Paris and London find themselves in crisis right now and each has responded very differently. It was always so.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron attempts to raise fuel taxes and Parisians take to the streets in violent protest, hurling missiles at riot police and burning cars. In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May tries to take the country out of the European Union and members of the House of Commons hurl insults at each other and torch political careers.
Could London be the next venue for acts of politically-provoked violence? I think not.
Leaving the EU is a far more contentious and far-reaching issue than a mere tax rise, but even though the issue generates much intellectual heat, the British prefer to make their point in the raucous assembly of the debating chamber. That even goes for the permanently angry Celts. The French have always been ready to man the barricades, as they did so often in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sometimes with a guillotine installed in the main square, and have done so again.
The French police have resorted to water cannon and tear gas. A few years ago, London’s then mayor Boris Johnson ordered, at substantial expense, two water-cannons. These were never used, and a couple of weeks ago the city flogged them off for a few thousand quid, probably on e-Bay. They will not be needed because there will be no street riots in Westminster.
There have been demonstrations, both for and against EU membership, outside the Houses of Parliament – the protestors have been at it for weeks – but their numbers have rarely risen above a few dozen. And as far as I can tell from television images, they are watched over by no more than one or two bored policeman. The British like their demonstrations, like their queues, to be orderly.
To point out the differing approaches in civic protest between the British and the French is not to criticise or praise either; it is just the different way in which two very different nations deal with their angst: French dissidents demand immediate action, their British equivalents demand a well-fashioned compromise.
The Paris riots had the effect, if no other, of wiping smug expressions from the faces of some of its more nationalistic citizens. If there had been some quiet Gallic gloating over Britain’s self-imposed predicament, there is none now. If the ruling Tory Party and Mrs May herself have a lot to answer for in their inept handling of the Brexit negotiations, then Macron’s government must surely attract even more opprobrium for so abjectly caving in to the demands of the demonstrators.
It is now apparent that France is every bit as divided as Britain; the fault lines just as distinct between a perceived urban elite and the regional population, between management and workers, and in politics between the populists of the right and the radicals of the left. Nor is the French economy in any better shape than the one across the Channel. Both are under immediate threat, France’s from the stand-off between embedded special corporate interests and militant labour unions, Britain’s from, among other things, the uncertainty about its trading position.
Sensible Britons will take no pleasure from the mayhem on the Champs Elysees and the Rue de Rivoli, but they can at least rest easy that the contagion is unlikely to spread to Regent Street and Piccadilly, packed as usual with Christmas shoppers and tourists.
I suppose one ought to add in these volatile times a precautionary rider: “For now”.