Monday, November 14, 2005

French leave

Riots can go one of two ways. If there is a big enough impetus they can turn into a real revolution or they can slowly peter out. It looks like the French riots of the last two weeks will go the second way. For the time being, that is.

It seems that only a few hundred cars are burned every night instead of the 1,200 or 1,300 that were being torched just a few days ago. Am I the only person around who is finding two things slightly odd: one is the number of cars in the banlieus; and the fact that nobody thinks of moving the ones that had not been torched to a safer place during the day. I hope we get an explanation for it all some time.

The European Union, as my colleague has pointed out, has finally made its appearance with offers of dosh, though, it could be merely credit relief. Hard to tell. In any case they are offering €50 million to help build various facilities in the horrible and now severely damaged areas.

That is very generous, particularly as this is our money that is being shelled out. But has nobody managed to recall that at least £58 million from the social housing fund has been misappropriated by various politicians of the UMP while l’escroc Chirac was Mayor of Paris. (That is the sum we know about definitely. There have been other unresolved cases about money that belongs to the people of Paris disappearing.)

It is not only the banlieus that are the problem. It seems that we have forgotten a few other fires: one big one last year, two slightly smaller ones this year of tenement blocks for immigrants. In each fire a large number of children died. Had these tenements been inspected by the fire brigade, one wonders.

Apart from a few copy-cat car torchings the riots did not spread to other countries (the matter of Århus is different and needs to be discussed separately), which would vindicate those of us who have maintained from the very beginning that this is not a jihad but a long overdue explosion caused by the various tensions within France.

Last Thursday John Vinocur wrote in the International Herald Tribune:
“On one hand, there is French hubris, and its gratuitously insulting embrace of France’s immigrants as partners in the country’s threadbare formulas of grandeur, equality and universality.

On the other, there is the eternal French dependency on the state, the allegiance to the French model that has failed to provide the jobs, education, housing or respect adequate to integrate Arab and African Muslims into a rich and resourceful country with real claims to special grace.”
Added to which there is the disintegrating social and economic structure, as numerous commentators have noted.

Yesterday’s Business carried an editorial on the subject, entitled “Why Paris is burning”, which placed the blame squarely at the stagnant French economy and regulation-laden society.
“The riots have been seized on, sometimes gleefully, by excitable right-wing commentators as the intifada of a new Eurabia. It is more accurately seen as the unthinking rebellion of an underclass. It has been one of the more sophisticated criticisms of the Left that capitalism in the Information Age has created an unemployed (and increasingly unemployable), marginalised underclass amid general prosperity, a group with none of the strengths, culture or ambitions of the old industrial working class.

Current events in France show that left-wing, big-government societies in the 21st century, for all their emphasis on welfare and social solidarity, have an underclass of their own, whose condition may be even more hopeless than the underclass of capitalist societies. On the streets of the rougher French suburbs this past fortnight, we have just glimpsed the grim underbelly of the European social model.”
The article then enumerates the problems with jobs: the high regulatory cost, the expense of employing people and the impossibility of laying them off, the high minimum wage – it all adds up to a country where employers will keep the pay roll to a minimum. Given the basically racist attitude of much of France, it is easy to see who would suffer in a stagnating country.

Or as John Vinocur writes of the internal contradictions:
“An Arab kid in Clichy-sous-Bois may not articulate it, but what rage it must create to hear he lives in the greatest, smartest, most fair country in the world, revered as Islam’s best-friend-in-the-west from Algeria to Oman, and then have to deal with a French realityof racist scorn and rejection.”
In so far as Mr Vinocur offers any solutions, they are precisely the ones that the Business editorial rejects as being actively harmful:
“It is tragic to hear calls to smother these flames with yet more money. Throwing alms at the impoverished suburbs has been tried for 30 years in France: it is no substitute for market-led policies which find people jobs. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has proposed to add E100m in subsidies to local community associations, add 5,000 teaching assistant posts, offer 20,000 work contracts with local governments and set up an anti-discrimination agency.

It is a dismal dirigiste prescription and shows he has learnt nothing. Billions have already been spent on infrastructure projects for the ghettos and achieve nothing. Using taxpayers’ money to create non-jobs simply drags the wealth-creating side of the economy down further.”
Certain other voices have been heard from the business organizations. Though they, too, talk of affirmative action they are also pointing out ever more loudly the difficulty of running businesses and employing people in France. (All of which, as the Business points out, slowly overtaking Britain under Gordon Brown’s stewardship.)

It is time to start speculating about the effect these events might have on future French politics. While the opinion polls are showing support for Dominique de Villepin, there is no reason to suppose that the government or any of its members has come out well.

President Chirac was all but invisible, though he has now reappeared to make a grandiloquent presidential statement about France's malaise; Nicolas Sarkozy talked tough but failed to control the riots for whatever reason; de Villepin appeared late, announced a completely unnecessary state of emergency (according to which local authorities have the right to close down cafes, should they think it necessary – that’s when the real riots will start) and appears to have spent all his time trying to upstage Sarkozy.

Meanwhile Le Pen is claiming that people are streaming into his party and he is probably right. His own showing in the next election should be interesting.

The Paris Bureau Chief for Dow Jones Newswires, Pierre Briançon, writes in today’s Wall Street Journal Europe [subscription only]:
“The Sarkozy and Villepin camps are already back to poling and counting potential votes. One can already see how the blame game will be played once a decent interval elapsed after the crisis. Mr de Villepin will note that something must have been wrong at the interior ministry to let such events develop. And Mr Sarkozy will point out that he was not responsible for job creation.

With the ailing president absent and the fractured left mum, France is a headless body. It’s been a very long time, in French political history, since a leader of either persuasion has stepped back, paused, thought and wondered what would be in the public good, whatever the pollsters might tell him.

Cynicism is played in the open through infighting at the highest levels and with the media counting points as ringside judges. And if the ruling elites have their say, nothing will move in the next 18 months as no one will want to take the risks unavoidably associated with reform. So, everyone, back to normal.”
Which is all very well but the problems will not go away. The next lot of riots might be a little nearer the centre of cities and the next lot of political shenanigans might disgust the people of France even more.

There is just the possibility that what we are witnessing is the beginning of the end of the Fifth Republic, that is becoming enmired in political feebleness and corruption, just like its predecessor. As it was created out of the turmoil of the Algerian war, it would be fitting if it disappeared in the turmoil that its outcome eventually brought to France.

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