Breaking the labouring back

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The death of Jacques Chirac marked the physical disappearance of, arguably, the most intriguing French president of the past three decades or so. Chirac was conservative in his politics; an opportunist by nature; culture-conscious; and could be both defiant and corrupt. He showed character when he publicly acknowledged the fact of French complicity in the Holocaust, or chose not to cooperate with the US in its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Where the British supinely went along with the US in the latter’s manufactured war against Saddam Hussain accusing him of piling up (non-existent)  weapons of mass destruction, Chirac urged upon an ineffective Kofi Annan to get the United Nations to make the aggressor change its mind.

So far so good. But there were burning issues at home which Chirac deliberately ignored, or sought to solve in a manner that exposed his actual intentions. For one thing, he never attached any importance to the daily problems faced by the French working class. Again, it was during his presidency that the ghettoisation of migrants from former French colonies in west and north Africa went from bad to worse. Refusing to intervene in the deadly riots between an aggressive police force and angry black and Arab youths in 2005, Chirac, understandably, earned the allegiance of the white upper and middle classes who idolized him as a rescuer and a protector. Meanwhile, his working class policies were geared to enthuse private employers and crush the aspirations of the fathers and grandfathers of those who are currently to be seen defying the police on the streets of Paris and other French cities and towns.

So, what it boils down to is that here was an occasional idealist in international politics, but a rank opportunist with an eagle eye when it came to exploiting any available chance to consolidate his personal power at home. Arguably, that power had more to do than anything else with his labour policies. At least two generations of workers and their families appear not to have forgiven Chirac’s active contribution to their gradual pauperization. Significantly, many of his arrangements adversely affecting the laboring classes in the period spanning 1995 to 2007 were to be emulated by similarly inclined successors, notably Nicolas Sarkozy,  currently facing serious corruption charges, and Emmanuel Macron, who enjoys the confidence of corporates and carpetbaggers like few before him. Such is the stranglehold of big money on French public life that even the socialist, Philip Hollande either chose not to, or wasn’t allowed to, do anything to bring comfort to his chosen constituency.

Which brings one to a thin book, phenomenally successful in terms of both ideas and sales in some thirty languages. Who Killed My Father, (2018), by the young, gay French writer, Edouard Louis, is being feverishly discussed the world over for its delicate yet strong and insightful proletarian politics. One of several children of overworked, underpaid, perennially anxious working class parents in a small French town, Louis lays bare not just the fateful contemporary history of the factory worker or the street sweeper in an impressive nutshell, but his own soul, as it were.

In the closing pages of this testament of the labourer’s woes and the State’s zealous protection of corporate interest, Louis writes: “In March 2006, the government of Jacques Chirac, then eleven years in office as president of France, and his health minister Xavier Bestrand announced that dozens of medications would no longer be covered by the State, including many medications for digestive problems. Because you’d (the author is referring to his fatigued and sick worker-father) had to spend your days lying flat since your (factory) accident, and because you had bad nutrition, digestive problems were a constant for you. Buying medicine to relieve them became more and more difficult. Jacques Chirac and Xavier Bestrand destroyed your intestines”.

That tradition of withholding social justice from the likes of Louis’ father is currently being vigorously pursued by Emmanuel Macron, the darling of the moneyed and the privileged. It is not for nothing that for the past many months, Macron has had to deal with the increasingly fierce Yellow Vest movement by radical workers demanding a restoration of sanity on the part of the authorities. The antagonistic attitude of the French president towards the restive workers is graphically evoked by Louis.

“(On) 27 May 2017, in a town in France, two union members – both in T-shirts – are complaining to Macron  in the middle of a crowded street. They are angry, that much is clear from how they talk. They also seem to be suffering. Emmanuel Macron dismisses them in a voice full of contempt: “You’re not going to scare me with your T-shirts. The best way to afford  a suit  is to get a job”. Anyone who hasn’t got the money to buy a suit he dismisses as worthless, useless, lazy. He shows you the line – the violent line – between those who wear suits and those who wear T-shirts, between the rulers and the ruled, between those who have money and those who don’t, those who have everything and those who have nothing. This kind of humiliation by the ruling class brings you (Louis’ father and his fellows) even lower than before”.

This kind of humiliation suffered by the canaille is nothing new in French history, causing them to break out in revolt from time to time. Two hundred and thirty years ago, France witnessed a popular uprising that chopped off an unsympathetic king’s head and those of his queen and thousands of his staunchest supporters. But change being the only constant man has known since time immemorial, no sooner had the monarchy ended, the church and the state been separated into two different entities, and a proletarian dispensation been declared, than a throwback began to happen undermining the gains of the revolution. Little by little cracks began to appear on that grand motto of the upheaval till very soon little or nothing remained of the original zeal for political empowerment and economic betterment of the masses. Enslavement of other peoples on several continents went hand in hand with the marginalization at home of those very classes which had made the revolution possible.

Edouard Louis ends his account of his difficult yet loving relationship with his father, laid up in bed by repeated betrayals conceived and delivered by the nation’s elected elders, in words hard to improve upon, steeped as they are in sadness, rage, helplessness, and an impossible utopianism.

“Last month, when I came to see you, you asked me just before I left, Are you still involved in politics? The word ‘still’ was a reference to my first year at the lycee, when I belonged to a radical leftist party and we argued because you thought I’d get myself into trouble if I took part in illegal demonstrations. Yes, I told you, more and more involved. You let three or four seconds go by. Then you said, You’re right, You’re right – what we need is a revolution”.

In our own times we’ve seen the workers of the world failing to unite, so their traditional oppressors beginning with the State, continuing with the corporates, and taking in the men of god on the way, have united with greater energy and enterprise than ever before. In fact, things have gotten to such a pass that, whether in France, or in India, or any other country one may care to mention, the laboring classes appear to be at their wits’ end. Yet, mercifully, it looks like going to heaven without a last combat has yet to occur to them. Even as Jacques Chirac was being laid to rest in a spectacle of sybaritic splendor, the gilets vest were battling as best they could on the streets of Paris. The words of Balzac, who wasn’t exactly enamoured of the lower classes yet could also damn their oppressors, come to mind: “Behind every great fortune is a crime”. Who is to count the countless crimes the political establishment must commit against the worker, the peasant, or the dissident, to stay in currency?

Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on culture, politics,  film and  related arts




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