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Wall Street Journal

 

Bonfire of the Vanities

January 23, 2006

By Theodore Dalrymple

When it comes to rioting, there’s no 35-hour week in France.

It may be difficult nowadays to get people in what the French call the Hexagon to work on Friday afternoons, but not to riot, at least not in the “sensitive” quartiers that surround most towns and cities. The productivity of the rioters has been increasing rapidly of late, and France looks like it will be breaking its record for burnt-out cars: 1,295 on Saturday night alone and 750 on Friday night, 500 the night before, and 300 the night before that. This year so far, the tally is 29,000. If the trend of the last few days continues, geometric progression being what it is, it won’t be long before the rioters will have to go to Germany or the Low Countries to express their social conscience in a practical way.

Its social conscience is something that the French elite has long taken pride in. The term “Anglo-Saxon” is now almost synonymous in the parlance of that elite with “savage liberalism,” a state of affairs which is alleged to prevail on the other side of the Channel, and to an even greater and more terrible extent on the other side of the Atlantic, in which an economic free-for-all leads to mass discontent, grotesque economic inequalities, lawlessness and endemic instability punctuated by violent civil disturbances. Fortunately, the French social model avoids this miserable chaos, at least in theory (which, as every Cartesian intellectual will tell you, is what really counts).

* * *

No one should gloat over riots in other countries, since such Schadenfreude is usually soon punished by riots nearer home. After what happened recently in New Orleans or in Birmingham, who would dare to assert that what is happening in the suburbs of Paris could never happen chez les Anglo-Saxons? But at the very least, the events in the suburbs of Paris should puncture French complacency that they have developed a model of society vastly superior and more humane to that of supposedly savage economic liberalism.

In any case, the difference between France and other Western countries is smaller than is often claimed both by the French and by everyone else. The outskirts of most cities in France, including such venerable ones as Nimes and Montpellier, resemble small town Midwest America far more than they resemble their medieval or classical and historic centers. The state in France is certainly larger and more intrusive than elsewhere, leading to a dampening of economic activity, but it is a difference of degree rather than of kind.

A French employee works 30% fewer hours than a British worker, and a much smaller percentage of the French population than the British works at all, yet total French output is very nearly equal in value to British. In other words, the French are much more efficient economically than the British. But their relative efficiency has been bought at a price: the creation of a large caste of people more or less permanently unintegrated into the rest of society.

A Martian observing France dispassionately, without ideological preconceptions, would come to the conclusion that the French had accepted with equanimity a kind of social settlement in which all those with jobs would enjoy various legally sanctioned perks and protections, while those without jobs would remain unemployed forever, though they would be tossed enough state charity to keep body and cellphone together. And since there are many more employed people than unemployed people in France, this is a settlement that suits most people, who will vote for it forever. It is therefore politically unassailable, either by the left or the right, which explains the paralysis of the French state in the present impasse.

The only fly in the ointment (apart from the fact that the rest of the economies of the world won’t leave the French economy in peace) is that the portion of the population whom the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, so tactlessly, but in the secret opinion of most Frenchmen so accurately, referred to as the “racaille” -- scum -- is not very happy with the settlement as it stands. It wants to be left alone to commit crimes uninterrupted by the police, as is its inalienable right.

Unfortunately, to economic division is added ethnic and cultural division: For the fact is that most of Mr. Sarkozy’s racaille are of North African or African descent, predominantly Muslim. And the French state has adopted, whether by policy or inadvertence, the South African solution to the problem of social disaffection (in the days of Apartheid): It has concentrated the great majority of the disaffected paupers geographically in townships whose architecture would have pleased that great Francophone (actually Swiss) modernist architect, Le Corbusier, who -- be it remembered -- wanted to raze the whole of Paris and rebuild it along the lines of Clichy-sous-Bois (known now as Clichy-sur-Jungle).

If you wanted to create and run a battery farm for young delinquents, you could hardly do better. But as one “community leader” put it when asked whether he thought that better architecture might help, there’s no point in turning 15-story chicken coops into three-story chicken coops.

The French left, ever vigilant on behalf of the downtrodden privileged, won’t consider a reform of the labor market that might just help to integrate the racaille into French society. The French right, by contrast, wants to deal with the problem first by ignoring it -- for, as the South African whites used to say about the rioting Africans, they are only fouling their own nest -- and then, if the worst comes to the worst and the violence spills over to where the decent people live, by repressing it with force. Anyone who has seen members of the Compagnies Republicaines de Securité, the CRS, in the streets of Paris, even on a good day, will not doubt their willingness to obey orders with something approaching overenthusiasm. As one officer in the force reportedly put it, “The more difficult it is, the calmer we are.”

* * *

If push were ever to come to shove, the trains to the townships could be turned off, assuming they were not wrecked first by the inhabitants themselves, and the roads to the center of Paris (and other towns and cities) could be blocked with a few armored cars or a couple of tanks. A state of emergency could be declared, after which the CRS could go about its business in all calmness and serenity. The left would squeal and protest a bit, but secretly be relieved that, thanks to the CRS, the labor laws protecting their voters did not have to be changed after all, with the consequent introduction of “savage liberalism” into France.

A few years later, there would be a spate of books about the violence of the repression, and everyone would express his shock and horror that such a thing could have happened in the land of les droits de l’homme, but then everyone would forget it all again until a further 20 years had elapsed, when there would be another spate of such books to arouse the tender conscience of the French intelligentsia.

Of course, apocalypses have a habit of not happening. The present riots are only a temporary exacerbation of “normal” life in French lower-class and immigrant suburbs. (In all of Western society, not just France, social housing means antisocial behavior.) Even when there are no riots, such suburbs are strewn with the carcasses of burnt-out cars, like skeletons in a desert, and one can see the blackened remains of shops that have been put to the torch. Drug-trafficking goes on openly, and the hostility to outsiders is palpable.

The current interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, is the first French politician to suggest some approach to the problem other than building more community centers made of concrete and named after great French poets. As a result, he is both hated and feared, and the rioters must hope that if they burn enough cars and kindergartens he will be forced to resign and thus lose his chance of winning the presidency and letting the CRS loose. This will enable “les jeunes” to return to the life they know and understand, that of criminality without interference by the state.

The Paris stock exchange has every confidence that, in the end, Sarkozy or no Sarkozy, the French state will emerge victorious over the disorganized racaille, and everything can continue as before. The index has risen steadily -- or calmly, to quote the officer of the CRS -- throughout the disturbances.

Original Source: http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB113131949542689562-lMyQjAxMDE1MzAxNzMwMTc5Wj.html

 

 
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