Wednesday, May 1

Protesting Too Much?

Everyone else seems to have commented on it, so I figured, why not have a go at the dead horse myself?

It seems to be common these days to remark derisively that those "crazy Frenchmen" are mounting huge, futile protests against themselves! This interpretation of the recent French protests is, of course, absurd. The people marching against Le Pen are not the same people who voted for him--those would be the weasels across the street with the Joan of Arc posters. But this does not answer the question of what, exactly, the French are getting all worked up over these days. The protests in France are truly baffling, which is not to say that they are at all surprising or out of character. After all, it's spring, when a young Frenchman's thoughts turn to '68.

As I see it, to the extent that the protestors are actually protesting something, it must be one of two, equally silly things. Either they are protesting the fact that Le Pen received something like 17% of the popular vote in the first leg of the presidential election and thereby qualified for the two-way runoff election, in which case they are protesting the (or at least their) democratic process itself, or they are rallying to show their support for his opponent in the run-off, in which case their response is wildly disproportionate to the threat posed, because everyone expects Chirac to win in a walkover (pace Mr. Sieff).

So there it is. The protests are either anti-democratic or a huge waste of everyone's time. I am inclined to think it is the latter. After all, with a state-mandated 35-hour workweek, the French have a lot of time to waste. Look closely at the story linked to above. What emerges? The scene is described as having "a carnival atmosphere" complete with the "sound of innumerable musical beats" and a quoted participant turns out to be "a drama student walking on a pair of stilts" (ahhh! a university education--you can't beat it!). These are overwhelmingly young, hormonally-driven lycee students rallying for the sake of a good rally. None of them can really believe that Le Pen poses a threat to Chirac, but an excuse to party is an excuse to party and if there are going to be drama students on stilts, well, allons-y.

But there is also a darker aspect to the crowd's enthusiastic dismissal of Le Pen and his unpopular message, which appears to be a public affirmation of Chirac's foolish decision not to debate his democratically selected opponent. A banner described in the article proudly encourages readers to "Spit on the FN's flame to put it out." One might expect better in the land of Voltaire. What happened to defending to the death the right to of others to say disagreeable things? If he were alive today, I would expect Voltaire to encourage Chirac and the student radicals to respond to Le Pen's inflammatory rhetoric with reasoned debate. I am sure that he would not be rushing for his stilts.