Attac meeting in Bedarieux
I just got back from my last of three trips, involving a lot of driving (3500k), and am settling down to my own private “rentrée”. Rentrée is when the summer holiday is over and all the associations, lessons, events of the normal year, schooling … start again after the two month break. Although there are some exceptions, most of this normal daily life stops during the summer, replaced by holiday trips, family and friends visiting, blossoming of musical and other cultural events and nothing much happens on the socio-political front at the local level. What with my bike trips to the Dordogne/Luberon, the drive to Vesoul with Naurika to do various things for my mother-in-law, now wheel chair bound in a retirement home, plus a genuine five day holiday in Spain with Naurika (hotel, beach, Costa Brava), it is only now that I am beginning to make my choices for the next year. The first meeting I went to was Attac, where I have been a member for 12 years, through many manifestations of the group.
Attac (Google it if you want to know more) is without a doubt the most politically active group in town, and has an active group life and wide variety of concerns. Not only is there a monthly meeting, but every Monday earlier in the morning there is a meeting which decides things, but is technically subordinate to the monthly meeting in the evening. So a meeting nearly every week. It is a good enough reflection of political concerns at the grass roots in France. Not every Attac group is the same, and ours is a rather exceptional group for a town of 7,000 in the middle of nowhere. We are way more active than Beziers Attaceven though they have a urban area population of 150,000. While I was in Spain Attac showed a movie about Strikes at the local cinema. The NEW cinema itself is now open and running films by the Cinema Club, other groups like Attac and mostly first release French films. So far I have not been to the cinema, but that is another story.
There were about ten people at the Attac meeting, a pretty good turnout. With fifteen the room would be too crowded and not everyone could speak. One new person, a woman, don’t know much more about her yet. I also missed a meeting of the Collective Non-violent while I was gone. Not to mention the meeting of the Social Forum to evaluate the event we organised in July. I really did miss the rentrée. I try to catch up, but it never is the same hearing the story from someone else.
First item of business was to figure out how to pay some bills, how to distribute the expense of the management of our “citizens’ local”. This is the first time so many citizens’ organisations have used the same local and have to share upkeep costs. The rent is covered by the mayor with a subsidy (subvention). So all we have to pay are things like electricity (heating, lighting) and costs involving improving the local (minimal). All the groups will no doubt pay whatever Attac asks, although on close examination, the criteria for paying more and paying less will be a little fluid and contestable. More on that next months when the amounts are announced. Money does focus the mind.
There was some discussion about whether Attac should “support”, or help organise, an initiative for a slightly tighter organisation of the “alternative groups” in Bedarieux, present some kind of front, some kind of image, to the world. But more particularly a unified voice directed toward the immediate sources of finance and some useful expertise, “the mairie”, all those people who work for the state, at the town government level. In any case my understanding of the discussion got confused between the notion of “supporting” a local young sheep farmer in his very difficult struggle to get enough land to ply his trade. Everyone was for this, especially since we all know him, although not everyone will be involved in this support group. On the other hand there was a subtle change in organisational direction also advocated, led by the people who in fact were a bit agro-ecologically inclined. At present, all the associations who use the “citizen’s local” are quite autonomous. They occasionally support the same project, a movie, an initiative, a teaching event, a particular action, but always as a one-off support by a completely autonomous group. It should be added that there are many double or triple memberships in these groups, so they are never really totally autonomous. This new initiative is beginning of a debate about whether and how we find some procedure to express a unified voice, on various local issues, perhaps on wider issues. The point would be to increase the efficiency and power of the “alternative scene”, within a larger framework, that is, the local government, and maybe regional government. This is where “things can get done” and where there is a greater financial support for projects that are normally too expensive for each group on its own, or even with one or two temporary allies. It should be an interesting discussion as it percolates through the various associations and groups. I am keen to keep up on this issue. It focusses attention on the way that the political sector which most of these groups are not in and never have been in, will try to tempt the groups to join in their game. I might go to the meetings of this initiative, but I think I better keep my mouth shut.
There is one other guy in the valley who had a Social Forum workshop on “an alternative intercommunality”. Intercommunality is when a number of adjacent communes (towns, villages, hamlets) get together and agree to have a budget and make decisions about daily life in the area. So it is less than a departmental level group, but more than just one commune. So this guy, a recently elected councillor and very much an “alternative” guy, wants to figure out what an alternative at this level might look like. I figure he will join up with this initiative for co-operation between alternative action groups, and something might happen that is somewhat interesting. I will always be suspicious of such incorporation into the ways and means of the local government. Even if there is some serious money in it. But then my constant insistence, for fifty years, in local federations and local power, makes this level very interesting. The limit of the permissible. Having been here for a long time, I know lots of the people, and two of the local councillors are people who are genuine friends, if not bosom buddies. Attac was, as a whole, slightly suspicious of yet another set of meetings that would distract from the real work of organising our actions.
There was a quick reminder of how it is relatively easy to put on films at the new local cinema. We suggest the film, and the cinema puts it on, collecting 5 euros from everyone who attends, keeping it all. Some in the group thought that was not how it should work. We do free films, or contribution as you wish. So maybe a film of high technical quality might be in the cinema. But normal films can quite easily be shown, as always, by us, in Salle Achille Bex, which can hold a hundred people easily. We were a bit suspicious of suddenly charging money for what used to be free.
There seems to be a nascent connection with what might be called “alternative forestry management”. Someone might come to talk. There might be a film. I learned the French for clearcut, “coup blanc”. This was very interesting, must read about it a bit. Seems from the talk that none of them burn wood for heat, but I could be wrong. There is also some kind of notion in the group Etc&Terra, for organising an AMAP for wood. You make deals with some local wood cutter to supply a group who guarantee payment up front, or on the day. Everyone gets a stable situation and good wood. I would join for sure. The home wood business is exceedingly local already. You need to get your wood from someone who does not have to drive an hour to make a delivery. It is all local wood. There is plenty of it. It is a business sector that is perfect for supporting local rural businesses. Green too. Looking forward to seeing how this works out. I am interested in wood.
Some discussion of an anti-TAFTA day of learning and action in Narbonne. TAFTA is about the opening up and crushing of barriers to commercial relations with anyone, all over the world. Starting with the USA, and us Europeans. There is an Asian American TAFTA also, but that does not make the papers here. Basically a “free market” solution to everything. Health, education, food, energy, air, everything. “The state” will lose its feeble influence over the capitalist barons. Those with money have more power, end of sentence. I think several in the group are going to Narbonne, car sharing. Narbonne is only one hour and eight minutes from here, but I have never been. Doubt if I will go. There was some discussion of a guy called Serverin Pistre, a Montpellier based Hydro-geologist who is against fracking. Was he also some kind of right wing guy? Must look him up.
Last thing was developing the notion that some kind of educational thing on the VI Republic might be good. People seem to agree that, slowly seeping through the grass roots, the notion that we need to re-do the constitution, re-organise political decisions is taking form. The French can talk about this easily, they have already had five Republics, so a sixth is not exactly subversive. If this discussion happened, it would be VERY interesting period. I am pretty sure that nearly everyone in Attac would be for a VI Republic, a severe re-crafting of democratic power in France. Attac people would be for a “genuine democracy”, although what that means is not clear in the French context. So Attac people will search out some person who will come and advocate a VI Republic. And no doubt within Attac, casual conversations about this subject might be more frequent.
So there you have it. A superficial take on what concerns lefty, political minded folk at the grass roots in France. No discussion of the “High Politics” of parties and presidents and elections. My kind of politics.
It is definitely autumn now. I have raked the leaves under the ornamental plum three times now, and started filling in the leaf compost bin, which will vanish into the soil of the veg patch next spring. The leaves of the cherry and the Tree of Judea are beginning to come down. Two days of rain and today a heavy fog in the morning, indicate that the “Cevenol” effect is in action. The warm moist air from the Med gets blown up north to the Cevenne mountains, where it pisses down, eventually causing floods downstream, nearer to the sea. Mostly in places where greedy mayors allowed houses to be built in known flood plains so their tax budget would increase. I have just folded up my summer short sleeved shirts and will shortly tucked them under my bed in my plastic immigrant storage bags. Naturally they will be replaced by the winter gear, heavy jumpers and long sleeved shirts. It is a real plus in life to be able to live where I can have clothes for two seasons, and use the summer ones every year. I am constantly looking at the prairie we have (not really a lawn as such) calculating when to make the very last trim so it does not grow too much more and looks neat and tidy all winter. The meeting season is underway full scale. After the deep hibernation from June to September, the associations woke up, and the flow of meetings in October is full on.
For example, Attac organised a rather successful pique-nique last Saturday. Maybe forty people there at one time or another, a few kids, some partners, local bio sausages, with pretty good home- made tabouli, locally baked bread, organic of course, with some fine home made puddings. We had it at the picnic area of the newly refurbished Pierre Rabhi Park. Now Pierre Rabhi is someone who comes often to Bedarieux, our mayor likes him a lot. He is a “quite radical agro-activist” and writer, sadly not well known in the Anglo world, but he is worth knowing about. A bit of searching in English would be a very good idea, he is exceptional. http://cycloasis.org/partners/pierre-rabhi/ There is plenty of stuff in French about him or by him. Anyway the picnic was well timed on the day, which was a bit murky and fresh. Just about when everyone had dessert and several people had left (including me), the rain came down. The other notable feature of the picnic was that there were six people, SIX, who spoke English. One French guy, the professional cycling teacher I may have mentioned, a young German who I have never seen before, a kind of unusual American woman who seems to be back in the area after some travelling, an English alternative energy guy from a tiny hamlet who seems to be adopting Bedarieux as a place to be politically active. OK, five people. Rather unusual, and rather nice actually to drift past a conversation in English or even have the option to speak English. Of course, except for the American woman, they all speak French as well, sometimes I speak French with them. In fact, I had the intriguing experience to be talking to the English guy (whose French is really good) and a French guy, but when the French guy drifted off, we spoke in English immediately. Doesn’t happen much in my life here.
Then yesterday evening, Christophe, who is a militant in Attac, and also works for the Town Council on Agenda 21 (google) organised a meeting about “the energy transition”. Funny how that concept is popping up in France this last year. I know it is new because one of the most well-informed Attac militants was saying a month ago that she didn’t know what that meant, and had not heard it before. The notion of Transition Towns (Villes en Transition) is also growing a bit, with the “manual” having been translated into French. As yet, there are no overt signs of that particular movement in Bedarieux, but I know people know about it. This meeting was very well attended, sixty people maybe. Quite a spread of participants. Elected officials, middle class folks, activists, and people from the hills dress informally (and smelling like wood smoke in the winter). One thing I noticed very happily is that the two “experts”, one working for a group called Negawatt http://www.negawatt.org/ as well as an energy co-op http://www.enercoop.fr/ and the other working for a company that consults and organises projects, http://www.groupevaleco.com/ were well informed, knew the alternatives and were very matter of fact. This “transition” is no longer an idea, but a practical path. It was intriguing to me because back in the very early seventies when I started collecting material for my edited book on Radical Energy (there was no such book on earth at the time), most of this was speculation and a few experiments. I never finished the editing job, character flaw. Now you simply inform yourself a bit, order the products and set them up with or without professional aid Even in our lotissement (suburban stye development) there are two little windmills and several solar panel arrays. Back then, alternative energy was dreaming, and a few examples. The argument had not been won yet. But today, their expert responses to questions were simple, sane and without huge debate.
The first question was about how it is all capitalism and profit, and therefore somehow a plot. But, in response, the experts said they agreed, not trying to make that argument. A huge relief to me as I have heard it so many times before. Yes, one agreed agreed it could be just capitalism in disguise, but that is why they were a co-op with profits not given to shareholders, and that he agreed with the hostile guy who thought he was going to argue. The second expert even said hey, we make a living, 6% profit, although there were few who thought 6% was a big deal. And when another guy who is off grid completely asked a question, the experts also agreed with him as well. And even argued FOR people doing it themselves and being disconnected which they agreed was one strong possibility, even though not their choice. No fights, no shouting arguments, just how can we do it, this is how you can do it. For anyone who thinks there has been no change, I can tell you we have, over the years, done a lot. I am aware, and everyone else was, that most of the developments are funded by the state, and are executed by giant multinationals, with massive industrial windmills, purely for money. But there are now at least two sides, and two tendencies, and plenty of realistic plans. Industrial built in France or elsewhere line, admittedly the bits are made here, but the assembly is more likely in Spain, Denmark or Germany. Good meeting, followed by some nice pizza and lively chatter. Oh yes, there was a movie on Fukushima, which is a total disaster, getting worse, and I don’t want to watch it ever again.
Off to the Saturday Market, a much smaller one than Monday, but the products sold, maybe ten stands, are all organic and local. So what happened? First I had my customary coffee with Yves, my pal who is a joiner, locksmith, father of five. We often sit and chat for half and hour or an hour on a Saturday or Monday, unless one of us has something more important to do. We talked about his work,and also about rich people and the nature of money. A few words about the kids. Probably my best French pal. Passed by “the English table” too, while Yves was buying some veg at the organic stall. We chatted briefly about operations, cataracts, and not much else. There are four of them who are the core of this group, and they meet on Saturday and Monday. Sometimes another couple joins them, and today someone’s daughter popped by, I think they were visitors. I take less interest in visitors than I once did. Usually they don’t really have a clue what is going on, say things that I am tempted to reply to in a critical manner, and I probably won’t see them again. But maybe it was a nice English couple who lives here full-time, and I just don’t know them. Passed down the road to the organic local coffee shop (obviously the coffee is not local). On the way, I had a remarkable conversation with two of the ex-cyclists who no longer ride with the club. Usually I don’t talk much with them, but this time we had a rather long (ten minutes) discussion about the World Championships. I seldom talk about cycle racing with my cyclist pals, somehow it never happens. Many of them are not really fans of racing on TV, others are cynical about doping and dismiss the racing with a wave of a hand and motion resembling injections. Furthermore, it is clear, when I do talk, that they don’t really follow racing, they don’t even know all the French riders, and don’t seem to care much. Others just lecture me about what they know and dismiss my observations since I have never been a boy racer. Overall, it was rather unusual. My last semi-serious conversation was with a German woman whose French is impeccable. She is an architect, and lives on a farm on the causse above Bedarieux, husband grows grapes and makes wine. She helps right now, it is the season. She is a lovely woman really, smart, part of the vague alternative culture, nice kids who almost got taught some English by me, but the idea did not become a plan. She works at what she can, a very underemployed woman. I think she might speak English better than I speak French, but we seem to have got in the habit of speaking French. And as I left Le Local (see previous blogs), I saw my friend Michel, who I think must have a new girlfriend. At least he went to the Fukushima/energy meeting on Friday night with her, and she was there with him on Saturday morning. Could be his sister, I didn’t get introduced yet. He is slightly hard to get to know, or maybe he just doesn’t like me, but a nice guy. We have been in several groups together. He built himself a bio-eco house just above ours, and is currently doing one for another friend who is a very high level windmill specialist. It was a good Saturday at the market. Next report might be on the Monday market. I love Market Days, although I don’t actually buy anything.
So tomorrow is the “re-entry” into French life, start of the school year, re-opening, re-assembly, the return. Many things happen, many things change. Most people are back from holidays, only groups like the older people without kids are populating the beaches. News stories focus on how much the carrying bags for books are, plus the long list of material every student has to have to start the year. Everywhere there are Foires des Associations, when all the groups in town put on an event with entertainment for kids, stalls for everyone to join up for new activities or talk to friends. The outdoor swimming pool closed two days ago. Meetings of associations begin, I had one last week, and this week and next I have four. Nearly everyone is finished with family and visitors and we all heave a great sigh of relief. Living in the South of France has its advantages and disadvantages. Which relative would you visit, the one around here or the one in Alsace or Lille? People compare stories about how it was a hard or easy summer with visitors. Some retirees that I know are taking off for the break they never got in the summer. Kids are back in school, and the traffic in front of my house will increase immensely. My street is the way back from the main high school, a private high school, the sports centre, the boulodrome, the camping car park. Damn those traffic planners.
Market Day is changing also. Nearly everyone is back, the streets are full, but most of the tourists and second home people have gone. Soon the biggest cafe on the main street will stop having music drowning out the conversation. The visitors love it of course. They like a bit of music and drinking in the sun. Most locals have to find another place to go and chat with their pals, but across the street is an alternative, with NO music. Over the summer many people didn’t come to the market, either away on holiday or just not coming, since no one else was coming. Tourists filled up the place, but only when the weather was good. When the locals come during the regular year, they come every week, not just when they can sit in the sun and listen to a band drown out any decent conversation. Normality is in slowly gaining ground.
My first political meeting was the Collectif Non-Violent. Only four of us, when there should have been maybe eight or ten. Most had reasons for absence linked to the rentrée. Usually involving taking kids back to the other family they live with, or bringing them back to the family here they live with, or still having one last weekend away. Many stories about the last days of the holiday on TV as fillers, between reportage of the Syrian scene. We had a really good meeting. We had not even registered (nor had our partner Attac) for a stand at the Foire des Associations on Saturday Next. One of our members is dynamic and efficient, he simply rang the mayor’s office and booked the stand, even though the deadline had passed. Then he spearheaded a moderately well focussed effort during which successful plans emerged for the details of the day. We all had done it before, so no problems. We even semi-agreed on a focus for the year, something to do with local development, villes en transition, decroissance and the like. It appears that some other groups might organise similarly themed events as well, so it could be a fine focus, maybe a bit of co-operation. I am the only person in all three of the major activist groups, so there might even be a bit of unity to my political activity this year.
So far, my only political group outside Bedarieux, Americans for Peace and Justice has not scheduled a meeting this year. One of grumpiest/critical ex-members has pointed out (yet again) we don’t do anything, even protest agains the USA going to war with Syria. My own feeling is that the APJ group is pretty much dead, even if a rather decent network of friends is left. Maybe it would be more accurate to say the group is hibernating. Yes, resting.
Tonight I went to the first meeting of Attac, where I proposed the simple scheme I invented six years ago, (but never actually organised) for publicity/communication amongst all the “alter-groups” in the valley. I finally found a French guy who can do some work I can’t do, but which is necessary for the scheme to happen. The same guy who was the action man in the Collectif NV above. He knows computers a bit (surprising how many “militants” around here are uncomfortable with computers), is very efficient, and has no real enemies anywhere. I think I might have one or two myself, so he can also do talking and phone calls easily since he is used to it in his work and also is French, therefore easier to understand on the phone and a better writer of emails than me. He has only been here a hear or so, but a good guy. This scheme is a simple email list where either of two people in each group can send and will receive emails from all the other groups. Easy, but never happens currently. Vincent is keen. I have written the main letter, got my wife to translate it properly and have begun to recruit the responsible people from each group. Could mean the difference between 30 and 50 people at each event the various groups organise. Should it succeed, I will be very happy and very satisfied.
Then the final wood delivery is coming on Wednesday. When we stack it, we should have nearly enough to last the winter. Stacking it all, wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow takes longer each passing year. But it happens. Always feel a bit better when that is done. It is not green, it has been sitting outside at the wood guys’s place for almost a year. I should really burn wood that has beedn frying for two years, especially the chene vert (quercus ilex), a very dense wood. But I have only got that far ahead one winter since I have been here.
Some things should have been done that aren’t, but that is the rentrée, the deadline when you know that you have messed up again. No trip planned to see my pal in Lancaster. No trip to see another pal in Montelimar. No trip planned to see my son in Portugal. Never did the big cleanup on my office, although I did make a beginning. Didn’t ride the bike that much, although I had a medical excuse for some of that. Not all a disaster though, as I did the big trip in the Pyrenées, plus a little one (Pyrenées) to see an old friend, plus a weekend in Nimes to go to an Attac summer university and to visit a guy I like who lives there. Lots of swimming.
Leaves are falling in the street and in our garden. After the heat of summer, our ”prairie” (NOT a lawn) is finally growing, so needs a trip before it stops in a month or so. I like to try and strim it at the exact moment in the autumn, several days before it stops growing, so it looks neat and tidy for the winter. We need to fit in a quick trip to the sea after the beaches empty out a bit, while the water is still nice and warm. We usually try to go at least twice, once when it is good before the crowds and once after. This year the weather was hopeless before the end of June. So we missed it totally.
I go the market for at least an hour and half every Monday morning, no matter what. Unless I have something more important to do. Sometimes I squeeze in another thing, like a physio appointment, before I go to the market. As I come back for lunch, at about 12h15 (plus or minus 15minutes), I know how I am feeling about the experience. On a scale of ten, most market days are seven minimum, sometimes ten. Ten is when I leave thinking how glad I am to be alive, how satisfying it is to know my pals, and important it is to hang in the market, in my own evolving way. Lower than five is really disappointing, I usually leave early, as there is no one around and the weather is terrible. The Market Experience gets a five or six every six weeks.
When it all began ten years ago, I hardly spoke French. I knew almost nobody whatsoever. I thought the market was mostly for shopping. During all my holidays in France, I had always wanted to live some kind of cool French Market Day experience. I might have two or three commodity errands to do on Market Day, but mainly I go to hang out. It is the one time of the week, other than a pale copy on Saturday morning, when I can have the strong possibility of somewhat random encounters with people “in town for the market”. The rest of the week, the centre of town is really not very lively.
One routine that was disrupted today was buying my eggs from the usual egg guy, Jean-Claude. I might tell his story later, but in any case he seems to be quitting. I don’t like those kinds of changes. I am going to have to make a good new choice, or we are going to get organic eggs from Lidl.
But the main activity today was to say Meilleur Voeux to everyone whom I have missed since the New Year. We have until the end of January to do the jobwith “everyone”, but it is best to get it over with as soon as possible. So I went to see “the cyclists”, who inconveniently gather in many groups nowadays. Prior to a year or so ago, the cyclists would gather in one spot on the main street, in the heart of the market, depending on the sun and the wind. A cluster of older guys chatting animatedly. Now they are scattered all over town. All this is due to some kind of club conflict which I will tell you about in one of those long carefully-crafted analyses I promise you. Nowadays you can’t tell for sure where someone will be, an inconvenient fragmentation. With an exception or two, all the Market Day cyclists are retired. I never hang with them all morning, as I have other things to do.
I always pass by the “Citizen’s Stand”, managed by the local Attac group. The group has recently grown and revitalised, after stagnating under the influence of not very skilful person or two. Now there is still a rather dominating person or two, but the group is energetic. New people have been attracted. The group had had at least two big ups and downs since it started in 1998. I was once president of the group, in spite of terrible French, seven years ago. Back in 2002-4, I used to set up and manage the stand every day (unless I could not), in all four seasons. You will hear more about Attac, as I still go to meetings. More MV done. Longer chat with Jean-Claude, yes there are many Jean-Claudes, always.
In the middle of all this I also had a long chat about “death, ill health and dying in Bedarieux” with one of my immigrant pals. It reminded me of huge gaps in my local knowledge. The French try REALLY hard to keep old people in their own dwellings as long as possible. Then you go to a room or maybe a little flat (sometimes shared), then a nursing related room (sometimes shared), then the Alzheimer unit or medical unit bed. All this can happen locally. I am beginning to take more interest in where to live in the near future, especially in relation to getting older and medical care. I like talking with other Anglo immigrants though, the conversations are usually longer and range further from the utterly trivial (what is on British TV) to the profound. Immigrants also pass on tips about how to deal with the local environment, from the immigrant point of view.
I had a minor cultural triumph today. I had already exchanged Meilleur Voeux with a long-time political pal last week. You are supposed to remember every person you wished Happy New Year to, and NOT do it twice. It’s like shaking hands or giving a kiss to a person twice in the same day. Making a mistake like COULD indicate a certain kind of casual, uncaring automatisme. So as I approached “the political group”, I picked out the four I had seen last week, and distinguished them from the five who needed Meilleur Voeux. MV, MV, then came my (already done) pal. He stretched out his hand (I didn’t). Suddenly, he remembered. Too late. He laughed, apologised casually, agreed we had no need to do it again. With some other form of non-verbal communication he recognised my superior cultural behaviour, and I beamed. And moved on. Its like surprising some French person with a “bon soir” when they still say “bon jour”. But that is another linguistic and cultural story.
If I can’t “go to the market” where I next live, I will miss it.