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THE CLOCKS went back over the last weekend in October. I used to have a small problem remembering which way they went until an American taught me a simple mnemonic: Spring Forward, Fall Back. Very useful if you speak English, but not much cop in F

THE CLOCKS went back over the last weekend in October. I used to have a small problem remembering which way they went until an American taught me a simple mnemonic: Spring Forward, Fall Back. Very useful if you speak English, but not much cop in France, I'm afraid. It won't translate into a snappy little expression to help horally-challenged French or their expat guests to remember they've got an extra hour to lie in bed pondering that 'spring' has at least four meanings: ressort, as in mattress; printemps, the season; sauter, meaning to jump; and source, meaning where the best water to dilute your pastis comes from.

So the clocks went back and clearly it didn't suit everyone. It became a scapegoat - un bouc émissaire, if you want a snappy little idiom to stun your French evening class with - a scapegoat for France's ills, big and small.

As we adjust slowly to the change of hour we find ourselves actually waiting for the TV news instead of being late for it and sometimes missing it altogether. On La Une, as TF1 is popularly known, which equates more or less with BBC1, you can tell how desperate the news is going to be by the choice of news reader. If it's not too bad, France has squeezed a draw at football away to Greenland, the CAC40, the Paris bourse share index, has only dropped seven points, some Corsican separatists only just managed to escape, they put a news reader with the splendid name of Patrick Poivre d'Armor in to bat.

If the news is good, France beat Greenland 1-0 in the return match, CAC40 stocks have risen, the Corsican separatists have been arrested and turned out to be policemen anyway, a classically attractive news reader called Claire Chazal (whom the gossip columns have been known to link romantically with PPd'A) shares the general euphoria. But if the news is uniformly awful, they put in Jean-Pierre Pernaut, because he makes everything seem so much more cheerful. We've been seeing a lot of Jean-Pierre Pernaut recently. He does the strikes, for one thing, and he manages to put such a gloss of stoical cheerfulness on them, and indeed on anything that mankind could really do without, that you're obliged to think that maybe the French nation isn't grinding to a halt just yet.

As far as I know nobody has ever gone on strike over putting the clocks back, but it may be early days. There were some farmers complaining recently that the new milking timetable had upset their cows. Well, if France's dairy farmers want to make their point by going on strike, presumably on behalf of their cows, there's a limited slot available for them, because just now the schools are on holiday for the traditional autumn fortnight known as Toussaint, All Saints.

A year or two ago, shortly before Toussaint kicked in, every news bulletin was framed round les lycéens, the French senior secondary school pupils. Thousands and thousands of lycéens took to the streets of every major French city, chanting, waving banners, demanding more teachers, better conditions, smaller classes and less time-wasting, a set of requirements boiling down to more work and longer hours, not a common demand among strikers. The organisation and coordination of the lycéens' strike was thorough and efficient, a tribute as much to their determination as to the facilities the internet and mobile present for this sort of thing. The lycéens are cast in a national tradition of protest, of course, and few can have passed through school without having enjoyed regular days off because their teachers were on strike. Even in our remote and lowly village teachers have been known to down chalk and picket the school gate.

The French expression for a reasonably peaceful demonstration, where few people get knocked about, not much property is put to the sack and where the riot police aren't called out, is atmosphère bon enfant, meaning that the participants have conducted themselves like well-behaved children. This was as superfluous as it was true of the lycéens' strike at Toussaint. A few teachers tried to muscle in, to show an uneasy solidarity with their pupils, but this wasn't universally welcome. 'Our manifestations' (a much better word than the mealy-mouthed 'industrial action') say the bright, articulate and very determined young people interviewed by TF1, 'have nothing to do with the unions nor with politics.We're above all that. We are France's future. Mistreat us at your peril.'

On the Wednesday before Toussaint - Wednesday isn't a school day in France - les retraités, the pensioners, took over the slot vacated by les lycéens, and thousands of them parsalysed central Marseilles for hours, Jean-Pierre Pernaut reported. 'This isn't about politics,' their leaders say when interviewed. 'We're above all that. We are France's past. Mistreat us and it will be May '68 all over again.' May '68 refers to the semi-revolution when student protests, stiffened by the trade unions, brought down General de Gaulle. A certain Danny Cohn-Bendit made a name for himself as a revolutionary student leader: he's now a respectable MEP, although no less unkempt han he was in '68.

Thomas Enjalbert down the road is a bit young to remember all that. So is his mother. He's just three, and a handful. He was having his own manifestation when I passed the Enjalberts' the other day on my way to the village for bread. There certainly wasn't une atmosphère bon enfant. His mother Liliane was roaring at him for refusing to get out of the car and - who knows? - maybe my presence saved him from being hauled out bodily by Liliane's beefy forearm and from une fessée, a hefty smack on the bottom, but I bet he got it hot and strong afterwards.

 I sympathised. C'est pas évident, des fois. It's not always easy. Liliane agreed. It was changing the hour that upset everyone, including Thomas. He was infernal. Worse than all those strikers, any day. A clear case for Jean-Pierre Pernaut.