All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

PC and pragmatic

French-Cafe-PatioImage via Wikipedia

In the supermarket car park is an unmistakable sign of the holiday period. The travelling people...'les gens de voyage' if you are PC, 'manouches' if you're not, 'bohemiens' if you don't know whether you are one or the other....are with us again. Ladies patrol the parking areas trying to sell wicker shopping baskets, priced as genuine examples of their would be more convincing if they would take the time to scrape the 'Made in China' labels off first. Children offer to wash your windscreen with a dirty cloth guaranteed to leave more smears than you had in the first place, and you lock your car carefully, putting your parcels in the boot.
The men of the community have a role to play also. Divided into the light and heavy brigades they escort the women and children inside the supermarket...that dangerous and alien environment where money is required in exchange for goods. The heavy brigade head for the cash desks, ready to argue about prices, quality and, of course, discrimination and while the fur flies so do the children, rushing in and out with the goods father has marked down and stashing them in the trolley manned by the fleet of foot of the light brigade near the exits beyond the checkouts. By the time the manager has come down, been berated and symbolically beaten with a loaf of bread, the family at the cash desk have abandoned their purchases as a protest against discrimation and the trolleys have departed for the vans tucked away at the far end of the car park.

Those of you who use 'gens de voyage' have probably switched off by now, disgusted by this example of antiquated prejudice, but if there is still anyone out there, let me elaborate.
Clearly, not all behave like this, but the point of my observations is that a lot do and when they do, nothing is done about it. The police and gendarmerie are conspicuous by their absence and increasingly, supermarkets are hiring private security services. I was intrigued on going into my local town to find that even there a security firm had set up its offices......a place where the only movement all day is the opening of shutters at about nine in the morning and the closing of said at two in the afternoon. I was further intrigued to learn that the operators of the firm were....travelling people.
Accustomed as we are to having checks made on our papers when driving, it is more than annoying to be pulled in on a roundabout while a convoy of expensive cars and trailers is allowed to pass unmolested. Why should this be? Unlike politicians, travelling people don't operate the pork barrel, so what is the reason for their immunity? Simple...they like to keep themselves to themselves and resent outside interference. Deeply resent it. And the police respect this feeling, PC and pragmatic as they are.
Towns and villages are required to set up camping facilities for travelling people, which can vary from an area with a standpipe and long drop toilet out in the wilds around here, to something approaching a five star campsite in the nearest big town. Not unreasonably, councils like the facilities to be respected, but experience locally shows that they are not. When leaving, but not before,the standpipe will be run over, so that the next occupants have to get water from the cemetery nearby, where, to save effort, the tap will never be turned off. The repairs are constant.
In the big town, the site caretaker asked one occupant to tidy up around his site, where he was dismantling cars, and for response had the occupant coming for him full tilt with a chainsaw with the motor racing. Not content with this, the occupant later went to the caretaker's house and threatened his wife and child. The police could not identify the occupant....must have gone without their guide dogs....and the caretaker is suing the council for not ensuring his safety. Given the speed of French justice, he'll be waiting a long time.

In the next department, a family of travelling people set up in a large house in a village, parking their trailers in its grounds and local life underwent considerable disruption. In the mornings, a light van would set out from the house, to identify anything not nailed down, and the children would be dropped off to pick up the booty and return it to base. A notice went up on the gate, offering oven ready poultry....rumoured to be stolen to order. There was trouble at the bakers' shop where the newcomers refused to pay for their bread and the glass door was broken. Mark you, I can imagine that there were faults on both sides, there, at least. Time without number in the past I have nipped into a local baker coming up to lunchtime and been served with a loaf which was clearly past its best and fit only for feeding to ducks. As passing trade, one can expect no better, but the bakers have been uniformly upset when I refuse to accept the razor edged brick and I expect that the same thing happened with the newcomers.
Where were the gendarmerie? Keeping PC and pragmatic about things, for there was a context to the presence of the travelling people in that village.
Previously they had occupied a field or two situated on the approach road to a big theme park, where their presence was not held to embellish the image of the establishment. The local senator arranged to find them alternative accommodation, and the sleepy little village was ideal. The senator's son was in property, the maire was of the same political party as the senator, the funds were found from somewhere and the travelling people were translated to their new environment. The gendarmerie thus had two good reasons to remain pragmatic.....respect for the privacy of a minority group, and respect of political authority. No one wanted any problems.
People were not happy locally, but the maire managed to keep things calm, emphasising that all efforts should be made to make the newcomers feel welcome, and the newcomers played their part in integration by taking a stand at the summer car boot sale..the 'vide grenier', literally, emptying your attic. These events have become very popular in past years, so popular in fact that the taxman has struck, insisting that people cannot take stands at more than two events outside their own place of residence......someone might be making money, you understand!
These events can be handy for finding a pattern of stair rod that is no longer produced, or for re equipping your toddler with clothes and toys, but generally it is junk that is on offer...and at high prices, too. Still, it is a chance to dispose of one's retail errors. I have been watching a particularly hideous vase go the rounds from year to year in this area is aways snapped up with glee and inevitably returns for sale. I can understand this as the thing has a distinct presence and must have a baleful effect, glowering at you from your sideboard every day until you long for the date of the vide grenier to enable you to pass it on to the next person who thought gladioli would look well in it. Throw it away? What are you thinking of? It cost money!
The news that the newcomers were taking a stall ensured the success of the event. Everyone for miles around who had lost portable property came in search of it...but in vain. The stall was full of computer towers, screens and keyboards, but nothing else. Clearly the clan had obtained a contract to remove obsolete equipment from somewhere. No gendarmes were present to enquire into the matter, as one might imagine.
Then there was further trouble at the bakery. Someone's arm was broken in an altercation and the maire was forced to call out the gendarmerie, who were forced to appear on the scene. Hearing of their appearance, the clan chief roared out in his 4 x 4 and rammed the gendarmerie vehicle. Repeatedly. The gendarmerie retired and the clan decided to celebrate their victory in the bar, where, inevitably, they refused to pay. The bar owner had had enough...this not being the first such event, and a fight broke out. The gendarmerie vehicle returned, dents and all, and the gallant men in blue plunged into action. They arrested the bar owner.

This time, the village had had enough. Men went home and returned with their shotguns. The travellers sent emissaries to another clan, and returned with their own armed reinforcments. The square was like a scene from a spaghetti western. The local gendarmerie could not cope...reinforcements came from all over three departments and managed to keep the protagonists apart until the riot police arrived in their sinister buses, some hours later.
Even the travelling people do not argue with the riot police, whose policy is to bash first and ask questions of anyone surviving later, so they shut themselves into their property, while the buses sat outside their gates. The maire suggested to the local gendarmerie that an enquiry into the legality of all the local shotguns produced would not be tactful, while the travellers were picked up one by one as they emerged for supplies and were removed to a remand centre. The riot police reluctantly admitted that there was no longer a problem and tore themselves away from the local bars and restaurants. Over the course of the summer the rest of the travellers moved out and the village relapsed into its habitual torpor.

The point I wish to make is that matters descended to this farce because no attempt was made to curtail the clan's activities when the problems first became apparent. The rights of ordinary people to live peacefully are ignored as the police leave troublesome sections of the population well alone, while the law abiding are plagued over trivia. I pay taxes and see the money thrown away while there are problems crying out to be settled.
I can do without the PC brigade, as well, who romanticise the life of the travelling people...probably singing the Ewan McColl song as they do. There was nothing romantic then about a hard life on the road, scratching a living among inhospitable people and there is nothing romantic now in living by theft and intimidation.

The empire is running scared of its barbarians and I'm glad I'm old.

PC and pragmatism don't work.

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  1. We have EXACTLY the same problem here on Corfu! Our village of Agios Ioannis was shut down for three days because the police refused to become involved in a theft that turned into a fight that turned into some hefty property damage.

    Finally when the villagers parked all their cars on the main east/west road on the island and blocked it - the police arrived only to redirect traffic from each end of the village (to alternate routes)! They refused to confront the gypsies. (and only took statements from the 7 of the village people who went to the hospital for treatment in the aftermath).

    The police did put a "presence" in for the next week or so to calm things down a bit- but that's all. No action for the breakage and damage caused.

    No one expect the gypsies to "behave" and no one enforces anything. (last night the area that used to be the southern end of the Ropa valley and now is a growing messy semi-permanent town) had THREE huge bonfires going (with stinky smoke from burning plastics and garbage!right next to the row of wheelie bins that are picked up twice a week!)

    In a country that is acutely aware of the devastation of summer fires and metes out severe penalties to locals and foreign residents that include huge fines and arrest for starting fires, it is absurd that no actions are ever taken with the gypsies.

    Even people who once felt some sympathy for the gypsies are finding themselves hard pressed to jump to their defense. It's as if they take every opportunity to foil any and all good will that could be generated!

    I totally agree with your last statement- PC and pragmatism DON'T WORK!

  2. I remember gypsies from living in Ireland, the PC word there is "travelers". Honestly, I didn't know France had them in the same way, caravans and all. Sometimes being PC just doesn't make sense.

  3. Truestarr, Zuleme, it seems to be a europe wide problem.
    I have friends in the U.K. whose village has been blighted for years by an illegal settlement. They finally moved house and within a year, another illegal settlement has appeared in their new village.
    The contrast between the licence allowed to people seen as potentially violent and the controls on ordinary people is what is so upsetting. My friend has to have a council permit and inspection to repair her roof....while people are illegally settling on greenfield sites with impunity.
    I have no objection whatsoever to people earning their living and leading their lives in whatever way they wish. I also think the web of laws which surrounds our daily life is stifling all initiative.
    However, I expect to be able to go about my life without having my car broken into, without having my property invaded, without being insulted in the street, without being attacked....the social contract with the state involves my giving up violent means of ensuring my own safety in order to be protected. It is not working. The state does not carry out its' side of the bargain.

    Sorry, a moan about the travelling people has turned into a rant about society. Button your lip, woman, it's not PC to complain about such things...find a nice cause about which to wax lyrical, like the right of some immigrant women to Europe to be kept in a state of intellectual and physical slavery in the name of respect for their culture!

    Steam is escaping from the ears....I shall go and listen to Radio 4. But not if it's Woman's Hour.

  4. Ah, what a touchy subject!

    This is one of the only time I heard my otherwise non-prejudiced friends being prejudiced. Gypsy's reputation is definitely not good in Europe. Czech Republic is so angry right now because Canada imposed a visa on its citizens after a very large number of Gypsies claim refugee status in Canada, and Canada didn't want to (couldn't?) deal with it.

    I can see where the prejudice come from. Yet, being an hopeless optimist, I'd say it's just because we don't try to understand each other.

  5. Zhu, yes, it is a touchy subject, but why is it so? It is touchy because our society makes it so...we seem afraid to have open discussion of what are seen as sensitive matters, or, rather, there is no outlet for such discussion in mainstream politics or the media.
    I think, for the most part, ordinary people do try to understand each other, and I think most people fully support families looking for a better life for their children in another country but they also understand the sort of reverse prejudice that doesn't allow them to protest about unacceptable behaviour.
    I don't know how accurate this is but a Turkish friend told me that the gypsies are regarded with such distaste historically in south eastern Europe because they used to provide the torturers and executioners for the Ottoman rulers.
    Have you seen the events in Northern Ireland recently, where immigrant gypsies were violently forced from their homes by the local people? This is an area where any faith in the social contract with government has long expired and people take action themselves. It isn't laudable, but this sort of vigilante action is inevitable where the state hides problems under the PC carpet and refuses to discuss or take action.

  6. Depressing isn't it. I am glad I am living in a relatively sleepy hollow and apart from the odd theft, trouble is rare in these parts.

  7. Roz, you're right, it is nice to be able to retreat from it all. I feel so sorry for my friends in England who moved away from one nuisance only to find the whole history repeated in their new village....which appeared about as sleepy as the Limousin!