THE CONDITION OF THE WORKING CLASS IN FRANCE
By Stefan Jaruzelski
I enter Elysee Palace with toolbag via tradesman’s revolving door. Small wiry geezer enters door behind me but comes out in front. This must be a Hungarian I think since Uncle Woicjeck (former despot) warns me they only people who can do this. Geezer asks what I do in palace (like he owns place). I say I here to dismantle the Chirac showers. Former president had many girlfriends who all called him “three minutes including shower”. Since he often jump on maids in corridor or cleaners in toilets it important to have shower nearby.
Geezer has heard this but says he not carrying on tradition. Wife has dumped him also he not drink although Putin got him sozzled by ruse when he ask “encore de l’eau Nico?” and push over slug of pure vodka. Yes, my interlocutor is new boss Nicolas Sarkozy. He greet me as fellow immigrant worker and we have chat. I much disturbed by new project to degrade pensions and tell him how previous administrations from Louis Philippe, Second Empire and Third Republic have constructed the best pension system in the world and given France its great cultural heritage.
Flaubert, for instance, used to drive cab round Rouen. He drive slow and give extended monologues on lives of the saints – especially St Anthony. This bore most clients but youngsters would get in, pull down blinds and do jigajig while Gus droned on. Later he get stagecoach route from Croisset to Trouville but soon give it up and retire early. Final interview go like this:
Stagecoach boss: You say you had a funny turn Gus and then the coach fell in a ditch. Funny turn? Could you be more explicit?
GF: Not quite the right word is it. But I don’t know – weird like, everything sort of blurry, ringin in me head etc blah blah know what I mean?
SB: Well what am I goin to put down? Would it be etourdissement?
GF: Yeah! That’s it! Etourdissement! How do you spell that?
SB: And in the file there’s a complaint from a passenger, Madame Schlesinger, who says she had to go behind a tree to change her wet skirt and top…Gus?....Gus?! Christ he’s gone again! GUS!!
GF: Wha.? Yis boss. Just driftin..
SB: Well you’re obviously unfit for continuing employment and since you are twenty four and have been doing the job satisfactorily for the last three weeks I’m recommending you retire immediately on 95% of full pay. What’ll you do next?
GF: I think I’ll stay at home with me mum and write books.
SB: Books!? Well you’d better mug up on the language that’s all I can say. Think yourself lucky you’re not English – they have five times as many words as us. With your struggle for the right word you’d never do more than a paragraph a year. Naturally your books’ll be the property of the state and they’ll get royalties if there’s ever a Pleiade Edition. Har bleedin har!
GF: Would that include my letters?
SB: Nah! Nobody’s going to want to read those.
And Baudelaire. He was a deckhand on the ferry between Honfleur and Le Havre but soon found this uncongenial. This is how he got to retire:
Ferry Manager: Well Chas you say you get seasick easily, you’re allergic to seagull shit and that the smell from the refinery turns your guts.
CB: Yis boss. That’s about it. I want to go to Paris, smoke weed and hang out with my new black bitch.
FM: Sounds a worthy aspiration. But what about this poem the Albatross? You sound like Captain bleedin Ahab with all that stuff about “hommes de l’equipage” and “vastes oiseaux de mer”
CB: But that’s what poets do boss. We’re all liars. We just make it up. The biggest bird I’ve ever seen was a fat seagull what swooped down and snatched me baguette. No, I’ve had it with this job. I want out. I want a bit of luxe, calme et voluptue. I’m entitled.
FM: Hmm. Yis I agree. You’re well unfit for deckhand duty and since you are twenty eight and have bin a good employee for the last four weeks I’m recommending immediate retirement on 98% of full pay – with free prescriptions for weed and opium. We don’t want the missus on the game now do we? By the way what’s it like with them black bitches?
And Proust. Marcel was briefly employed as a librarian at the Bibliotheque Mazarine and did turn up for one afternoon during his year long tenure proving that the discipline of work was not beyond him. He then became a ratcatcher. This suited him well since, like rats, he came out at night. But even this job faded and he asked to retire:
Chief Ratcatcher: Well Marcel you’ve been a good ratcatcher and your workmates say you get very excited when you bag one and stick hatpins into them to finish them off. So why do you want to pack it in?
MP: That’s partly the problem boss. See, when I stick a rat I get a hard on. That’s why I do it. But then when I knock off and go to the Ritz for a nosh I’m walking in with this massive stiffy pushin out the front of my pants. They don’t like it at the Ritz. My mates Oscar and Andre and Jean hoot and make fun and might even lunge at my privates. They ask if I’ve got a rolled up pair of socks down there.
CR: Couldn’t you just whack the rats with a spade like everyone else?
MP: Not really. That’d mean stretching my best Astrakhan coat. They probably wouldn’t let me into the Ritz with a spade anyway.
CR: But what would you do? Your timetable is completely out of synch with normal folks by now.
MP: I’d stay in bed and write. I’m not renouncing ratcatching. If I saw one in the bedroom I wouldn’t be calling the department – be like asking someone to give your missus one – no, I’d see to it myself with a special silver handled razor sharp hatpin what the Princess de Guermantes gave me for Christmas…
CR: Calm down Marcel. I can see you’re getting over-excited. Yis, you’re obviously buggered as a professional ratcatcher but in view of your loyal service, killing six rats in the fortnight of your employment, and your previous excellent record of service at the Bibliotheque, I’m recommending retirement as from now on 99% of full pay. There’ll also be special string quartet vouchers just in case you want to hear a bit of Beethoven at 3am. Oh, and if you are going to write might I suggest that the spare, skeletal prose of that tosspot Gide should surely be superseded by now. Make it richer Marcel. Forget about narrative drive. We don’t want another trivial page-turner like the Counterfeiters.
Zola was another one. He had more jobs than soft Mick but his last one was the jackpot. Train driver. There’s still pictures of him on the footplate. And of course train drivers are the aristocracy of the working class. They don’t have to turn in if they have a headache or the gas man’s coming.
SNCF: So you’re thinking of jacking it in Emile. Any particular reason? You are entitled especially since your grandfather help lay a few lengths of track on the Marseilles – Avignon line in 1845.
EZ: Well it is a bit bestial – and I worry about what the wife’s up to when I’m on the Paris – Bordeaux run.
SNCF: Yis, we get a lot of that. I see you’ve retired early from several key jobs: farm labourer, greengrocer, coal miner, off licencee, brothel keeper.. and all on a 98% full pay pension. Christ Emile you’ll be rolling in it! On top of all that you’ll have your train driver’s pension and free travel for life. What’ll you do next? You’ve done virtually every job there is. How about president of the Third Republic?
EZ: Nah! Too dangerous! Look what happened to Felix Faure. No, I think I’ll buy a big gaff in Medan, build a grotesque tower extension, put in a hideously ornate table and just write my head off. Have a few pals down at weekends. Get a bike.
SNCF: Sounds idyllic Emile. Be careful about the gas fires though.
EZ: No probs there boss. I’m poodle registered for gas – one of my earlier occupations.
SNCF: Well go to it Emile. You’re a hero of the proletariat and deserve all you get.
Sarko seemed very moved by all this. He not man of culture I think like Mitterand and D’Estaing or skirt-chaser like Chirac. One worries about future of Republic if these harsh Anglo-saxon measures are made law. I myself aspire to pack in plumbing and become full time writer like Flaubert, Baudelaire, Proust and Zola. I prefer to do this in Paris but fear I may finish up in a flat in Hackney under the beneficent regime of the well known arts patron Gordon Brown – if I can become single parent with special-needs dog.