France went a bit mad on Thursday. Either one or two million people (depending on who did the counting) took to the streets to protest the Government’s plan to raise the state retirement age from 62 to 64. At the same time, strikes brought the railways to a virtual halt, schools everywhere were closed, the port of Calais suspended ferry services and thousands of flights were cancelled. On one of the coldest days of the year so far, nuclear power workers reduced power available to the grid and refinery workers shut their gates to tankers. 

Everyone, it seemed, was determined to show that a longer working life, even with the prospect of an enhanced final pension, was something with which they would not put up. Never mind that everyone else in Europe has to work on until they are 66 or 67. That’s their business. In France, we work 35 hours a week and claim our pensions at 62, if not 60, if not in many cases, 57. If anything – and this is a view widely expressed – the official retirement age should regress to 60, as ordained by François Mitterrand back in the good old days of 1982. 

In Callac, deep in central Brittany, where the average age of the citizenry is somewhere close to seventy, retirement is a live issue only for those who keep the place going, mainly shop workers, bar staff, doctors and nurses, carers and employees of the local council. The rest of the inhabitants packed up years ago and have spent the intervening decades at home staring out the window or else enjoying a glass of wine or three with friends in the town’s five remaining bars. 

In Paris, the disgruntled throng roaming the streets between the Place de la République and the Bastille was undeniably impressive, numbering at least 100,000. Nearly all of those taking part wore winter coats and scarves, though it was noticable that union leaders preferred to go hatless, lest, we must assume, they not be picked out by the television cameras. Such violence as there was was confined to the usual suspects, made up of “ultras,” anarchists and what, for reasons unconnected with race, have become known as the “Black Blocs”. 

Urban anger is easily expressed. The big cities have the numbers and are the most immediately impacted by change. In the countryside, the even tenor of life is less easily disturbed. Friday’s local papers reported that in Guingamp, 15 miles to the north of Callac, with a population of 9,000, some 2,000 demonstrators turned out, and in St Brieuc, seat of the prefecture, 6,000 or more took part. I have no doubt that some of the younger residents in our neck of the woods went out of their way to add their voice to the protest. They don’t want to work any longer than they have to. But for the rest, it was very much lack of business as usual.    

The big news hereabouts is that the Horizon Programme that was to have retrained a hundred or so immigrants from Africa and Asia, including refugees, in the skills needed to help fill glaring vacancies in both the private and public sectors has been quietly abandoned. Funded by a family of Parisian billionaires, the scheme would have provided homes as well as jobs for the newcomers. But such was the strength of local opposition that the mayor and council, whose idea it was, threw in the towel. 

In the local paper, Le Poher, news of the council’s capitulation was confined to page six, where it was reported that Merci, the charitable foundation charged with making the project happen, had denounced “a nauseating campaign of relentless racism and anti-semitism based on harrassment and intimidation”. Councillors in favour of the project, including the mayor, had been subjected to death threats and personal abuse, making their claim that the commune remained “a welcoming place” for immigrants ring hollow.  

Backers of the proposed scheme – which achieved widespread coverage in the national and international media, including the New York Times – were overwhelmingly outsiders, many of them students, bused in from as far afield as Rennes, Nantes and Paris. Those opposed were, by contrast, residents of Callac and the surrounding countryside, supported, as it happened, by Réconquete, the far-right party that believes a Great Replacement of the native French with Muslims from the developing world is underway and gathering pace. Speeches approved by the Réconquete leader, former tv personality Éric Zemmour, were read out at public meetings in front of the town hall, to cheers from the assembled townsfolk, whose motivation, they insist, is not racist but based on the conviction that local jobs should be filled by local people. 

The fact of the matter is that close to one hundred jobs in Callac and its surrounding canton have gone unfilled for more than a year. Either the locals don’t have the necessary skills or education or they would rather remain on state benefits. Or they are retired and deaf to the call. In Les Marronniers, one of our local cafés, a photograph is displayed of the former Socialist president François Hollande standing next to the proprietor during a brief visit to the town in 2017. They are both smiling. It is hard to imagine Emmanuel Macron being given a similar welcome today. 

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