Three million people on the streets of Paris. All protesting about the most minor of changes to labour laws that would probably have a slightly positive effect on the high rates of French unemployment.
This seems to be another waymark in the decline of France into political and economic irrelevance. President Jacques Chirac, himself re-elected for his second term only in preference to the extreme and thuggish Jean-Marie Le Pen, continues to brazen out a leadership that has utterly run out of ideas.
The narrow elite of the French Republic, educated in the Grandes Ecoles, seems gripped with doubt. The confidence of Charles de Gaulle or Jean Monnet in a certaine idee de La France has given way to a defensive and querulous determination to resist change. Now around 200,000 French citizens have come to Britain- French schools in London are massively over subscribed, and the streets of South Kensington now echo to the language of Voltaire on a scale not seen ever before. Could anything demonstrate more clearly the failure of "the French model" than the fact that its most gilded products can no longer find a satisfactory home in France?
There is another side to the French nervous breakdown. In my own family, my French brother in law has built a highly successful business, despite the fact that he is not a product of the higher university system himself. However, he has built his business in Britain, since in France he may not rise beyond a certain level in either public or private sector. In the UK he is now a highly successful entrepreneur ( a word, I should remind President Bush, that is French in origin). As passionate Frenchman as he is, especially when it comes to sport, he finds far more opportunities in the UK than in France.
No wonder that three million people are on the streets- but they are fighting the wrong battles. No-one owes France a living, and no-one will pay French bills, if they themselves will not. The openness and ambition that characterized the first years of the French Fifth Republic has given way to fear. The theatrical exit that M. Chirac manufactured when one of his countrymen addressed a European body in English, reflected a cultural defensiveness rather than confidence. The rudeness that he showed to the new entrants into the European Union has not been forgotten. Despite being on the popular (and perhaps correct) side of the argument as far as the invasion of Iraq is concerned, France has squandered its opportunities.
France is at a crossroads- A key player in Europe seems depressingly unable to face up to the need for radical social changes in order to respond to the revitalised challenge of Asia. For as long as this willful blindness continues, the crisis will continue. However, this is France, and her fractious, argumentative and free people will not tolerate for long the kind of failure that this generation of politicians, drawn from the same narrow and homogeneous power elite, are prepared to serve up to them.
Vive La Revolution!