France: the street strikes back

For connoisseurs of political irony, the last few days in France have been particularly amusing, in a grim kind of way. In a complete reversal of normal roles, the Right is taking to the streets in increasingly large numbers, to demand changes in the law and the correction  of alleged injustices. The Left meanwhile, or what remains of it, is insisting that the law should be obeyed, and warning against mob rule and “the politics of the street”.

The context for all this is the increasingly popular demonstrations throughout France which are, broadly, organised by those worried about recent and forthcoming social changes and legislation, especially as they affect the family. Last Sunday there were 80,000 people in the streets of Paris according to official estimates, and another 20,000 in other major cities in France. Because of the way that counting is done, the number of people who actually participated is probably at least double that. I saw quite a few of them while in southern Paris on Sunday afternoon. The government has reacted in the only way it really can in the circumstances. It has accused the protesters of “hate” and “homophobia” and claims to see the hand of dark conservative forces. Some commentators have made an explicit link with the extreme Right of the 1930s, which attempted to overthrow the French government exactly 80 years ago. The dreaded word “populist” has been used: there is no greater insult in French politics.

But in practice the demonstrators do not seem to be very full of hate. They are resolutely middle-class, couples, families and large numbers of young people. Many, judging by the coaches parked nearby, came from rural areas and small towns. They have absorbed and are reproducing the demonstration habits of the Left, with music, processions, celebrities, glossy handouts,  television interviews and everything else. Interestingly, they have also stolen some of the Left’s traditional political clothes. Their discourse now is all about the rights of the child and the family, the need to respect the law and the Constitution, and even the need to respect the so-called Principle of Precaution, which holds that you should always assume the worst will happen, and make decisions accordingly.

The particular context of these demonstrations is the Law on the Family which is being discussed by the French parliament now. There are two proposals which were not in the draft law but which were widely supported by members of the ruling Socialist party, who intend to introduce them as amendments. One would allow lesbian couples to benefit from artificial insemination, and the other would allow on homosexual couples to pay for a child to be carried by another woman. The government has pointed out, quite rightly, that these are not official proposals and it seems unlikely that they would ever become law, but they have been seized on by the Right as examples of what it claims is an attempt to destroy the traditional family, following on from the laws legalizing homosexual marriage, which the protesters still hope to see overturned.

There is plenty of room for debate about these kinds of issues, but there’s no doubt that the protesters have struck a chord. Moreover, people are prepared to come into the streets in defence of what they see as the rights of the child and the family, in a way that they are not prepared to demonstrate for the right to homosexual marriage. Above all, young middle-class people who in previous times might have demonstrated against apartheid, or before that against the war in Algeria, and who are always in search of a cause of some kind, have now found one. The defence of the rights of the child against threats from government may be an unfair way to interpret this sequence of events but it is an effective one. The fact is that the Left now has nothing remaining to mobilise people for, or even against, having abandoned its economic ideology and its aspirations to make a better life for all. It is now reduced to initiatives such as gender sensitivity training in schools, when most parents are concerned that their children are too often leaving school unable to read or write.

The government’s decision yesterday to withdraw the entire draft Law on the Family was probably inevitable, but shows again the failure of a government which really does not know what it is doing, or what it is for. It also demonstrates that the power of the street, so discounted for so many years by elite commentators, is still a factor. Unfortunately, that power is in the wrong hands.

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