Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Royals are a bunch of Plebs

For a long time, the Militant Pine Marten has refrained from discussing the Monarchy, whether as a political institution, or with regards to the individuals that compose the current Royal Family. I’ve been happy to leave them alone, and they’ve presumably been quite happy being totally oblivious of this. There are two reasons for which I haven’t said anything on the topic. The first is that I’m not very interested, the second is that I’ve always considered that it didn’t really matter what we call a head of state who has been stripped of any real political power. There are moral arguments against having a hereditary head of state that are solid, but in terms of any real impact, it doesn’t matter if you call a powerless figurehead a queen, a Lord Protector or a president. The financial argument is to all intents and purposes nonsense. The Queen cost the UK government £36.6m in 2004-2005 which is approximately five minutes of government spending. Probably. Anyway, I don’t believe for one second that if they abolished the Monarchy, they wouldn’t squander the money immediately on some other ill-advised scheme. It’s a drop in the budgetary ocean. So I came to the conclusion some years ago that if people want a queen, they should have a queen, and if somehow that does create some sense of cultural identity, then so much the better. My God, I even said that to David Dimbleby on live television for the Golden Jubilee. I actually told the Masses that I was in favour of the Monarchy for reasons of cultural identity. I was going to develop the point but some loud Scottish girl who wanted to become famous by shouting on TV interrupted my flow (incidentally if you’re ever on some live TV “debate”, make sure beforehand that you can put your point across in four seconds or less, otherwise it won’t happen).

So why have I suddenly changed my little mustelid mind? Well in today’s Le Monde, I discovered something that just blew the seal that was keeping a lid on any hostile feelings I may have had against the Monarchy: every day, the Queen reads The Daily Mail. The Daily Mail, for God’s sake. I can understand that the Monarch is quite likely to hold quite conservative views. You can hardly expect Elisabeth II to be a member of the Socialist Worker’s Party, but then I also expect my heads of state to be a little more enlightened than the 25% of British voters who would consider voting for the BNP. I would at least expect Her Majesty to make an effort to compare and contrast a few different sources. In fact, I’m sure that there are a lot of civil servants whose job it is to make sure that she knows everything that she needs to know. But when left to her own devices, she obtains her news from The Daily Mail.

On the other hand, why should we expect even-handedness and a healthy appetite for a little regular intellectual curiosity from Mrs Windsor? If we take a step back from the current monarch for a second to take in the entire Saxe-Coburg-Gotha tribe, why on earth would we expect anything else? Because if you take away the carriages, the ermine lining, the clipped speech, the pomp and the circumstance, something very remarkable becomes apparent: the Royals are just a load of very rich and very posh chavs. They are in fact the poshest chavs in Britain, probably also Europe, arguably the world. You may think that this is an oxymoron, but it isn’t. Consider the following. The Queen does in fact read one other paper: The Racing Post. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it just shows that one of her main preoccupations is really just the same as all the people who check their lottery numbers or football pools regularly.

The Queen and her ancestors for the past few generations have paid people to add to the Royal Collection on their behalf because essentially, they don’t know anything about art, and I suspect are very much of the school of thought that admits this but also insists that they know what they like. And what they like is having a great big art collection because that’s what people like them should do. For goodness’ sake, how nouveau riche is paying someone to demonstrate taste on your behalf? I don’t wish to sound snobbish, but then if you accuse me of snobbery for deriding the Windsors, you expose yourself to ridicule.

The Royal Collection may be the most onerous and flagrant demonstration of Royal chavery, but there are plenty of others. There’s the appalling schooling record of these people for a start. I’ll let Elisabeth off the hook on this one because in her day, well-brought up young ladies weren’t necessarily encouraged by their parents to become what they disparagingly called “blue stockings”, but the men have no excuse, particularly the little Waleses. Andrew had to switch courses from History of Art while at university. Harry at least had the honesty to admit that he was a bit of a donkey by joining the Army (incidentally I rather approve of this: it seems to me that the whole point of aristocracy originally was to selectively breed people to fight, and in the light of that, Harry may actually have made a sensible choice).

To summarise, the Royals are ignorant and vulgar and the Queen is open to the suggestion that Captain Euro will eat her corgis. Still, I’ve always considered that beyond the age of 80 years, people should be allowed to say whatever they like no matter how offensive or ridiculous. This pine marten certainly intends to be outrageously cantankerous and embarrassing in old age. With that in mind, and particularly because for her entire life the Queen has scrupulously avoided expressing an opinion on anything of any consequence, I would like to wish Her Majesty a very happy 80th birthday. And as of Friday morning, I want to hear regular outpourings of pent-up rightwing bile. Albeit beautifully pronounced.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

French youth has been cheated, excluded from the "Republican Dream"

There has been quite a shocking amount of inkletting in the wake of the ongoing events both on the streets and in the circles of power around the proposed introduction of the Contrat de Premier Embauche (CPE) in France. In the French press, this has mostly been in the form of agonised soul-searching, except where it’s been a lot of vitriol, from both sides it has to be said. In the English-speaking press, there’s been quite a bit of commentary of the " condemns French strike action and calls for lazy frogs to get back to work!", but that’s only to be expected. Obviously not all analysis has been that simplistic, but there has been a certain degree of perplexity expressed as to why French youth and trade unions have been so steadfastedly and sometimes violently opposed a measure that purports to improve their chances of employment.

If all that French youth wants is a fair chance of a career, retirement and a decent pension like their parents, why the rejection of the CPE? Well in a nutshell, because it doesn’t offer them anything like a fair chance, and perhaps above that, because of near-universal fury at the high-handed way in which Dominique de Villepin set about implementing this pet project of his, at least partly to further his own political machinations. The CPE was foisted on France with no consultation of any interested parties, de Villepin having chosen to disregard the advice of just about all of his entourage and to go back on his earlier promise that no changes to employment legislation would be made without a preliminary dialogue. There was no real case for it. A similar and more measured new contract, the Contrat Nouvelle Embauche (CNE) was introduced in late 2005 and it is too early to measure its impact. For all that anyone knows, that may yet achieve just as much as any legal tinkering is ever likely to without attempting to address the underlying causes of the problem. The only explanations for this extraordinary lapse in political judgements are personal and of course basely political. Politically, this fits into the ongoing rivalry between the Prime Minister and Nicolas Sarkozy to secure the UMP candidacy for the 2007 Presidential elections. Sarkozy is always presenting himself as an energetic man of action with the drive and tenacity to push through tough reforms. “Qu’à cela ne tienne!” says de Villepin. He can be an unflinching strong man too, and he will make his stand on the CPE. On a more personal level, de Villepin is a great admirer of Napoleon (you have a choice in France if you’re in right-wing politics: Napoleon or De Gaulle, who in turn both thought that they were Louis XIVth), an Enarque, a technocrat. He’s not really a politician, he was appointed to the job from where he belongs, which is the Civil Service. He isn’t used to having to please anyone, and certainly not to have to account to the Street, let alone when it’s full of layabout students and Pinkos. He certainly never expected to have to pay much attention to the whining of “les Jeunes”. It’s not that he doesn’t care about their plight, it’s just that he wishes that they’d just recognise that it would be much better if they’d just let clever people like him decide what’s best for them because decisions like this are better left to grown-ups. And frankly, to people like him who went through the gruelling French Republican cursus honorum that has been delivering technocrats to run the country for a couple of centuries now. Which is an understandable opinion to have if you’re a civil servant, but not if you’re a Prime Minister. When you’re the Prime Minister you keep opinions like that to yourself and ask for guidance on how to handle the Masses from all the real politicians around you.

Out on the streets, the collective attitudinal landscape shapes behaviour. Essentially, the French young feel they’ve been lied to, stitched up and that the Government doesn’t care, so they have to make them care. There’s a long and illustrious history of effective people power in France (something to be proud of I think), there’s a strong tendency to default Bolshiness and there is undeniably an unfortunate tradition of political street violence (whatever you think of that, it’s ingrained in people’s minds, both the CRS – “On va casser du Bougnoule!/du Communiste!/de l’étudiant!” etc. – and the demonstrators – “CRS! SS!” and so on). The Lie is what they have been told since they were born, and it’s a part of Republican Dogma, France’s substitute state religion. This is how Republican life is supposed to pan out: wherever you are born and in whatever background, the Republic will ensure that every generation goes a few floors higher on the social lift. The Laic, Free and Compulsory School will give everyone the same opportunities. All you need to do is work hard at education for as long as you need to. This is why French teenagers hear the expression “Passe ton Bac d’abord” as a mantra to stop them from falling off the Republican bandwagon. And why the Baccalauréat results are posted in public places in July, deciding whether your parents will bore everyone they meet during the summer senseless boasting of your results, or whether shame will descend on the family. Baccalauréat results will determine where you stand in the pecking order of Grandes Ecoles which will produce the Republic’s elite for those who can stay the course. Entrance is by competitive examinations seemingly inspired by Imperial China. It’s pretty much identical to the Japanese system. When you’ve been through all that, you will have arrived in Republican Nirvana and you can relax. You see, paradoxically, the Republican Dream is both properly egalitarian and democratic, and yet totally elitist. And most importantly, it’s no longer real. The belief has gone, and everyone is undergoing a crisis of secular faith, be it the youths on the Street or the Prime Minister. It’s quite possible that Jacques Chirac’s spectacular and rapid loss of political mojo is due to the equivalent of a priest losing his belief in God.

The results of all this upheaval surrounding the CPE is that it’s been kicked into touch: Chirac’s intervention may have enabled de Villepin to just about save face, but his project’s dead in the water, and has been in effect taken out of his hands. Sarkozy, who is a proper political player, discreetly put the word out that he had nothing to do with the CPE. In a particularly skilful and understated display of political skulduggery, once the outcome was all but know, he unctuously pledged his support to de Villepin’s idea, the vindictive little snake. The Street has prevented the implementation of a measure which would essentially have amounted to institutionalised discrimination against the young, with which there would have been precious little Fraternité, Absolutely no Egalité, and without those prerequisites there isn’t much Liberté to do very much.

A poor attempt at patching over some cracks may have been avoided, but no one has seriously attempted to deal with the problem. Without a doubt, unemployment and particularly youth unemployment is France’s biggest problem, and some flexibility in the labour market would certainly help. But it has to be flexibility for everyone, not just flexibility for the under 26s. De Villepin’s attempt to preserve the economic security of the older electorate by taking hostage the under 26s is frankly despicable, and he will be punished for it. Unfortunately, at the moment, the only real beneficiary appears to be Sarkozy, and he’s not one of the world’s great listeners either.