Wine, cheese, croissants - and riots (National Post, March 22, 2006)

French is an exquisite language. The French are an articulate people. So why do the French always take to the streets rather than simply exchange views on prospective political or economic changes? Why must it always end with tear gas?

The recent Sorbonne riots, with follow-up union-supported protests spreading far beyond Paris, were sparked by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's First Employment Contract (CPE), a strategy designed to alleviate high youth joblessness rates by giving employers a two-year grace period to assess and fire new workers without cause. Protesters claim the CPE will only increase job-market insecurity, anathema to French leftists.

Rioting is an old, and to many a romantic tradition in France. Amongst others, there were memorable Parisian riots in 1789, 1830, 1848, 1871, 1968 and 2005. The paralyzing general strike of May '68, in particular, was an ideological proving ground for France's present intellectual elites, and a tactical paradigm for today's student mobs.

To a Canadian, "poetry" means The Cremation of Sam McGee. But "la poesie est dans la rue," the rallying cry of the Sorbonne students in 1968, meant vandalism in the Quartier Latin, burned cars (the North African rioters are apparently more "French" than many thought), defaced cathedrals, hacked-at public statues and dramatic bonfires.

De Villepin's angry detractors are treading a well-beaten cultural path. U.S. journalist Keelin McDonnell audited a Sorbonne literature course last November called "Shattered Texts," in which students were assigned novels, short stories and film scripts treating urban riots. To his surprise, the students were more taken with the aesthetics of the destruction than its effects on life and property: "I remember one student saying, '[Yes], the author has done a good job describing the way the windows broke. But he might have done something more beautiful by throwing rocks himself.' "

Violence as performance art. Perhaps only a French ideologue could finesse into "beautiful" that which seems so "wrong" to dull literalists over here. And indeed, the intelligentsia in France, famous for segregating the logic of an ideological end from the immorality of its means, often go softer on the violence wrought in politically correct left-wing causes than on orderly demands for conservative causes. Anti-American, anti-Israel and pro-labour demonstrations with violence are winked at; but in 2002, when 8,000 policemen marched peacefully to protest the release on bail of a dangerous career criminal, the left-wing newspaper Liberation irritably shrugged off their call for sterner sentencing laws as la fievre flicardiaire -- cop fever.

The French left seems to view rioting as a kind of entitlement -- they publish evidence of their ravages on the Internet -- and not, like Canadians of all leanings, something to be ashamed of. Perhaps it's because their modern identity was forged in the violent revolution of 1789 and its subsequent purgative bloodbath. Violence as nostalgia? The ruthless sagas of blood-stained strongmen like Che, Fidel, Mao and Arafat certainly resonate with French philosophes. To cite communist sympathizer Jean-Paul Sartre, France's most famous intellectual voyeur of human devastation, violence is "the beginning of humanity."

Of course, many civilized, humane nations, including Canada, have progressed to the point where internal violence as protest -- never mind as art -- is considered something to be avoided at all cost. As former British subjects, we come by our penchant for peaceful political change honestly enough. English governing and intellectual elites were horrified by the nearby French Revolution. Indeed, most of England's peacefully enacted 19th-century corrections to social, political and educational iniquities were hastened to fruition by fears of populist contagion from the French revolutionary virus.

Her annual 60 million tourists are dazzled by "la douce France," a blended paradise of natural gifts (lush, viniferous countryside) and human adornment (chateaux, cuisine and art). To all superficial appearances, France is the pinnacle of our Western concept of civilization. But no culture is without its paradoxes.

Yes, French is an elegant language. Still, every time another street riot erupts in Paris, I can't help but think of that slyly insightful lyric from the musical comedy My Fair Lady: "The French never care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly."

© National Post 2006