It's been an uncommonly long spring in Montpellier. Generally, spring arrives with an explosion of colour in the tamarisks, jasmines, poppies, cumquats and oleanders. Temperatures jump overnight from winter's faint chill to the open door of the summer furnace. And generally, it happens in April.
Spring this year started cold and dry, and lingered cold and wet. Come mid-May, we still had a thin duvet on the bed, not just a sheet. We needed a sweater in the evening, ate hearty cassoulets, and packed a waterproof when we went for a walk. And this was us, les Écossais fous
. The locals were trudging around lagged like Amundsen (I was once waiting for a tram on a sunny January morning, clad in shirt and chinos. A man in an overcoat, beanie and scarf looked me up and down. 'M'sieur is from the north,' he muttered sourly, as much to himself as to me. Bien sȗr, mon ami
May usually finds the city in semmits and sandals and thinking about the beach. But not this year: which, given 2022's blistering summer, makes people wonder nervously what's coming next. The hiatus has been ominously capricious. A cloudless sky would give way in minutes to raging cumulonimbus, a chill wind out of nowhere, and an imminent downpour. In Scotland, the old gag runs that anyone who dislikes the weather should wait 20 minutes. But the Languedoc is used to weather that can take months to show the slightest variation.
So when last Monday afternoon yielded several hours of unfamiliar sunshine (it rained later), the present writer was to be found outside his favourite café with the New Statesman
, a chilled demi blanche
, and a contented expression. Nor was mine the only happy face in the vicinity.
This café is a favourite not just because it serves good beer à la pression
. It is also one of the best in town for people watching, that delicious pastime that only in France is somehow neither grubby nor prurient. It occupies a broad crossroads by the medieval Babote gateway to the old town, and overlooks a superb trompe l'oeil
façade that fools many. Trams (Montpellier is just completing its fifth line, Edinburgh) rumble across the square from several directions. Pedestrians and cyclists dodge nimbly between them.
Two thoughts crossed my mind. The first (okay, so sometimes
it's grubby and prurient) was to notice that many younger women had looked out their skimpiest garb in the hope that the sunshine had finally arrived to stay. The second, less grubby, was this: if there was one thing that the scene before me did not
conjure up, it was a nation blown apart by social strife.
I say this because for weeks we have been reading, not only in the international press, how France is fractured to shards by social and political conflict following Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne's use of a notorious constitutional device to ram through the Macron Government's pension reforms without a parliamentary vote. Between them, the furies of far Left and Right portray a country rent asunder in an orgy of rage against Emmanuel Macron and his arrogant elitists of the centre-right. Privilege is reportedly being challenged by sans culottes
, intellectuals by paysans
, salons by the streets, 'presidentialists' by democrats. You know the sort of thing.
Some even wonder aloud whether we are witnessing the final days of the Fifth Republic, the democratic, secular, counterbalanced France created by Charles de Gaulle six decades ago. Its essence was that Prime Minister and parliament did the dirty politics, while the President, having set the direction of travel, stayed aloof from such vulgarity. Macron, the argument goes, has trampled the distinction, since everyone knows he was behind Borne's use of Article 49.3. He has therefore defiled the majesty of the Presidency.
This conveniently implies that the likes of François Mitterand or Nicholas Sarkozy were less tainted by political cunning than memory recalls. Some even claim that Macron set out deliberately to destroy the Fifth Republic, with a view to establishing a more political US-style Presidency in the Sixth. This analysis assumes that the faltering conduct of the pensions bill was a conspiracy. Memory prefers the usual alternative. Still, the EuroNews network took the trouble of ringing round France's voluble public intellectuals to ask whether the Fifth Republic was doomed. 'Erm… probably not,' was the consensus, though it took many, many words to say so.
Meanwhile, there is no shortage of newsreel to corroborate the idea of a nation in crisis: masked demonstrators, wreathed in tear-gas, hurling missiles at a police force little admired for the gentle subtlety of its crowd-control techniques. Railway stations, roads and airports congealed by strikes. Streets choked with uncollected refuse. Crowds clattering saucepans in deafening contempt for the President every time he ventures outside the Élysée Palace. Marine Le Pen of the far Right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the hard Left stomping the country with the expectant air of people who wonder whether their moment may finally be at hand.
Anger. Except that three things need to be said. First, French politics runs on anger, in much the same way that Britain's runs on class defensiveness. Politics here is an excitable pastime, and anger its common currency. Nor is it unusual to see the anger acted out on the streets and picket lines: this is an outdoor culture. There is a familiar pattern. It begins as mass, and often massive, protest. Then a hard core of agitators seize the agenda and the news footage, often in reply to police over-reaction. The protests get smaller and more violent, and the mainstream of disgruntled but peaceable citizens drift away… especially as the festivals and holidays of summer beckon.
Second, the resentment is real enough, but pensions are a pretext more than a cause, much as fuel duties were a pretext for the gilet jaune
protests of 2018. France trod a lethargic recovery from the banking crisis 15 years ago, which, coupled with the subsequent Covid lockdowns, hit the old comfortable certainties of French life hard. Favourite shops, producers, restaurants, markets, cafés and theatres failed by the thousand. Their premises in villages and towns lie boarded up, or converted to unlovable and unFrench purposes like selling takeaway burgers and pizza.
Grief for what's been lost feeds nostalgia and a longing for scapegoats. Yet, objectively, France has less to resent than most European nations. It compares favourably on public investment, inequality, greenhouse emissions, healthcare, entrepreneurship, civic services, pensioner poverty and employment rights. It may fail its own tests of civilised living, but it would pass most other peoples'.
And third, where is all this rage? I own up to romanticism. The France I love is not the France of the barricades, the burning banlieus
, and the matted clochards with their ugly dogs and extended hands. It is the France that can spend happy hours browsing a rail of linen dresses, or a shelf of books with plain white covers, or tiny sheep cheeses at a produce festival. It is the France of small pleasures, bold design, mannerliness, curiosity, sobriety, family, gregariousness, and a certain pensive melancholy. It was this France, my
France, which I now saw reassuringly sunlit in the body language of the people strolling past my diminishing beer and neglected magazine.
Three days later, the weather made up its mind. Temperatures headed for 30 degrees and the citizens of Montpellier headed for the beaches beyond the flamingo-filled étangs
, for the cool gorges of the Cévennes, and for the terrasses
of the old town cafés.
Crisis? What crisis?
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster