More fun and games with the French state

The French Minister of Culture has annonced a major climbdown over volunteer involvement in cultural and musical shows. The government wanted to bring in a law outlawing the presence of more than 15% voluntary involvement in popular festivals and shows.

This would have meant curtains for the popular Inter-Celtic festival in Lorient which annually includes 10,000 folk musicians, none of them paid. It would also have destroyed the Vendée's proudest cultural event, the Puy du Fou evening show, which tells France's story throughout the ages, including the civil war of 1793-96, and includes 3,200 volunteer actors.

Threatened with a demonstration of force from the feisty 'chouans' of Brittany and Vendee, the government has backed down.

The voluntary sector in France lives in constant threat of persecution from a State that is historically allergic to any kind of private philanthropy. For example, there are laws that prevent schools, religious orders and others from benefitting from private wills! And, in theory, no-one is allowed to do any kind of voluntary work whatsoever, unless it is totally spontaneous and without 'subordination' to a timetable and a boss. (So, in theory Oxfam shops, where little old ladies turn up every morning at 9 o'clock to sort old clothes and drink cups of tea, would be impossible in the land of 'Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité'.)

Of course, voluntary work exists, but at any moment, the civil servants can - on a whim - decide to turn nasty and start criminalising football clubs, cycle clubs, schools, summer camps and the like. It is an incredibly hypocritical situation, because the state itself uses voluntary labour (without specific legislation to allow it) in contravention of this principle. My favourite example is the 'SOS Voyageurs' office in the station at Lyon. Provided by the SNCF, the state railway company, this an office, entirely staffed by volunteers (with opening hours, policies, etc). It provides assistance to lost or distressed travellers, a service which one would have thought was the job of SNCF's own staff.

In education, there are thousands of volunteers, particularly in Catholic schools. And from my own knowledge and experience, it seems to me that an odd thing is happening: the government (or at least the President) on the one hand is encouraging private charitable initiatives (in the way Thatcher did in the UK), while the old Republican guard of the civil service is trying to kill them off.

Much of the fear of the voluntary sector has to do with the old Republican fear of Catholic Rome. Perhaps the visit of Benedict XVI will do something to heal this old wound.

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