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Tuesday, 7 June 2016

EUROPE ROILS: OUR CORRESPONDENTS OFFER TWO VIEWS

 
FRANCE
MAY DAY
By Liliane L. Clever
[WC News Service]
My flight to Paris from Philadelphia,  on May 4, had plenty of open seats, and French travelers returning home far outnumbered American tourists venturing over.    I arrived on Thursday, May 5, the day of the Ascension and a national holiday in France.  I had completely forgotten that it would be a day off.  The TGV from Lille arrived on time at the CDG station.  It was already packed with families taking the opportunity of a long weekend to travel to Angers or Nantes (when a holiday falls on a Thursday in France it is customary to do ‘le pont’ and take Friday off as well).  So far, so good, and very French.  I had heard of the train strikes and marches throughout the country protesting a new labor reform, but on a day off, all was well.
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BRITAIN
YOU BREXIT, YOU BROKE IT
By R.J. Chellel
[WC New Service]
Although Britain's EU partners disagree on many things, on one thing the twenty-seven heads of government had agreed upon:  that David Cameron's decision to hold a referendum, on 23 June, on Britain remaining the EU, was insane.  In the light of the way the campaign is turning out, he must be bitterly regretting it.  The idea was to 'renegotiate' the terms of Britain's relationship with the other EU countries, then persuade the British people to ratify it.  (Harold Wilson successfully pulled off this trick in 1975.)  This was supposed to silence the Eurosceptic zealots on the right of the Conservative Party and to marginalise the upstart UK Independence Party which has been eating into Conservative support amongst the older, Daily Mail-reading voters as well as the white-van-driving classes.
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May Day Continued

Angers is a vibrant midsize city located in Anjou about 300 kms from Paris.  It has a rich historical past and its medieval castle still dominates the river Maine.  It is a tourist town as well as a university town with as many as 30,000 students from all over the world.  Two years ago, my sister and her husband decided that Angers would be the perfect place to retire, and even if I miss their old home in a close Paris suburb, I have to admit that they made a good decision. 

It can be somewhat deceptive to be in Angers.  If it was not for the evening news showing the social unrest, sometimes quite violent, in major cities throughout France, one would think that it was just business as usual. Nantes and Rennes, the two major cities closest to Angers, were particularly hit by violent marches resulting in destruction of public and private properties.

France has a lot on its plate right now.  Ever since the November 2015 terrorist attack in Paris, the country has been under ‘un état d’urgence’ with intense police and army presence in large cities,  police abuses, violations of civil rights, searches without warrants… all in the name of national security.  It probably was not the right time and climate to try to change ‘le code du travail’ by introducing a labor reform which, among other things, affects the France's famous 35-hour work week.   As usual, compromise between labor unions and the MEDEF (representing business owners) is not a word in the French vocabulary.  Both sides have a lot to be unhappy with.  Union workers, representing a small minority of workers in France, want to keep all benefits acquired, and employers want more hiring/firing/benefits flexibility.

In the middle, the ‘silent’ majority, workers want more job opportunity and security.  As it stands now, too many workers are hired on short-term contracts.  These contracts can be as short as three months in a major company, and even shorter with medium-sized employers.  These contracts are called CDDs – or ‘contrats de durée determinée’, and are perfectly legal.   Too many employers favor CDDs as a protection against strict labor laws which make firing or laying off employees difficult.  Most people agree that something must be done to combat unemployment and under-employment, but forcing a major labor reform by using the 49-3, an article of the French Constitution comparable to a U.S. presidential executive action, is not the way to go.

Train conductors were the first ones to strike.  Conductors have a special work status and are somewhat protected.  Their main concern was the possible suppression of the 35-hour week.  Students fearing for their future were the first ones to protest by organizing marches.  Students were joined by retirees marching to show their support and talking about the ‘good old days’,  labor unions staged their own marches independently,  and finally hooligans wearing face masks and bad intensions joined the ranks.  Soon after, marches lost most of their positive impact and a good level of public support.  By mid-May, only the diehard CGT union members were still marching hoping for results.

At the same time, Nuit Debout, a social movement loosely related to the labor reform was formed.  The participants of Nuit Debout, consisting mostly of students, intellectuals, celebrities, and dreamers, would meet at specific locations throughout the night to talk about social and political issues, and discuss possible solutions. The movement reminded me of our own Occupy Wall Street a few years back.  Similarly, Nuit Debout lacked leadership and a real program.  Its relevance was diminished when hooligans decided to participate in their usual violent way.

On May 17 my sister and I took a two day trip to Paris.  Fortunately the trains were running on that day. We arrived in Paris Gare Montparnasse, and were immediately confronted with a large number of police wagons parked in the street and riot police in full gear waiting for action.  The CGT had planned a march in the afternoon and entire boulevards were closed to traffic forming a large security zone.  Seeing Boulevard Raspail completely empty was eerie and not reassuring.  It made us feel like something bad was about to happen. 
We met friends for lunch and, between the lack of tourists in town and streets blocked to traffic, we were rapidly served and had barely enough time to catch up with each other.  It was an unusual experience, far from the normal leisurely lunches we are used to enjoy.  Similarly, we had no problem securing a prime table at a café terrace for our after lunch expresso.
Later in the afternoon we caught up with the march.  It was well organized and fairly quiet.  From where we stood it did not look all that well attended.  Annick talked to a CGT representative for a while, and I could not help but feel sorry for him.  He was saying that ‘they must shut the country down.  That it was the only way.’  I was shortly sent back to May 1968.  But what a difference!  Back in 1968, most people were on the same page and a national strike did shut down the country.  It was an exciting time, full of hope for big changes to come.  Unfortunately, May 2016 is not May 1968.

The next day Annick and I went to see an amazing Amadeo De Souza Cordoso art exhibit at Le Grand Palais.  What a treat!   On the outside, the entrance was setup with the usual roped up lines awaiting large crowds – all empty.  We walked right in.  No need for a ‘coupe file’ on that day. 
Amadeo De Souza Cardoso, a Portuguese artist and friend of Modigliani, is relatively unknown outside of Portugal.  The exhibit was an absolute pleasure due to the small attendance.  We actually had entire rooms to ourselves with plenty of space and time to immerse ourselves in the experience.  Coming out, we couldn’t help but feel almost lonely.  The wind had picked up and as we walked across Pont Alexandre III (the most beautiful bridge in Paris) towards Les Invalides, Paris looked abandoned with no tourist in sight.  Nobody taking pictures or selfies on the bridge with the Eiffel Tower in the background.  Nobody looking down at les bâteaux mouches and waving childishly.

On that afternoon the police staged their own protest.  Since the November terrorist attacks, the police have been working around the clock with no day off, they have been beaten by hooligans, insulted by their fellow citizens, unappreciated, unloved and fed up.  After all, they too have the right to protest.

Our trip back to Angers was epic due to a train strike that day.  The train we had tickets for was no longer running, and we had no choice but take the next train hours later.  The Montparnasse train station was as crowded as I have ever seen it, but strangely enough not chaotic.  French people are used to train strikes and just wait it out.  I was impressed with the ground workers patiently informing stranded passengers of their options.  Small army patrols went by regularly, mostly unnoticed becoming part of the background.  The soldiers looked so young, much too young to carry their huge machine guns.  Army patrols in train stations, airports, and in the Métro have become familiar sights, and one wonders how efficient it really is.

Back to Angers and relative calm.  On Saturday, Angers hosted its very small, well behaved Gay Parade.  Angers is a church-going town, and not overly tolerant of a certain lifestyle.   It is not until gas shortages hit local gas stations that the good people of Angers were affected by the social unrest.  The union CGT, tired of marching with no results, decided to block refineries.  Long lines of cars formed at gas stations throughout the region with possibly empty gas pumps at the head of the line.  I couldn’t help think of the CGT representative saying that ‘they must shut down the country.'  It looked as though they had found a way.

I started to get anxious about my way back to Philadelphia.  Train strikes were still going on with talks of air traffic controller outages, continued blocked refineries, possible strikes at nuclear stations, and still no changes to the labor reform, President Hollande and Prime Minister Valls holding strong.

I left on a Tuesday, the day before a scheduled train strike.  My TGV was right on time in the early morning, and so was my flight back home.  I suppose I got lucky.  One more time the flight had plenty of open seats.  Nobody sat next to me giving me much-needed room.  Eight hours later I landed in Philadelphia in a different world.  The people I talked to since had no idea of what had been going on in France.  Two of my better informed friends thought that the social unrest in France was due to immigration problems.  Others said that all they had heard in the news while I was gone was about Trump and Hillary.  Welcome back to America!

As I write this in early June, a large part of France is under water. Severe flooding throughout the country is immobilizing entire regions.  It is going to be a very costly affair.  It all seems rather unfair.  How much can France put up with?  France is hosting the European soccer cup, Euro 2016, which is to start soon.  More unrest is to be expected, as well as more security issues, more police and army presence, more abuses on all sides.  More craziness all around.  At this point I just want it to end.
(Liliane L. Clever is a writer based in Philadelphia).
 YOU BREXIT, YOU BROKE IT
By R.J. Chellel
[WC New Service]
Although Britain's EU partners disagree on many things, on one thing the twenty-seven heads of government had agreed upon:  that David Cameron's decision to hold a referendum, on 23 June, on Britain remaining the EU, was insane.  In the light of the way the campaign is turning out, he must be bitterly regretting it.  The idea was to 'renegotiate' the terms of Britain's relationship with the other EU countries, then persuade the British people to ratify it.  (Harold Wilson successfully pulled off this trick in 1975.)  This was supposed to silence the Eurosceptic zealots on the right of the Conservative Party and to marginalise the upstart UK Independence Party which has been eating into Conservative support amongst the older, Daily Mail-reading voters as well as the white-van-driving classes.

Both groups, like Donald Trump supporters, feel threatened by global developments they cannot understand.  The Eurosceptic fanatics have plagued British prime ministers for years (John Major famously called them 'bastards') and seem to have a political death wish; while UKIP were once described by a Cameron ally as 'swivel-eyed loons' and closet racists.  Putting the loons and bastards into their box was the idea, but it hasn't worked out that way:  The referendum campaign has given them more traction than they ever had before.  Now the Cabinet, like the Tory party generally, is in a state of civil war with senior ministers attacking one another in increasingly abusive terms.  The electorate is split down the middle, and some polls give the Outers the edge.  A few Tory MPs are calling for Cameron's resignation.  The Labour Party, now controlled by the crypto-Trotskyite Hard Left, can hardly believe their luck.

In forty-five of living in this country, I have never seen such divisiveness, not even during the miners' strike during the Thatcher era.  It feels as if the country is tearing itself apart, and whichever way the vote goes on 23 June, the anger and recrimination will go on for a long time.

As in all ideological conflicts, truth has been one of the first casualties in this referendum campaign.  The slippery, self-promoting ex-mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has become the public face of the Leave faction and is the chief manipulator/falsifier of the facts, claiming for example that the EU prohibits the sale of bananas in bunches bigger that three (it doesn't and never has), that the EU's auditors have failed to sign off its accounts for ten years (untrue), and that the UK contributes 350 million pounds a week to Brussels, omitting to mention that most of his sum comes back in grants, subsidies and the British rebate secured by Mrs. Thatcher at Maastricht in 1992.  The notion peddled by the Outers that  Brexit would free up £350-million a week for the National Health Service is pure moonshine -- as most of them must know.

They must also know -- although they proclaim the opposite -- that after a British secession, the remaining twenty-seven EU countries will not be eager to negotiate replacement favourable trade agreements.  Most have their own turbulent Eurosceptic parties to contend with, and they will make the negotiation process as difficult as they can; they've all but said so.  According the Lisbon Treaty, in the event of a member state voting to leave, the terms of that departure will be decided by the remaining twenty-seven members over two years without reference to the leaving state.  Britain would not have a say in those arrangements, from the day of the referendum vote to leave onwards; would not even be in the room while its future was being decided.

The Remain campaigners have been less overtly mendacious than their opponents, although they may exaggerate the dire consequences of withdrawal.  The real question is not 'Will the consequences be bad?' The question is:  'How bad?'  Almost all the experts, including the IMF who ran several detailed studies of the issue, say very bad.  There is likely to be a recession as manufacturing companies like Nissan (a huge employer in England's depressed northeast) and financial firms like Goldman-Sachs, relocate to the Continent to stay within the single market.  The pound will tank causing prices to spike.  The UK will face years of uncertainty as it struggles to establish trade deals with twenty or thirty countries -- and it will be a struggle, not being part of the world's biggest trading bloc.

The Brexiteers harp on about sovereignty, "taking control of our affairs, subject only to our own laws, not those forced upon us by undemocratic, faceless Brussels eurocrats".  What do they think sovereignty actually means for a middle-sized nation in a world where the big players like China and the US tend to call the shots?  I've not heard a single Brexiteer object to Britain's membership of NATO which involves pooled sovereignty for the security of all.  They often, however, cite Norway and Switzerland (and, bizarrely, Albania sometimes) as examples of countries which, in rejecting EU membership, have retained control of their own affairs.  The inconvenient truth is that Norway has had to implement 75 percent EU legislation and regulation, including free movement of EU citizens into the country which, as part of the Schengen area, has a higher level of immigration per capita than the UK.  Norway also pays a significant amount to Brussels each year, but it has no say in how much or how the money is spent.

The situation is similar in that other beacon of sovereignty, Switzerland.  It took years of wrangling to establish trade deals with the EU which has recently imposed trade sanctions on the country for its refusal to agree to free movement of EU citizens  rejected by the Swiss in a referendum.

Just about every respected economic organisation has warned about the dangers Brexit would cause.  These include the Treasury, the Bank of England, the OECD, the Institute of Fiscal Affairs, the IMF (memorably in the stark warnings given by Christine Lagarde), several former US Secretaries to the Treasury and most economists.  Rubbish! say the Brexiteers:  they're all Tory fellow travellers, and besides experts are often wrong.  Still, they must know they've lost the economic argument.  I suspect that many of them, fanatics like the MP Bill Cash who have crusaded against Europe for thirty years, do not actually care.

On 23 June it will come down to immigration.  That will be the deal-breaker.  People in the UK may not know what the Common Agricultural Policy is or what the European Parliament does but they know that 350,000 immigrants a  year is too many for a smallish, crowded country to absorb, and they blame it on the EU.  Leave campaigners never mention that half this figure comes from non-EU countries, mostly from the lndian subcontinent; or that the immigrants from Eastern Europe are largely employed doing jobs that Brits won't do, like fruit-picking -- or can't do in sufficient numbers because of the shortage of indigenous skilled technical personnel.  I have noticed that many of the workers on the huge Crossrail project in London speak Polish; and the Polish Plumber is a legendary figure in English cities.

Yes, it will come down to immigration, and the Man on The Clapham Omnibus has a point.  Britons are, in the main, not a bigoted people.  Here we have openly gay Cabinet members, senior politicians of Asian, African and West Indian descent, and inter-racial couples are common, as you've seen for yourself.  For most people in this country it's live and let live.  But the sheer number of immigrants year after year is putting pressure on transport, education and (most importantly) housing and the National Health Service which are both in crisis.  People see their culture and their environment becoming more and more alien.  Almost forty percent of London's eight and a quarter million people were born outside the UK.  English people feel overwhelmed and anxious as the country, described so vividly and affectionately by Orwell in 'England Your England', seems to be disappearing before their eyes.  Times change and we must change will them, wrote Ovid (I think it was Ovid), but too much change too quickly destabilises a society, weakens its sense of identity and its sense of community obligation.  London is an admirably tolerant society, but disparate ethnic and religious groups don't actually appear to have much to do with each other, or so it seems to me.  It almost goes without saying that the self-segregation practised by some British Muslims does not help this situation.  As the vote approaches, the Brexit camp are increasingly exploiting this anxiety.  Every news report of rioting migrants in Calais trying to get across the Channel to the UK is grist for their mill.  It is their most effective weapon, and if Britain votes to leave the EU it will have been the deciding factor.

There is another catastrophic consequence of leaving:  the break-up of the UK.  The Scottish National Party, which now holds almost all Scotland's seats in Parliament, has been uncharacteristically, cynically quiet during this campaign, despite being strongly pro-European.  If Britain votes Leave, the Scots will hold another independence referendum whether the Westminster government likes it or not -- and this time the SNP will win it.  Considerable chaos will follow, with arguments about who gets what in the wake of separation.  How much of the national debt should be assumed by Scotland?  Who will support the continuing massive losses of the Royal Bank of Scotland which would have collapsed in the 2007/8 crash had it not been taken into public ownership by the British Government?  What will happen to Britain's extensive military assets in Scotland including the Faslane nuclear submarine base which the SNP has vowed to close?  Who should pay for the decommissioning of now-redundant oil rigs as North Sea oil output dwindles?  Can you imagine all this and more piled on to the uncertainty and expense of Brexit?  It's an appalling prospect: a once-great nation -- and one which I love -- in pieces.

Britain is different from most other EU countries.  We drive on the wrong side of the road, drink warm beer (allegedly), queue up for buses, and we have a healthy disdain for o'erweening authority.  (When the prime minister's party is voted out of office, he or she has to vacate Number 10 Downing Street within twenty-four hours.)  Our island situation has for centuries protected us from Continental political convulsions and military threats.  The defeat of the Armada, Waterloo, the Battle of Britain -- these are all deeply encoded in our national DNA, part of who we are collectively and how we think, whether we are conscious of it or not.  

While many Brexit campaigners are possessed of a quasi-religious hatred of the EU and all its diabolical works, Remainers are much less passionate; after all, no one can love the EU given its manifest faults and failings.  Jean-Claude Juncker is a hero to no one -- except maybe Mrs Juncker, and I'm not even sure about her.  But still, but still . . . the European project has turned nations that had been at each other's throats for centuries into allies, bound by common institutions and committed to democracy.  The post-war story of Europe, from the Coal and Steel Community to the EEC to the fall of communism is the story of peace and prosperity.  Britain needs to be part of that story.
 
(R.J. Chellel is a PJ correspondent in Britain).


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