Clowns & Jokers

Stuck in the middle.... Left, right, centre. It's a mess out there.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

France's Era of Self Doubt

The recent events in France and the events we saw unfold this time last year need to be put more in context. Ive often argued elsewhere (and here) that overall what is happening in les banlieues should be seen within the context of what is happening in France as a whole. Its too simplistic to chalk this all up to Islam though it is relevant in a post 9-11 world. When pressed, the trouble makers will refer to a (very palpable) lack of opportunity, a sense of rejection, no equality of opportunity before they start to mention religion. (France is secular after all)

The riots in France are really reminiscent of those that occurred in London or in Toxteth in the early 80s, there are parallels to the L.A riots. Race, densely populated urban areas, immigration, racism, rejection and tension plus a run in with the law. There are parallels between the accidental death of a woman at the hands of the police in Brixton that kicked off the riots in 1982 and the accidental death of 2 young men in France last year. We see young male French North Africans using various missiles in the riots, torching cars mostly,..and balk but then again the Brixton riots saw molotov cocktails being used on the mainland (for the first time ever outside Northern Ireland) and weeks of ensuing destruction. In London the riots ended with the violent death of a police officer (PC Blakelock – hacked to death with machetes) and in Marseilles a young woman - herself an immigrant, possibly even muslim – is seriously injured in an attack on a bus (aimed at the bus driver, perceived as racist for refusing to stop).

These parallels indicate the overwhelming social tensions of the time. Namely, immigration forced on to a society expected to somehow ‘cope’.

France, socially and economically, is going through its 1970s/early 80s. In the UK the 1970s was a decade of decline, social unrest, strikes, crippling union powers. Similarly France rides the same storm, unsure of its footing, with a lame duck President at the helm. ‘Dirigisme’ and ‘protectionism’, which have served France well, are now proving costly political strategies in a global economy.

The French have also resolutely rejected immigrants and done very little to integrate their north African immigrant population. Added to which there is extremely high youth unemployment in France, Thanks to the aforementioned strategies (used by both left and right) –the chances for a young French North African gaining employment after university, are significantly reduced.

There is a good piece that touches on all this, by Sophie Peddler, in the Economist

“Just as Britain battled through its winter of discontent in 1978-79, when rubbish went uncollected, school gates unopened and ambulances undriven, France has fought its way through a series of social upheavals in the past 18 months”

(Of which these riots are a part)

“SOMETHING seems very wrong with this country. Once the very model of a modern major power—stable, rich and smug—it appears beset now by political and economic instability and by civil unrest and disorder. One observer has even taken to calling it 'the sick man of Europe'. Hardly a month passes without the appearance of a new book or learned article on the decline and imminent demise of a once proud country..… written in 1979 by Isaac Kramnick, an American political scientist, and refers to Britain.

The 1970s were Britain's decade of self-doubt, not so unlike the first decade of the 21st century is turning out to be for France”

She goes on to argue the problems are not insurmountable, requiring political will. I agree. My views on anglo-saxon friendly Sarkozy’s chances (and reflecting on the French situation in the same way) remain unchanged from when I posted in Feb this year.T

They certainly have options and opportunities in terms of a new presidency in 2007. Royal or Sarkozy will have to tackle this upheaval...and move to tackle integration. Having studied the British formula on the latter, they have rejected it - to their credit.

My guess is nothing much will be done before 2007 but still, im envious of the opportunity they now have to shape their social structure, integration and future and think that when (not if) they are able to break with the past they will do it maintaining some admirable lifestyle elements. As I said previously, the French have gone all out to protect a way of life that is still largely to be envied. They have staved off cultural decline by fighting tooth and nail for it. This will morph to facilitate the necessary change needed to compete economically and tackle social upheaval. It won’t be easy though. As Peddler concludes “politicians have consistently failed to explain to the citizens why the country cannot afford to go on as before”.


At Wednesday, 01 November, 2006, Anonymous Maggie said...

Great blog Alison and so in touch. You have told it exactly like it is. Hopefully it will all be overcome by new political heads, with no change to the french culture just a change of attitude.

At Wednesday, 01 November, 2006, Blogger Sir Percy said...

A thoughtful post, Alison, and one that I mostly agree with.

I take a keen interest in France and all things French – I’ve just sold a house in Normandy after 16 years - and I will make a few points in passing based on experience.

There is, as in most countries, a difference in practice of religion in the rural, country areas and in metropolitan areas. People still attend church in the country although it's clear to me that the young are choosing to not to go, in increasing numbers.

As you mentioned, the French state is “secular” and does actively promote religion. It does not, for example, permit the display of religious symbols in state-run schools although private religious (mostly Catholic) schools are allowed.

I would agree with you that most of the youths caught up in the violence would not mention Islam immediately when asked to describe what were the reasons behind this. However there is clear evidence than radical Islam HAS taken root in les banlieues. In recent years there has been disturbing and widely reported trend of gang-raping young Muslim girls who will not wear the veil.

I particularly agree with your statement:

“The French have also resolutely rejected immigrants and done very little to integrate their north African immigrant population”

French people on all sides of the political spectrum show far less restraint when it comes to criticising immigrants than you would normally encounter here in the UK.

On that basic level, many (most?) ordinary French people appear to have decided that they want nothing to do with immigrants.

It’s not possible to force people to integrate so, sadly, I see increasing Balkanisation as the pattern for the future with separate areas for immigrants and ethnic French.

"White Flight" is just as common in France as it is here.

The new presidency could turn out to be a poisoned chalice.

At Thursday, 02 November, 2006, Blogger Wolfie said...

Great post Alison.

At Thursday, 02 November, 2006, Blogger Chas said...

Good post, Alison. I've always been a bit of a Francophile, as my a pair of my great grandparents came from a little village outside of Belfort. I visited my 3rd cousins there once, and in France, if you're family, you're IN! They were wonderfully generous with me and my broken French.

The had a lunch for us, and passed around a bowl of egg salad which I chowed down on. I looked up and no one else was eating. I asked why. They had finished their bit and were waiting for the next course. I said that I thought this WAS lunch. I kid you not, their mouths fell open! My cousin said that was just the first of 8 courses! LOL! Two hours later I had to unbuckle my belt. Beautiful people.

At Friday, 03 November, 2006, Anonymous alison said...

Sir Percy - I take your point and it is an issue for sure. But it isnt rooted and hasbt been fostered as it has in the UK. That is to say it hadnt taken root when i visited the banlieues (part of research into Islam in France in the mid 90s)...its definitely a post 9/11 'gang' thing and Islam is now convenient. Just as a return to mafioso violence is in southern Italy with 25% youth unemployment - vicious gangland murders and random mafia violence are forcing Prodi to recognize the economic issues there. There is talk of sending in the army, not so different to France. A return to mafia culture is convenient also. My guess is that its economic decline that prompts this. But i can honestly say I never got an impression that the north african kids were hanging onto religion when i was there. The impression i got was of an overwhelming desire to fit in and be French. France are such a proud lot that the desire was/is there. If Sarkozy and Royal come back down to earth (they seem to be going off at a tangent at the mo) then they will have to tackle the issues and it may well fizzle back to the norms

At Saturday, 04 November, 2006, Anonymous Steve said...

At the risk of going off at a tangent - why do you think the French are having these riots while, in the UK, we haven't had anything really serious since the 1980s.

Is this due to economic factors, or did something else happen in the 1980s?

Did the authorities in effect surrender their right to enforce the law in Afro-Caribbean areas? Do we have fewer riots because the gangs' rule of their turf is now unchallenged? Have the 1980s chickens come home to roost in he form of soaring black-on-black gun crime?

Just a thought!

At Sunday, 05 November, 2006, Blogger Sir Percy said...

I think that the economic factors in France ARE important because such a large percentage of France's immigrants are unemployed. The devil finds work etc.

See the following for more observations and comment:

Telegraph Blog


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