OPINION: Notre-Dame blaze has united France – but not for long

The devastating fire in the Cathedral of Notre Dame has, we’re told, united a troubled and divided French nation. For how long, wonders John Lichfield.

OPINION: Notre-Dame blaze has united France - but not for long
Photo: AFP

Only until the weekend  – if the more hot-headed Gilet Jaunes and their ultra-leftist allies are to believed.

Some, not all, yellow vests are pushing ahead with plans for a so-called “Ultimatum Two”, a large and probably violent protest in the French capital on Satutrday five days after Notre Dame burned.

In his brief national address on Tuesday evening, President Emmanuel Macron said that the “tumult” of politics should be set aside while the nation grieved for the 850 years old lady disfigured, but finally spared, by Monday’s apocalyptic blaze.

Macron's speech called for politics to be set aside while the nation grieved. Photo: AFP

Macron could not prevent himself, all the same, from making several, pointed, political remarks, aimed at the French people but mostly aimed at the Gilets Jaunes.

“What we saw in France that night was our capacity to conquer when united”, he said. “The fire in Notre Dame is a reminder that our history never ends… Even those things that we believed to be indestructible can be threatened… France is a living thing but all living things are fragile.”  

In other words, those who want to pull down democratic institutions, however flawed, should think before they destroy the work of centuries.

Put more crudely, President Macron hopes that a doubtless ephemeral sense of national unity-in-grief will help to sweep away what remains of the Yellow Vest rebellion.

At 8pm on Monday, as the fire spread through the ancient oak timbers in the cathedral’s roof, Macron was scheduled to make the most important television speech of his presidency. He had already recorded the address but he cancelled the broadcast.

Macron and his wife Brigitte rushed to the scene of the fire on Monday night. Photo: AFP

Much of what he intended to say has since leaked in the French press. If the leaks are to be believed, the speech was to have been surprisingly radical.

Brief recap: this was Macron’s response to the Great National Debate which he launched in January to answer, or distract from, the demands of the Gilets Jaunes.

Although dismissed by many at the time as a joke, the nationwide debate has been a huge success. There have been 13,000 public meetings and over 3,000,000 contributions, by internet or by post or in grievance books opened in town halls all over the country.

The great danger was that the elephant would give birth to a mouse. Macron’s advisers and ministers in the Edouard Philippe government have been divided for weeks into “react” and “ignore” camps

Some thought that Macron should declare the debate a triumph and then say that it proved the need for the state-shrinking reforms that he intended to make anyway. This was broadly what Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said last week.

Others wanted him to make clear concessions to the anger and frustration in Peripheral France revealed by the Yellow Vest movement. If the leaks prove correct – and they have not been denied – Macron has gone for this second option.

The speech, likely to be broadcast next week, commits Macron to “a redefinition of our national project”. Some of the promises are definite, others more conditional.

In brief, Macron pledges to reduce income tax from next January, probably for low and medium earners only. He plans to boost smaller pensions by reintroducing an inflation link that he abolished in 2017. He even hints at the possibility that he might restore the capital wealth tax (ISF) that he abolished that year.

He commits himself to freeze all closure of rural schools and hospitals until the end of his term in 2021.

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The fire has seen an outpouring of grief that has, however briefly, united the nation. Photo: AFP

The President promises fewer MPs in the national assembly with a section elected by Proportional Representation. He bows somewhat to the Yellow Vest demands for direct grass roots democracy by simplifying the rules for national referenda and proposing popular-initiative referenda– a Gilet Jaune obsession – for local decision-making only.

He suggests the creation of a 300-strong “citizen’s assembly”, selected at random, to consider these and other constitutional changes. (This is borrowed from an idea already successfully used in Ireland).

He also speaks somewhat vaguely of abolishing the Ecole Nationale d’Adminsistration (ENA), the finishing school for the governing classes that is accused of creating a chasm between “ordinary people” and “the elite.”

The most militant Gilets Jaunes will reject such stuff as inadequate. They believe, in theory, in a destruction of all representative institutions and the creation of a grass-roots, on-line direct democracy.

In truth, for some of them, the weekly protests have become a  way of life. We protest and therefore we are. As for the Black Bloc guerrillas – and some Gilets Jaunes  – they want nothing less than the destruction of capitalism.

The remaining moderate GJ activists may be pleasantly surprised that Macron has gone so far. His proposals seem to have been crafted to melt a much-reduced movement to its hard core.

Argument rages in the French press on whether Macron has leaked the speech deliberately or whether he is furious that it has been disclosed.

Personally, I believe that it was leaked. Macron wanted to increase the pressure on the Gilets Jaunes before Act 23, or the 23rd consecutive Saturday putsch, this weekend.

Recent turnout has been low. But the harder nuts in the movement have been planning for weeks to bus large numbers to Paris on Easter Saturday to repeat the events of “Ultimatum One” on March 16th. That, remember, was that day that five news kiosks and a posh restaurant were burned on the Champs Elysées.

A few days after the great fire at Notre Dame, can the Yellow Vests really go ahead with a mass protest in Paris which is likely, on past form, to turn violent?

Some wise voices in the movement are calling for the protest to be cancelled. Others are insisting that it must go ahead. There is even abusrd conspiratorial talk on some GJ websites of the Notre Dame fire being “suspiciously” timed to help Macron.

If there is violence in Paris on Saturday, it will destroy much of the already-waning national sympathy for the Yellow Vests. If there is anyone thinking seriously at the head of this supposedly leaderless movement, they should cancel “Ultimatum 2”.

Will they? Most thinking Gilets Jaunes “leaders” have been pushed out or marginalised long ago.

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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.