Magazine article The Spectator

Liberte, Egalite and Fries

Magazine article The Spectator

Liberte, Egalite and Fries

Article excerpt

IT'S probably a good idea not to speak English too loudly if you're planning to visit the south-west of France over the next few weeks. The peasants are revolting again, and you may not have the time to explain the finer distinctions between the British and the Americans before finding yourself on the wrong end of a pitchfork.

In revenge for high US tariffs on Roquefort and foie gras (themselves tit-- for-tat victims after the EU clamped down on hormone-enhanced American beef), a McDonald's nearing completion in the region was comprehensively vandalised last month. Now the perpetrator is busy being canonised. Meanwhile, the FNSEA, the country's main farming union, cancelled its annual conference booking at Disneyland Paris in solidarity -- although you might have thought they would have noticed beforehand that they risked fraternising with the enemy.

In other words, it's time for another outbreak of that French reflex against the dreaded mondialisation. Cue the disruptive but highly ritualised protests we haven't seen since the air-traffic controllers during the summer, the train drivers in the spring and last year's blocked roads caused by pigs let loose, disgruntled truck drivers and cauliflower-wielding Breton farmers.

At first sight, it all looks like the same old history of French exceptionalism holding out against the dominant Anglo-Saxon ultra-liberalism. We've seen it regularly since the students took to the streets of Paris in 1968 in search of sexual liberation and ill-defined revolution, proud in the knowledge that they were maintaining the traditions of 1789,1848 and 1871.

But the latest outburst also shows how much, under the veneer of corporatist immobilism and Luddism, France is changing. Its sporadic shows of dissent owe more to the death throes of the ancien regime than to any serious challenge to the free-market economic orthodoxy. After all, Jose Bove, the moustachioed farming militant who drove Ronald McDonald out of town, is in custody for his sins. That marks a considerable advance for a country which has traditionally seemed too petrified of its citizens to mobilise the police to prevent, or at least prosecute, protesters who indulge in criminal damage.

And while the intellectual elites may join with rural workers in sneering at McDonald's, they should remember that the rest of the social spectrum has turned the US fastfood chain into France's largest restaurant group. French managers and employees serve food purchased in France to predominantly French clients in more than 700 outlets across the country.

Disneyland Paris (which is no longer even called Euro Disney) might have been dismissed as a cultural Chernobyl, but it now attracts more than 12 million visitors a year, almost half of whom are French. That makes it the most popular paying tourist attraction in Europe. After initial losses under an American chief executive, it has turned a profit under his two successive French replacements, whose fellow citizens own a high proportion of its shares.

In spite of all this, a tough rearguard action is being fought. No aspect of French life better symbolises the tremendous turmoil taking place than the attempt to preserve Gallic cinema against American blockbusters, and to protect the language from the souring influence of English. …

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