Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Report on Life In France in 2015

Why haven't the French risen up as one and massacred their political and economic elites?” The first thought that comes to mind after spending just a couple of days in that once lovely country. (Well, hell, it is still lovely, but getting a little frayed around the edges)

People give me a number of answers; Good old fashioned French individualism has been perverted by consumerism into narcissism. The Red Zones that once surrounded the major cities composed of industrial workers, the back bone of the trade unions and the left parties have been devastated by neoliberalism. Millions of jobs lost and with it the loss of sociopolitical focus. (Some 7 million unemployed) The political parties – with the exception of the dreaded Front National – all suffer from the totalitarianism of the center – they have no answers for anything, no vision, no hope. They exist only for taking power for its own sake and pandering to the corporate oligarchs. Worst of all is the Socialist Party. Would you like a Sarko served up with Hollandaise sauce or prefer to be Marine-ated? And the parties of the real left – Front de Gauche and the Verts made the mistake of collaborating with the Socialist Party and got eaten alive for it.

The FN has kept its racist hard core by scapegoating immigrants, but at the same time stealing much of the left's platform. This is why it is doing so well in the polls. Hollandaise accuses the FN of being far right and Sarko claims it is far left. If the Socialist Party attacked austerity, challenged the bankers and sought to restore French industry, Marine Le Pen would be toast. But the SP has to do the bidding of its masters.

The country has definitely gone down hill since my last visit a decade ago. I was hardly here an hour and I saw a Starbucks. The country that invented the cafe imperialized by these swine! I felt like picking up a rock and hurling it through the window. Ten years ago it might have been molotoved.

France is being Americanized. The same criminality that destroyed every small city in North America is wrecking the villages. Big Box stores and shopping malls are built on the outskirts, the local commerce is destroyed and the villages hollow out. You can buy a 200 year old house in a village for E40,000. Agribusiness swallows the small farm and the official Peasant's Union supports chemicals and GMOs.

In Saint Denis, where we stayed in the Paris region, it is dangerous to go out at night. There are even streets where a woman or old person might get robbed during the day, as happened to a friend of ours. Think high unemployment and drug addiction.

Oh, and Charlie Hebdo. The French are being ground between two fascisms, that of the FN and that of the Islamist clerical fascists. They both play off of each other so nicely a paranoid would think they were working together. Many North American leftists have no idea of the reality of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, naively, but also understandably given US conditions, reducing the whole thing to racism and to hell with the victims.

The situation is more complicated than our Yanqui reductionists would have us believe. Charlie Hebdo is a left wing paper and three of those murdered were anarchists who also worked for the French Anarchist Federation's weekly, Monde Libertaire! Furthermore, some of the most vocal critics of Islamist extremism are themselves of Maghrebian or Middle Eastern origin.

Undoubtedly the people who love to hate will use Islamism as a means to rationalize their distaste for people with brown skins. But the libertarian left fights racism like no other force in society, and is very careful in keeping separate in word and deed, the immigrants from the clerical fascist minority.

Not all is bad news. The anarchist movement is growing and the revolutionary syndicalists while divided (as usual) may well be more influential than they have been in years. When I was in France in 2005, the French Anarchist Federation (FAF) had about 50 or so branches, it now has 68. It's only real “rival” federation, Alternative Libertaire, is also a great deal larger than it was then.

The revolutionary syndicalist union, the CNT-F, suffered a split last year losing close to half its membership to a new formation now called CNT-Solidaire. The latter broke away as its members wanted their officials to be paid a salary, while the CNT-F stuck with the time-honored revolutionary syndicalist policy of volunteerism. Solidaire still considers itself within the syndicalist camp, but as a somewhat more reformist variety. In spite of this split, the CNT-F still has several thousand dedicated militants. Separate from each other, the two former factions may both be in a better position to expand their influence.

There are probably as many syndicalists and anarchists in the more regular unions as in the revolutionary ones. The Comites Syndicalists Revolutionares (CSR) engages many if not most of these. Unlike in the USA, the history, political culture and labour laws in France make it possible for a revolutionary minority to have at least some influence within non-revolutionary unions. Anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists are found within the Communist CGT, the apolitical Force Ouvrier, and the base unions of SUD. (Indeed, operation within the revolutionary and non-revolutionary unions is a priority for both the FAF and Alternative Libertaire.) The weakness of the politics within the regular unions gives the hope that the anarchists and syndicalists will be able to expand their influence as they have with the social movements.

Some personal recollections – While the villages are dying, some are also being revitalized by anarchists and other radicals. Then there is the phenomenon of the Book Village. There are 9 of these in France, each with an area with a number of book shops attracting bibliophiles from all over. The Book Village of Cuisery even has an anarchist book shop, Les Chats Noirs, allied to the FAF. The book shops have definitely helped the villages survive.

In Dijon, there is a famous cafe operating since 1907 just off the market, (ideal location) It went out of business and was sold to some anarchists who will eventually turn it into a worker coop. It is also used as headquarters for a number of organizations (large space) such as the CNT and La Mistoufle, the group and eponymous publication of the Dijon FAF. I went there twice and the place was packed. Lots of cultural stuff happening in the evening. The food looked good, but didn't try it, just had my morning espresso. But hey, this is France right? The food HAD to be good, or else no one would be crowding around.

Along the canal was an enormous old canal barge called La Cancale. This has been converted into a combination resto-bar and night club. It is run as a cooperative. We went twice and had local craft beers, ate sausages and listened to 1920s German music, mixed with techno. The place was jammed, all ages and even families, but mainly 20 somethings. The land beside the canal is a park and at least 60 people were sitting on benches eating food and drinking beer from the resto-bar. (Something unthinkable in puritan North America) Some nights the local campus radio station broadcasts from the boat as well.

All ages and even families – something I noticed in Holland as well and within the anarchist movement. A healthy inter-generational mix, everyone having fun, no hassles and no authorities around.

I looked for the Hotel des Associations in Dijon, but found it had been taken over by the right-wing social democratic union, the CFTD. Seems a dispute broke out with the other members and the CFTD got control some how. Now the Hotel des Associations is a wonderful idea. You see in France small groups are respected, they aren't treated with contempt like they are in North America. Cities provide a building with small offices, mail boxes, and a large meeting room at minimal cost to groups like Theosophists, hiking clubs, anarchists, enviro groups etc. It is part of the rights of being a citizen, and of course, if you add up all those little groups nation-wide, you get millions of people, and why should they be ignored like in Canada?

Good news! When I got back to Canada I found the city had provided a new and larger building, now called the Maison des Associations.

While in the Paris Region we visited my old friend Penelope, who used to own a book shop in Paris – and were so involved in chatting while in her adorable little apartment, we forgot to take a photo. She then took us around the 5th, down past St. Germain de Pres – shades of Sartre and Beauvoir – on a tour we will never forget.

St Denis has a rue Proudhon and a rue Ferrer, undoubtedly the influence of the CGT when it was still revolutionary syndicalist.

Spent about two hours in the Librarie Publico, hdq and chief book shop of the FAF. Had a good talk with Laurent, the man running the shop, about the situation in France. Bought as much as I could carry in my luggage without crippling myself. He told us that if we wanted to do a good walking tour to follow the Canal St Martin, to metro station Jaures, which we did, and enjoyed very much.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Life In Holland

I spent time in the Hague, Amsterdam and Delft and was impressed in many ways. They have maintained their farm land and grow a lot of what they consume. While some of the cities are large (Hague, 500,000 and Amsterdam, 800,000 inhabitants) there is little that I could see of the ghastly suburban sprawl that blights North America. Every kilometer or so there is a compact village or small town surrounded by farm land – or to a lesser extent – forest. The downside of all the farming, I was told is that it is heavily chemical. The crime that is agribusiness seems to predominate.

Offsetting this, is the widespread use of allotment or community gardens. Some of them are huge, one at over 250 meters long and 50 wide. There was one area that looked like a very large allotment, but as well as gardens had actual cabins, some of them looking to be 16 by 20 feet, erected on the land, all of this surrounded by trees and canals. All the allotments seem to have garden sheds and green houses and perhaps some people use these sheds as summer cabins too.

The people are the friendliest, tallest and healthiest people I have seen anywhere. Stop and look at a street map and someone will come over and ask if they can help. Even the bureaucrats and customs officials seem kindly. Went to a street festival in Delft, thousands of people, many young, drinking wine and beer in the streets, listening to the live music or just hanging out. Saw two cops, both about 19 years old to cover this crowd. Everyone happy, no one hassling.

I did an obese count in the ten days in Holland, exactly 10 obese people, and one was obviously an American. This is after seeing thousands of people on the streets, at mass public events, riding bikes or on public transit. Some reasons for this – people don't eat much junk food, bikes are the norm – by the hundreds of thousands. Most families seem to have only one car – when they have a car – and you commonly see families biking together to places.

Housing – Most are row houses made of brick with tile roofs and all have back gardens. They last forever, unlike new housing in Canada. Row housing means more people per hectare, unlike our idiot suburbs. Furthermore, they developed a type of housing ideally suited to the climate at least 700 years ago and even new dwellings are based upon that format – three story row houses with steeply pitched roofs – what else in a cold, rainy climate? Absolutely no three car garage, vinyl sided 5000 sq ft snout houses anywhere! Nor something as dumb as an ersatz ranch house or S. California pseudo adobe in a climate that does not suit them.

We also kept count of the number of people looking like they were homeless, beggars, druggies and the obviously insane. Three homeless, two beggars, no druggies, three crazies in ten days. Told this to a Dutch person and she said, “That is a lot!” and I retorted, “You'd see more than that in an hour in Vancouver!” When asked about the relative lack of the dispossessed on the streets, I was told that the poor are given housing and there is little reason to be homeless, drug addicts have safe injection sites and a number of other programs to help them. Nor were the insane ignored. When I asked her about the high cost of public transit and the poor – it costs about $5 to take a tram or bus – was told the poor and anyone over 60 gets to ride at a highly reduced rate, making transit affordable. For people who are not poor and need to use public transit on a frequent basis, a fare card brings the per-ride cost down. By the way, the trains and trams are fabulous. Who needs a car when there is a tram every 10 minutes?

Like in Vancouver, the youth seem racially integrated, Black, Asian, Latino and Euro-Dutch all hanging out together. Of course, there is a strong party of xenophobes here – the name escapes me – but the thing is, in all countries about one third of the population operate on hatred and fear. Some places like Holland, France with the FN, England with UKIP, this hatred takes a nationalist xenophobic form. In Canada the hateful third are neocons and target native people, trade unions, feminists, environmentalists, more than they do immigrants.

Holland has a strong Socialist Party – one that still believes in socialism, unlike the phony socialist parties elsewhere. It grew out of some kind of Maoist agglomeration some years ago and is democratic socialist in nature. There is an Anarchist Movement here too, though not as strong as one might expect given the history of the movement, the Provos and Kabouters. There is Vrije Bond (VB) with 180 members and groups in Amsterdam, Utrecht, Gent, Nijmegen. It grew out of the OVB - syndicalist movement of the 1950s. The group still functions along the lines of anarcho-syndicalism, part of the movement functioning as a syndicalist union. An Autonomist group in the Hague is linked to VB. There are several anarchist book shops and I visited one in Amsterdam, Het Fort Van Sjakoo, which had a very extensive collection of anarchist and ultra left materials in half a dozen languages.

Did I go to a green coffee house in Amsterdam? No, though I passed some. It is weird enough for me to deal with wall-to-wall people everywhere, as well as trams, buses, cars and bikes, everyone peddling at top speed. (I had a fear of being hit by a bike or tram – how embarrassing) Furthermore, in a medieval city, where the streets wind round and round and change their names every two blocks,. I would quickly get lost if stoned. An adventure when I was 20, too freaky at seventy.

Undoubtedly Holland has negative aspects, just like any person or group of people. I wasn't there long enough to find that shadow side, but compared to other places I have seen, it looked pretty darn good. Lots we could learn from in Canada – like most countries a place now run by incompetent fools and sociopaths. How long Holland will buck this trend? Maybe that's why the US Corporate State is against doing anything about climate change. Drown them damned Dutchmen with their commie ideas like decent public transit and homes for the poor!
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