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Red Hot France; Tepid Britain

France is grinding to a standstill as millions of workers and students erupt in the streets at the government’s prposal to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. Across the Channel, the new Tory Chancellor has announced savage cuts in public expenditures that will slice away more than a million jobs, drive workers out of south east England and doom the country to years of austerity (unequally imposed, bien sur.) Yet the response has been muted.

A few years ago, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy told an interviewer that he knew the French better than most. Today, he confided, they were admiring the good looks of his wife; tomorrow they would cut his throat. It hasn’t quite come to that just yet, but the French – students and workers, men and women, citizens all – are out on the streets again. A rise in the pension age? Impossible. The barricades are

up, oil supplies running out, trains and planes on a skeleton schedule and the protests are still escalating. More than three million people a week ago. Hundreds of thousands out this week, a million yesterday, and more expected this weekend. And what a joyous sight: school students marching in defense of old people’s rights. Were there a Michelin Great Protest guide, France would still be top with three stars, with Greece a close second with two stars.

What a contrast with the miserable, measly actions being planned by the lily-livered English trade unions. There is growing anger and bitterness here too, but it is being recuperated by a petrified bureaucracy. A ritual protest has been planned, largely to demonstrate that they are doing something. But is this something better than nothing?

Perhaps. I’m not totally sure. But even these mild attempts to rally support against the austerity measures are too much for dear leader Ed Miliband. He won’t be seen at them. He has renegued on a promise – made when he was seeking union support for his leadership bid) to show up at a union rally. The rot of Blairism goes deep in the Labour party. A crushing defeat last year might have produced something a bit better than the shower that constitutes the front bench. Ed Balls, the bulldog, might have gone for the jugular but he has been neutered. Instead, the new front bench is desperate to prove that it could easily be part of the coalition and not just on Afghanistan.

There is growing bitterness and growing anger in England, too, but not much else so far. It could change. The French epidemic could spread, but nothing will happen from above. Young and old fought against Thatcher and lost. Her New Labor successors made sure that the defeats she inflicted were institutionalized.

This is a country without an official opposition. An extra-parliamentary upheaval is not simply necessary to combat the cuts, but also to enhance democracy that at the moment is designed to further corporate interests and little more. Bailouts for bankers and the rich, an obscene level of defense expenditure to fight Washington’s wars, and cuts for the less well off and the poor. A topsy-turvy world produces its own priorities. They need to be contested. These islands have a radical past, after all, that is not being taught in the history modules on offer. Given the inability of the official parliament to meet real needs why not the convocation of regional and national assemblies with a social charter that can be fought for and defended just as Shelley advised just under two centuries ago, shortly after the massacre of workers at Peterloo.

Ye who suffer woes untold
Or to feel or to behold
Your lost country bought and sold
With a price of blood and gold.
[. . .]
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you.
Ye are many, they are few.

TARIQ ALI’s latest book “The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad’ is published by Verso this month.

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Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).

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