date.

An old man returns to Paris,
As every old man must
He finds the winter winds blow cold
His dreams have turned to dust
 - Will Holt, "Raspberries, Strawberries," 1958 
For those who can bear to tear themselves away from the 24/7 pre-election coverage, the most compelling story in the international news has to be the continuing violent assault by French labor union members and students against the well-being of their own fellow citizens. Many of the "demonstrators" smash and burn with a feral grin that is disquieting, to say the least, as they attack in response to modest proposed changes in the French welfare state.

As someone who has long been intrigued by the social and political patterns of post-Napoleonic France, two unrelated and somewhat contradictory passages come immediately to mind:

All along the frontier in August 1914 the French infantrymen in their red trousers and blue overcoats carrying rifles with long, unwieldy bayonets broke into the double behind their white-gloved officers. Many sang the Marseillaise ... Never have machine gunners had such a heyday. The French fields became transformed into gay carpets of red and blue. Splendid cuirassiers in glittering breastplates hurled their horses hopelessly at the German machine guns that were slaughtering the infantry. ... It was horrible and horribly predictable. In that superb courage of 1914 there was something slightly reminiscent of lemmings swimming out to sea. But it was not war.
 - Alistair Horne, The Price of Glory

A young man goes to Paris, as every young man should,
There is something in the air of France,
That does a young man good.
 - Will Holt, "Raspberries, Strawberries," 1958
For decades now, the general impression which most Americans have had of the French is best summarized by the term languor, an attitude of relaxation, lassitude, or, for the harsher observers, sheer laziness. The long lunches at street cafés; the endless vacations in late summer; the relaxed attitude of sheer indifference toward the visitor, the customer, or the train passenger both attract and infuriate those who visit France from faster-paced cultures such as Germany or the United States -- or just about anywhere north of the Sahara, for that matter.

The ubiquitous Gallic shrug and the air of sang-froid present among the French when the train is late or the meat is cold or the rain is persistent can lead many tourists to wish they could export some of this attitude to their own countries, where time is money and the customer is always right. The beauty of Paris, the lovely women, the superb cuisine, the quiet of the countryside, and the pleasant lilt of the French language have their undeniable charms. It is easy to see why the Germans, themselves so uptight and over-scheduled, use the expression "as happy as God in France" to imply that even the Deity Himself would succumb to the charms, licit and otherwise, of that country.

But there is another France, one that bursts forth periodically, as in the streets of Paris these past weeks. It is a France that exhibits violent, aggressive, and often self-destructive behavior, frequently driven by what Alistair Horne, the finest historian of modern France, expressed as "extravagant, semi-mystical nonsense."

In the sacrificial political uprisings of 1848, the mindless violence of the Paris Commune in 1871, the ghastly 1914 slaughter of the French infantry in the name of irresistible French élan, the violence and turmoil of 1968 -- in all of these episodes, Furia Francese, "the fury of the French," led to bloodshed, chaos, and destruction. 

And so we are now watching the Furia Francese unleashed in the form of unionized workers who will damage and torch the City of Light before they will agree to retire at 62 instead of 60. They are being reinforced by sturm battalionen composed of perennially angry and indignant students, generally loutish losers who prefer the endless academic dole to seeking a real job in the generous French welfare state. Rounding out the mob components are the regular clusters of Anarchists, Trotskyites, Green Commandos, and assorted other bands, each with a banner and some armbands. You will have seen most of these people at any recent WTO, U.N., or OECD conference in Europe. They can travel cheaply by Euro-rail Pass.

President Sarkozy understands, as all intelligent Frenchmen do, that the current welfare state is not sustainable given demographic and financial realities. He is attempting to inject a bit of common sense into the structure to avoid the more draconian measures now being faced by other Father Christmas countries such as Greece.

Sadly, it seems as if many young French people and workers are caught up in the spirit of 1914, charging at full speed against entrenched enemies. Of course, they are not risking life and limb by attacking across open fields against dug-in machine guns, as did their forbears; rather, they are mindlessly assaulting the unmovable forces of an international economy, the euro currency structure, and the minuscule French birth rate. They may even win the day in the short term within France, but eventually they will most certainly be ground down by the forces of globalized finance.

Whether Sarkozy survives this episode or not, the French fields will ultimately be, metaphorically speaking, of course, littered as in 1914 with the bodies of those who refuse to understand that the nature of their economic battlefield has changed forever, and all the sound and furia in the world will not restore the status quo.

Some in America say that we shall be in the same position as France, with street riots, sabotaged gas pipelines, blocked airports, etc. whenever our "leaders" finally begin to get serious about reining in our own out-of-control social spending. Perhaps there will be some of that, but I do not see any real tradition of Furia Americano in this country. Oh, we have had our Haymarket riots, a few battles at U.S. Steel in the 1930s, and some shot-up coal miners now and then. We even had a bit of petulant baby-boomer "fury in the streets" back in the 1960s and early 1970s. In reality, that was all minor theater compared with the insurrections, "labor actions," and disruptions that pop up like red blotches in the pages of modern French history. I do not see us imitating our Gallic friends, but then, one can never be certain.

When watching the news accounts of the French turmoil, it is useful to remember those long-dead French infantrymen, who charged pell-mell into destruction because they were convinced that their irresistible human spirit and their violent attacks would inevitably carry the day. There is much of that mad mysticism now in the streets of Paris, and it will surely end badly.

At least back in 1914, the attacking French were motivated by national survival and revanche for the loss of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871; today's Frenchman assault their own people blindly and destructively, all for the sake of twelve weeks' vacation, free tuition, and comfortable retirement for everybody at 60.

It would appear that in France true glory is out of date.

An old man returns to Paris,
As every old man must
He finds the winter winds blow cold
His dreams have turned to dust
 - Will Holt, "Raspberries, Strawberries," 1958