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The lyrics of a popular French song a few years ago had an unforgettable characterization by a boy talking about his hard-to-deal-with girl friend. He dubbed her jamais contente, “never content."
Those words just as easily could be applied these days to their homeland, France.
The French do have, after all, that glorious history, that technical prowess, those breathtaking monuments, that lyrical language, that marvellous scenery, that ubiquitous little je ne sais quoi.
And the food isn’t bad either.
So, even if you’re not French but have ever been interested in the French and how they think and react, you get used to them.
You get used to their contestation-prone reflex, the one that makes them object vigorously to just about everything.
You get used to the fact that large sections of the population view their fellow citizens through rigid political left and right prisms that automatically label employers as capitalist oppressors or trade unionists as latent communists.
You get used to the French taking massively to the streets at what seems to be the slightest provocation to demand or protest against new laws, to insist on more government assistance or resist any government attempt to cut back the sacrosanct advantages they already have acquired.
You get used to people growing up indoctrinated with the belief that the government owes them not only education and medical care but also housing and work contracts that guarantee them a secure life-time job either in the public or the private sector.
You get used also to groups who proudly proclaim they are public servants paralysing the nation with work stoppages, particularly in the sectors of transport and education.
That kind of cantankerous nature helps to explain the French tendency to overthrow their governments via street revolutions like that of 1789 which turned France from a monarchy into a republic.
Small wonder that, wryly, an Italian is often described as a "good humoured Frenchman."
Certainly, it isn’t easy these days to find a real, live good humoured Frenchman in France. Too much turmoil. Too much uncertainty. Too much controversy, even by French standards.
In November, in addition to a nine-day rail-strike that inflicted immense hardship on millions of ordinary French citizens who had to struggle for hours to get to and from work, the nation had to deal with a fishing fleet that refused to put to sea until it got some relief from ever higher petrol prices, and with clamouring street marches by civil servants, teachers, lawyers and jurists.
Add on an uncontrolled student protest movement blocking half the nation’s universities and even a strike by employees of the national opera in Paris.
Then top that off with an outbreak of violence that once again, as it had in 2005, set largely immigrant-origin youth in the Paris suburbs into pitched battles with local police forces trying to restore order.
C’est la France. But it’s also the France that its new 52-year-old President, Nicolas Sarkozy, now just a tempestuous six months into a five-year term, has vowed to change.
From the moment of a significant electoral victory over his Socialist Party opponent Ségolène Royal last May, Sarkozy, 52, has acted virtually like a whirling dervish President.
On the international front he has met at a frenzied pace with other European leaders at home and abroad. Among them: Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and Spain’s José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
Despite widespread criticism, he also has gone on to encounter a host of others, notably, Libyan leader Colonel Mohammar al-Ghadaffi, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, all considered virtually persona-non-grata by many French citizens for their perceived human rights violations, Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika, despite a simmering dispute regarding France’s colonial role in Algeria’s history, and, finally, U.S. President George W. Bush, badly regarded in France because of the war in Iraq.
In the process, however, he has restored for France a role it had lost as a key player in European, and global affairs and, particularly in China, Libya and Algeria, his meetings have produced multi-million dollar commercial contracts for French industry.
At home, he has taken personal charge of dossiers that used to be left to various government ministers, occasionally bruising their sensibilities in the process. He has made it a point-of-honor, to get out in the streets and make face-to-face contact with troubled citizens and rebellious strikers. He has, in a break with strict party-line politics, brought unprecedented numbers of accomplished politicians from other and often rival political groups into his government.
Vigorously exploiting the parliamentary majority of his right-of-center Union for a Mouvement Populaire (UMP) party, he also has rammed through multiple and often controversial social reforms that he claims previous governments on the left and the right had put off for too long because of their difficulty or electoral danger.
His greatest public asset for all this, one he constantly reiterates, is the fact that he promised he would do all these things when he was running as a presidential candidate. He admits that his changes are shaking up the way France’s benevolent but rigid social system traditionally has worked and has yet to produce substantial results.
However, he insists, the nation approved his plans when it voted him into office and he does not intend to be deterred from putting them into practice.
Up until recently, public opinion polls have backed him up. But since the latest outbreak of suburban violence, Sarkozy’s support ratings have been sinking.
At the end of November, they dipped below 50 percent for the first time since his election and his Socialist and other left-of-center political opponents have lost no opportunity to blame him for promising much as a presidential candidate but so far delivering little in office.
As a result, he has been forced to remind his countrymen that he is only six months into a five-year term and that many of his reforms need a certain time to take effect.
But time he has and, as France heads into a new year, it is going to have to buckle up.
On the political and social scene things are going to be turbulent and contested all the way. But they’re going to go forward if Sarkozy has anything to say about it.
His opponents are not going to be content but the fact is that he does for the next four and a half years.