Plus que ça change....  

Three estates are better than one







Who are they then ? Come out with it !







Saint Francis would have been proud









Once I built a railroad,





The President himself is one !




Of mice and men




Buddy, can you spare a dime ?








No hope for Bruce Kent




The shameful treatment of Claude Allègre



When revolutionaries hire advertising agencies



Dropped by his friend, the PM





It's them pesky Romans at it again



From Clovis to Napoléon



Don't spit in the soup !

Despite all that may be said or written about the millennium, e-society or any other buzz concepts, French society bears an extraordinary likeness to that of another age, those colourful centuries leading up to the Revolution. As then society can be divided into three main groups, the three Estates (états). They have similar roles and similar relations exist between them. Only the names have been changed, but not necessarily to protect the innocent!

As then a ruling class exists, but the seigneurs have been replaced by what the French would call the bourgeoisie, who, like their sociological ancestors, cannot rule alone. They need allies to administer the state and, above all, to maintain a strict ideological grip on the majority, then, as now, the Third Estate, the plebeians, the toiling masses or whatever one wishes to call them. The latter remain more or less the same, the working classes, taken in the widest sense, far better off and better educated but still as unpityingly manipulated as ever.

So that’s the second and the third Estates but what of the first one, surely not the clergy as of old? The church still exists but its economical, political and ideological roles have largely gone, no, not them. They have been replaced by another, just as ruthless and self-seeking overall but, as with the clergy, complex in the detail. As before not all were bishops living in palaces and openly abusing all and sundry. Some are relatively poor, many are even disinterested and probably really do seek to aid the struggling millions. Just as monks preserved and developed the intellectual splendours of darker ages and as many a poor priest did his best to bring a little education to village folk, the new état N° 1 can by no means be regarded as a simply a gang of vile thugs whose only aim in life is to defend the interests of a band of parasitical barons. As always things are a little less black and white.

But who are they then, these latter day priests? Are they up to scratch on witch hunting, ideological brow beating? Do they brandish the threat of eternal damnation and crush ruthlessly those who dare rise up against the true cross as of old?

You bet they do! With a zeal and sparkling clear eyes of which Saint Francis himself would have been proud. What is more, they possess advantages and means of action that would make a sweating, leather clad inquisitor green with envy. They make up more than a quarter of the working population. Some estimate that every other family contains a member of this modern day First Estate. They are by far the largest social group present in the National Assembly. They, or their close cousins, occupy nearly every important post in the Cinquième République, from President to street sweeper...

Still haven’t guessed? Well this last reference should have tipped you off. As anyone who had spent more than a brief booze-buying holiday in France would have already realised, they are the vast legions of the public sector. Be they the smooth-talking be-suited, mono-type penguins issued from the ENA (l’Ecole Nationale de l’Administration), the "ENArques", the million strong masses of the Education Nationale, fresh and confident after their recent victory over their own Minister, himself born in their ranks and member of a government voted in largely by their own efforts, or the perhaps less sophisticated but at least as powerful cohorts of the SNCF (the French British Rail, but still very much nationalized), who, by a five week strike to defend their distinctly comfortable pension rights a few years ago, brought both the country and the previous government to their knees, no citizen of this much abused country would deny their central role. The charm of the system is that few question the normality, probity or even downright desirability of such a situation.

When one household in two depends partially or wholly on this situation for the stable part of its financial well-being, it is, perhaps, hardly surprising. Exaggeration? A few examples, the Prime Minister is an ex-teacher, son of a teacher, and a ENArque. Of all his ministers, those who have industrial, agricultural or even commercial backgrounds can easily be counted on the fingers of one hand: most are ENArques. One example, the Minister of Agriculture, Jean Glavany, is an ex-teacher with a sociology degree amongst others, who has been a professional politician most of his life, just the job to tackle the tumultuous hordes of France's major money spinning industry. The President of France himself was educated in the self perpetuating corridors of l’ENA and, after a brief spell at the "Cours des Comptes", a state regulatory body, has too been a professional politician all his working life. He recently distinguished himself when being shown a computer at the new National Library by enquiring, with a puzzled expression; "What exactly do you mean by 'mouse'?"… Perhaps Monsieur Glavany's sociological studies could help him find the answer.

But there is more. The intelligentsia exists, to a great extent, by means of state, regional or municipal subsidies which keep an elitist and distinctly nineteenth century cultural framework from going to the wall, as it would undoubtedly do if it had to rely on popular interest and ticket buying. A vast mass of vociferous "intermitants du spectacle" (part-time actors, musicians, film makers, technicians etc.) are drip fed welfare payments which are both insufficient for them to break out of their sordid situation and sufficient to keep them wholly dependent on the existing state of affairs. There's no risk of unruly boat rocking from these quarters, nor, sadly, of much original artistic creation. They can, however, always be counted on to provide valuable auxiliary troops to back up the front line legions. They are all the more efficient in the daily propaganda battle in as much as most of them don't realise which army they are part of. A confused harangue of "soixante-huitard" slogans, launched with all the enthusiasm of fading youth, has been known to carry many a skirmish between the cheese and the coffee. Obvious perhaps, in hindsight, but cunning all the same.

What of the press? Is there no hope there? Despite an education system which all within, and a good many without, are convinced is the best in the world and which puts a great deal more emphasis on literary rather than mundane and banal scientific or technological subjects, the daily written press is one of the least read in the developed world. Aggressive, investigative journalism is practically unknown. The pressure from well thinking establishment intellectuals, be they of left or right wing inklings, is ferociously against what they label "media witch hunts". The notion of presumption of innocence, in this particular domain at least, is pushed to such extremes that even if a young Bruce Kent wished to put out a hard hitting article, his newspaper would probably stop him, with the full weight of a recent Socialist inspired law to back them up. What ever you do, don’t rock the boat, or spit in the soup as the charming local adage puts it.

The more one looks, the more parallels one finds. The conflict between the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope about who should nominate bishops and priests finds its equivalent in the Education Nationale, where the elected government long ago lost control over promotions and appointments. They recently even lost the right to choose their minister. Claude Allègre, with his straight talking, was "rather shocking": he even had the nerve to speak out openly against the appalling level of absenteeism amongst teachers, whose rock solid, job-for-life statute makes them practically untouchable. By a brutal campaign, master minded by a private and altogether "capitalistic" advertising agency hired by a "revolutionary" trade union, in which character assassination, misquoting and even mockery of his moderately portly physique and glasses were used shamelessly, the "left-wing" unions showed just what "left" has come to mean today. After a long and increasingly odious campaign, they succeeded in pushing his personal friend, but sometimes less than courageous Prime Minister to get rid of his long-standing ally. He was replaced by a harmless, ageing sycophant who had already been Education Minister, though few recall this particularly uneventful term of office, but who could be counted on to do absolutely nothing either to reform the system or shock the trembling but triumphant pedagogues, nor, to come back to a familiar theme, rock the boat.

Many other examples can be found. All point to the profoundly conservative role of this new First Estate. The time has long gone when Jules Ferry sent legions of dedicated young teachers throughout the land to bring education to the masses, to spread the ideals of lay republicanism and equality and combat the church dominated education of the nineteenth century. The rigid, life-long career orientated system, in fact, harks back even further, to the time when other patient servants of another state spent their lives climbing the echelons, surrounded by cronyism and corruption. It reminds one that of all countries, Italy included, France is probably the only one in which an unbroken thread can be traced back to ancient Rome.

Here the barbarian invaders quickly grasped the interest in hanging on to an old system but one that had once worked. Clovis knew what he was up to when he had himself baptized and made a deal with the remnants of the fading empire. Ever since, the flame has been kept alive by the Catholic Church, the feudal aristocracy, absolute monarchy, centralizing revolutionaries, Napoleonic nepotism, an industrial revolution in which the capitalist class conserved a taste for titles and monopolies, right up to today’s state controlled industries such as the EDF (Electricité de France), heavily subsidized agriculture and a European Union in which bureaucracy and inefficiency break new frontiers daily.

A sad state of affairs in what could be one of the most pleasant countries in the world... but, what ever you do, don’t rock the boat, it might not really have "Titanic" painted on the bows.


Updated 5/2/2001