International Papers

Paris Is Burning Up

As France, like much of Western Europe, sweated its way through a record-breaking heat wave, anti-globalization activist and McDonald’s wrecker José Bové turned up the thermostat still further by threatening a “scorching September” of opposition to the government’s planned pension and Social Security reforms. Bové’s stirring address to 200,000 people who gathered this weekend in the countryside near Larzac in southern France seemed to mobilize media and political criticism of the French government’s tame response to the climate crisis.

Libération of Paris dubbed Bové’s rally “an anti-globalization Woodstock,” but even the more conservative French papers evinced a certain respect for his ability to focus attention on serious issues—such as sustainable development, genetically modified crops, poor countries’ access to medicine, and global warming—that are “at the heart of all political citizenship in the 21st century. … Why doesn’t France adopt positions of principle at least as compromising as those taken by [President Jacques] Chirac against Bush’s war in Iraq?”

Le Figaro suggested that something as yet undefined could emerge from the “cauldron” of Larzac: a popular “groundswell that submerges traditional political discourse and turns politicians from participants into observers.” The French left is “disoriented,” the editorial added, and Bové is much more popular than any mainstream Socialist politicians. Le Monde also noted Bové’s ability to “crystallize the fears, dissatisfactions and demands” of the population. … [He] has occupied political ground that the parties of the left and the right seem to have abandoned. Almost without a fight.”

Temperatures in Paris topped 100 degrees several times in the last 10 days, leading to the death of at least 50 people in the nation’s capital. Britain’s Guardian reported that mortuaries are turning away new arrivals, and according to the Financial Times, a quarter of France’s 58 nuclear power stations shut down as rivers became too warm to cool the plants. In the countryside, farmers fretted about the fate of their overheated and underhydrated livestock.

Perhaps smarting from the Monday papers’ praise for Bové, the mainstream opposition struck out at the government’s “passivity and inertia” Tuesday. Libération acknowledged that in the height of August it is not unusual to sense that the government is on vacation from power, but it’s unacceptable when the whole country is boiling. Le Monde spanked Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s inaction: “The siesta is traditionally a means of saving energy in warm climates. But can it take the place of governance? … Raffarin and his ministers took a long time to respond publicly to the heat wave and the severe drought that have hit our country. This slowness to respond to the catastrophe … gives an impression of unpreparedness, perhaps even of off-handedness.” Le Figaro was more forgiving: “Whatever the climactic or natural phenomenon that afflicts us—snow, storms, bad weather—a scapegoat must be found. And the government, especially when it takes a few days holiday, makes an ideal culprit.”