French Corner Store, No More?

Shopowners unite to resist high taxes and - sometimes forcibly - foreclosures

French political life relaxes somewhat during August when the nation's bureaucrats and politicians move out of the capital and as close to saltwater beaches as possible. But if government critics are to be taken at their word, September promises to be as sizzling as the rocks that pass for sand on the Riviera at high noon.

The nation's two largest unions threaten a return to the battles of last December, when public transportation workers shut down trains and subways for a month. Not to be outdone, farmers angry at falling prices for their produce call for an "incendiary" September.

But the most volatile group in this brew of discontent could be the nation's small shopkeepers and artisans.

Small shopkeepers mounted violent campaigns in the 1950s and '70s in defense of the "little guy" against high taxes, tax collectors, sheriffs, and Paris bureaucrats. Today, that mantle has been picked up by the Confederation for the Defense of Shopkeepers and Artisans (CDCA), a Montpellier-based group that claims 220,000 members.

Last October, some 4,000 CDCA supporters armed with clubs, sticks, and stones clashed with French riot police in Bordeaux, leaving two buildings in flames, cars damaged, and two-dozen police and firemen wounded. It was the worst violence there since nationwide protests in May 1968.

"This was not the first group to burn cars or kidnap tax collectors. Such protests have gone on ever since the French state started income taxes in the 1930s," says Nonna Mayer, director of research for the Paris-based Center for the Study of French Political Life.

"But what happened in Bordeaux went beyond a simple action of despair. This was an organized riot. People could have been killed," she adds.

'Muscular' protests

CDCA leaders insist that the Bordeaux riots simply got out of hand. But they do not apologize for their strong-arm street tactics. "Muscular" protests, they argue, are the only way to get a hearing from the Paris establishment.

"Once politicians get power, they stop listening," says CDCA leader Christian Poucet, in an interview. "Violence is sometimes necessary. For us, it's a matter of survival."

These butchers, bakers, and candlestickmakers see themselves as the backbone of small-town France. They get up early, work late, take no vacations, and yet fall further behind every year.

Numbering more than 2 million in 1954, artisans and shopkeepers have since lost more than a quarter of their members. Competition from supermarkets, soaring taxes, and social charges such as retirement and health benefits now threaten to lower that number.

Unlike public-sector workers, they have no job security. If they fall behind the mandatory social charges, their health coverage is canceled and their homes and businesses can be forfeit. French shopkeepers owe at least $170 million in back payments, according to the most recent government statistics.

CDCA leaders say that these mandatory retirement and health funds are overpriced, badly run, and already effectively bankrupt. They urge members to stop paying contributions and let the CDCA defend them in the courts and, if necessary, on the streets.

"Does it make sense to take someone's home and business in the interest of guaranteeing him a good retirement?" says CDCA spokesman Michle Lecouls.

Restaurant owner Robert Chan says he joined the CDCA because he could no longer keep up with retirement payments. He has never participated in a violent demonstration and does not plan to. But he says he is glad that he has "someone strong" to defend him.

"I'm working 12 to 13 hours a day, seven days a week, and I don't take vacations. I kept up with my payments, until I could no longer afford to pay. The CDCA defends me in the courts, and if the sheriff comes to take my possessions, I will not be alone."

The European connection

In addition, the CDCA offers members alternative private health insurance, which is illegal in France. They defend this strategy on the basis of directives mandating free competition throughout the 15-member European Union.

The European connection also provides a shelter from French magistrates. "When the police come here to search, I can tell them that all the papers are in our headquarters in Portugal," says Denis Julliand, who shares CDCA office space in Montpellier but manages the private insurance program through Tripletrade, a company registered in Portugal.

Managers for state-mandated health-insurance funds question the viability of this system and have called on the government to outlaw the CDCA. They are joined by some local law-enforcement officials, who say they are fed up with threatening phone calls and intimidating crowds.

The vast majority of shopkeepers have no interest in violent methods or in breaking the law, says Ms. Mayer, citing recent survey data that only 1.5 percent supported street protests. But CDCA leaders insist that economic hardships will provide a fertile ground for recruitment.

"What we're hearing is that the situation is catastrophic for independent businessmen," says Michle Frangeul, director of the CDCA's Paris office, one of 40 in France. "More and more, we're seeing doctors, surgeons, and even farmers join us. We're beginning to ask whether this is the end of the middle class in France."

"If tomorrow thousands of shopkeepers storm into the streets, I'd like to see the politician in France that could stand up to them," says CDCA leader Poncet.

Small shopkeepers have been a core constituency for French President Jacques Chirac, who grills his ministers on how closely they follow issues of concern to small farmers and businessmen.

Tomorrow, Commerce Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin plans to unveil a new program to "reduce by half" the number of failures of new businesses in France.

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