View from Across La Manche #13 – From Our Own Correspondent

There’s a riot going on…

It’s been a very lively month here, politically. As I’m sure most people know, Emmanuel Macron survived two No Confidence votes on the evening of March 20th, after he forced his Retirement reforms through using a controversial parliamentary law that allows him to sidestep a vote on his proposal. He’s not out of the woods yet but it looks like he has been able to push his reforms through and raise the French retirement age from 62 to 64. Many in the UK will wonder what the fuss is about, given that the French have one of the lowest retirement ages in Europe and even with the new age level they will still retire three years earlier than their UK counterparts but it goes to the heart of the way French people see themselves and the concept of ‘joie de vivre’. For French people life is something to be enjoyed and savoured; where is the fun if all you are doing is existing? City life has changed a lot over the last twenty or so years but, out in rural areas, lunch breaks are still two hour affairs and everything stops between the hours of noon and 2pm except for the (serious) business of taking lunch. Even car parking charges are suspended in most towns during the lunch break. Like many migrants here, I think the French people have a far better approach to their life/work balance than countries like the U.K where, these days, the American model that has people defined by the work they do seems to be more of a norm. There has been a growing corporate culture in the U.K that has people arriving at work before their contracted start time and leaving later at the end of the day, grabbing a sandwich at their desk as a lunch break and responding to emails at all hours. That doesn’t happen in France, where it’s actually against the law for work related emails to be sent outside of office hours. Some might see that as extreme but it goes to the core of the work/life balance that exists in France.

Going back to the demonstrations against Macron’s retirement reforms, the devil, as always, is in the detail. Yes, the French will still retire relatively early compared to other European neighbours – but a French retiree now needs 43 years of full contributions into the pension system in order to receive a full state pension. By comparison, an average German male doesn’t retire until he is almost 66 but he only needs 40 years of contributions to obtain a full pension. The UK state pension age is currently 66 but from April 2026 it will start increasing gradually, reaching 67 two years later. It could then rise again to 68 as early as 2035 – but, you currently only need 35 years of full contribution to access a full UK state pension, albeit one that is around £36 a week less than a French pensioner receives (depending slightly on exchange rates). You can see why it becomes quite difficult to make meaningful comparisons between the different pension rates and retirement ages in the different European countries and why, for the French, it’s not just about the money but about protecting the balance of life they’ve come to expect.

We’ve been receiving a lot of messages from family and friends back in the U.K asking how we’re coping and hoping that we’re not too heavily impacted by all the strikes and riots that, seemingly, have the entire country in flames with hordes of blood crazed rioters on every corner. It’s nice that people are concerned but it’s also quite amusing given that, if it weren’t for the reports we see on news bulletins, we wouldn’t actually know there were any problems. Outside of the major cities life goes on in much the same way as usual. The rural population aren’t happy about the reforms, and they certainly aren’t happy about the way Macron pushed them through parliament without a vote, but they’re relatively sanguine about the situation – Que sera, sera. For all his faults, Macron is a clever politician. There are three obvious ways to address the predicted pensions shortfall – raise taxes, reduce pension payouts, or increase the retirement age. Of the three, increasing retirement age is, undoubtedly, the least unpopular. Everyone knows that, once increased, taxation never really reduces; a cut in one tax will be accompanied by an increase in another. Reducing pension payouts would really be unpopular – state pensions are always regarded as a minimum requirement to survive. The clever thing about increasing retirement age is that it is easy to roll back if/when the situation improves. There has been some suggestion that France doesn’t need to make these changes and that they could continue to maintain retirement at current levels without major financial problems – so it will be interesting to see if any of the political parties make returning to pre Macron ages of retirement a manifesto pledge for future elections. The cynic in me says they won’t; but time will tell.

One last observation on this. As expected, the votes of no confidence in Macron and his government came from the left and right wings of the political establishment. The motion put forward by the parties on the left, actually proposed by Charles de Courson, France’s longest-serving MP, representing the relatively small centre left grouping Liot, garnered considerable support from other parties of the centre and on the left and only failed by nine votes. By contrast, the second no confidence motion, put forward by Marine Le Pen and her Rally France party (who had supported the earlier motion) failed by a considerable margin, gaining no support outside of the far right parties, demonstrating that Le Pen and her party remain on the outer edge of French politics.

So, to the music. Easter will soon be upon us and that heralds the start of the more socially active part of the year in this part of France. Easter (Pâques) is a very popular holiday and will see the bars and restaurants that closed during the winter months re-open, and the busy festivals and smaller markets return to action. It also means more opportunity for local gigging and, with this in mind, our band here have been scouring our individual music collections, searching for songs to add to our set list and freshen up the music we assail the ears of local audiences with. I thought I’d share some songs we’re hoping to add to the set, our ability to create credible versions of them being, hopefully, only a temporary stumbling block. Billy Strings is a great favourite of ours and always presents a challenge. His version of The Oak Ridge Boys classic ‘Dig A Little Deeper In the Well’ is another dazzling display of his flatpicking expertise. We may play it a little slower. ‘Midnight Special’ is a song that just about everybody knows and it has been covered many times since it first appeared in printed form, back in 1905, though it’s a traditional folk song that considerably predates that time. We like the Billy Bragg version that he performed with Joe Henry as part of their excellent “Shine a Light – Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad” project and hope to build something around that approach. Finally, I’ve become a big fan of Levon Helm’s later recordings, after his recovery from throat surgery. This track comes from the first of those albums, “Dirt Farmer” and is his take on the great old Dock Boggs song, ‘False Hearted Lover Blues’, written by William E. Meyer back in the 1920s. Until the next time.

À bientôt.

About Rick Bayles 354 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
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