Nuala McCann: The French could teach us plenty about fighting your corner
What I admire about the French is that esprit de resistance – the fight that they have. They put the rev in revolution. They get up and shout and refuse to budge
IN THE Horrible Histories books – once beloved of my son – the French were always fabulous and forever revolting... in the best possible way. Vive la France – they’re no pussy cats.
I was reminded of that when reading about the recent fracas in Montpelier. It started off with a small error on a shop price tag and the next thing the police were charging through the doors.
A supermarket advertised television sets for sale at €30.99 – the price tag should have read €399. It was a mistake but the French customers were having none of it.
When the supermarket refused to honour the advertised price and sell them the TVs, they protested raucously and blocked the checkout. One eyewitness said some customers had four or five TV sets in their trolley. They were insisting on their droit to buy. Their demands fell on deaf ears, but it didn’t stop them demanding.
It’s not long since the Nutella “riots” of 2018 when a supermarket chain slashed the price of the sweet chocolate spread. What happened afterwards was, literally, nuts. There were reports of jostling and grabbing, people acting “like animals”, hair pulled and a bloody hand.
All the Nutella sold out within 15 minutes at one shop. In all the kerfuffle across the country, they say that one customer ended up with a black eye.
Still, what I admire is that esprit de resistance – the fight that the French have. They put the rev in revolution. They get up and shout and refuse to budge.
Sometimes, when you are the foreigner at the other end of French people not following the rules, it can be harsh. For example, it is wise never to step too quickly onto to a pedestrian crossing in Paris. Just because the law says that motorists should stop does not mean they shall.
Sometimes, when you witness how some French people stick two fingers up to authority, it takes your breath away. I have watched drivers approach a too-small parking space and bump their car off the surrounding cars – bang, bang, bump, bump – until they fit in.
Once, it felt like hell in the back of a bubble car on the Peripherique de Paris. Death was breathing down the back of my neck as cars hooted and brakes screeched.
There have also been some “sheer bloody cheek” incidents. Ever seen an elegant Parisian pensioner drop to her knees and crawl under the turnstile at the metro station to dodge the fare?
And I have sat, bemused, in the Disney theme park of long ago, enjoying the sideshow of a series of park officials trying to make a woman get off the grass – it was not for French derrieres.
They told madame nicely. But she decided to ignore them. They asked again, she refused. They called in reinforcements on their walkie talkies. They asked again, she refused still with a certain nonchalance.
Eventually, they got a life-size Mickey Mouse to come and stand right in front of her, blocking her view. She raised an eyebrow, nibbled at her baguette while gazing at Mickey’s ass and waited until she was well and truly ready, before getting up and walking away.
Such chutzpah – such unwillingness to dance to another’s tune.
You may not agree with the violence on the margins of the recent “gilet jaunes” – yellow vest – protest but many agree with their basic aims. They have made their voices heard.
And French protestors have won an important recent battle – the French prime minister Edouard Philippe has said he is willing to withdraw a proposal to raise the age at which workers can claim their pensions from 62 to 64. Here, we’re looking at 66 or 67 before the state pension kicks in. The French doff their caps to no-one and it works.
My son got a taste of it on a bus at Nice airport once. He was only 10 years old. There was a huge queue at the bus stop and when the bus pulled up and the doors whirred open, we were drowned in the surge forward and left standing, breathless, at the bus stop as everyone else who had been behind us in the “queue” clambered on.
“See these,” I told him, pointing to his elbows. "When the next bus comes, use them really hard!” We did... and we got on.
Sometimes you have to fight your corner. Perhaps you don’t get the €40 TV, but you might – just might – get your pension at a reasonable age.