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An Update From France . . . (Remember Those Riots?)

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An Update From France . . . (Remember Those Riots?)

February 11, 2006
OtherCulture & Society

LE VANS, France -- How has France changed since the two weeks of riots last November that should have shaken the country to the core?

The answer is not much. For the vast majority of the French, the riots were little more than a televisual event, to sit at home and watch on the small screen while relaxing after work. It was possible, after all, to travel the length and breadth of the country at the very height of the riots and not know that anything untoward was happening anywhere -- provided, of course, that one did not look at the television, listen to the radio, or read a newspaper or magazine.

The fact is that, for the time being, the banlieues -- the troubled suburbs -- are another country; they do things differently there.

Out of sight, out of mind: Insofar as the rioters had any coherent purpose or intention, it was to protest this peculiar, cold relationship with the rest of French society, but also -- paradoxically -- to defend it. On the one hand they wanted to catch the attention of their wicked stepmother, France; on the other, they wanted to warn her to keep her nose out of their affairs -- petty criminality and the abuse of women. (Remember that the riots were triggered by the deaths of two youths, interrupted by the police while they exercised their fundamental human right to break into warehouses.)

If they cannot be fully integrated into French society, les jeunes want to continue to be what they have hitherto been, which is, de facto, extraterritorial (except, of course, in the matter of social security payments). After all, their only other contact with the rest of French society is with the police, whom they see as an alien force that raids their territory from time to time and despises them. They want their own laws and their own hierarchy: brutal and stupid, no doubt, but at least their own.

The paralysis of the French state in the face of the challenge is almost total. This obese organism is all-powerful in the prevention of change, but utterly impotent in the initiation of change. True, there is a proposal that the curriculum vitae of applicants for posts should henceforth be evaluated by prospective employers without the name or photograph of the applicants attached so that the prospective employers cannot discriminate against applicants of sub-Saharan or North African origin. But whatever slight good this proposal might do, it assumes that the fundamental problem of French society is discrimination, which is not the case.

That is not to say that there is no discrimination. It has been estimated that, for any given level of qualification, there are twice as many unemployed French of African or North African origin as French whose ancestors really were les gaulois. This disregards the fact that in an open economy without formal legal barriers to advancement, discrimination never prevented any minority from advancing, and might even have strengthened determination to do so. The trouble is that the French economy is not a very open one, nor is it likely soon to become one. In an economy as centrally administered and directed as the French, piston -- influence -- is all-important. You have to know someone who knows someone: And it is this that allows discrimination to flourish and for elites constantly to renew themselves while shutting out new recruits.

The French still regard the open economy with horror. A recent poll suggests that, while two-thirds of the population accepted that reform was necessary, they also wanted to keep the advantages of the present system -- a short working week, early retirement for many, and almost invincible job protection. After years of assiduous propaganda, they believe that anything else will lead directly to the horrors of the United States: uninsured people dying of untreated diseases in the streets and, above all, riots.

The case of the state monopoly, EDF (Electricité de France) is instructive, and explains why any reform is so politically difficult. Employees of this vast organization work 32 hours per week; their meals are subsidized to the tune of 50%, their electricity and gas bills by 90%; they can retire at 55; they have the right to holidays at a fifth of their market value, and on average work the equivalent of eight months per year; and when their mother-in-law dies, they can take three days’ paid leave to celebrate. These are not all their privileges, only some; so it is hardly surprising that when the government proposed the privatization of EDF, they went on strike. (The government caved in.) They did so in the name of “the defense of public service” -- and the French call the Anglo-Saxons hypocrites!

When a certain critical mass of such subsidy and special privilege for important sectors of the economy is reached, reform becomes impossible without explosion. The government has created an economic monster that it cannot tame, and that is now its master. In any case, periodic explosion has long been the means by which French society has undertaken major political and economic change. In the meantime, repression will become more necessary. For the moment, the banlieues are quiet: That is to say, only 100 cars a night are burned, and life elsewhere continues in its very pleasant way. But there is an underlying anxiety (the French take more tranquillizers than any other nation). No one believes that we have heard the last of les jeunes and of profound economic troubles. The last episode was but a very minor eruption of the social volcano. Every Frenchman believes that the question of a major eruption is not if, but when.

The mutual odium of the majority population and the children of immigrants in the banlieues has only worsened. Les jeunes are still humiliatingly dependent on a state and country that they have learned to hate, without there being any in which they might feel at home. This is a miserable existential condition, and renders their egos tenderly sensitive to the slightest insult.

The only hopeful sign is the number of intelligent and hardworking young women from the banlieues who, despite everything, are able to find a place in the economy. They know that the only way they will ever escape from the control of the angry, inflamed, humiliated, violent and useless young men around them, primed by Islam to maltreat women, is by struggling for economic independence from them. They are very highly motivated.

The French do not go to the banlieues, but what they fear is that the banlieues will come to them. Perhaps it is starting to happen. My nephew and a friend of his were walking through the Bois de Vincennes, overlooked by elegant Parisian bourgeois apartment blocks, when they were set upon by two Africans and three Arabs. They were not badly injured, but at the hospital their mothers were told by the staff that such attacks, carried out not for gain but for the sheer pleasure of revenge upon the hated comfortable French, were now commonplace.

How strange it is to go to the bakery every day, and be charmed by the politeness of ordinary people and the suavity of everyday life in France, and yet be thinking concurrently that the time for some serious repression may not be far off!