11.13.2005

huge, frustrated, hopeless

"The riots have done for France what Hurricane Katrina did for the United States: They have revealed the existence of a huge, frustrated and hopeless underclass. What is most shocking is that France's social divide is, in some ways, worse than the one in the U.S."
* * * *

The American right, which hates all things French, and the right in general (including Canadian), which hates all things Muslim, has been foaming at the mouth about the Paris riots. Apparently they are "Islamofascist" in origin (love that word! can we call the Cheney junta Christofascists?) and if the media isn't telling you that, it's because they're a bunch of liberal pansies afraid of offending the Muslim world. Or some bullshit like that.

Naturally the right (and most of the center) must automatically condemn riots of any kind, and immediately demonize the rioters. There couldn't possibly be anything to their anger. Nah. They're just trying to take over the world, but they're too stupid to see that burning cars is not a clear path to world domination.

Or something.

I hesitate to even link to the blogs I saw with this kind of bullshit. I don't want those bloggers over here. So Google yourself silly, or just trust me on this one.

I've been reading different perspectives on the French riots, especially seeking to understand if race or religion contributed much, if anything, to the situation. I've learned that, as is often the case, race is an issue, but more as a stand-in for class. Religion has nothing to do with it.

I found this column in Saturday's Globe And Mail particularly instructive. It's available online by subscription only, so I'm reprinting the whole thing here. It's worth reading. The Bill O'Reillys of the world, still boycotting France for reasons only known to them (and maybe not even that), might be surprised to see how much the US and this supposed enemy have in common.

Paris is burning, but race wasn't the real spark
By Doug Saunders

Paris - To see the future in any European city, you need to travel to the last stop on the subway, then drive a few kilometres farther. If you're in Paris, it is in these distant outskirts that you will discover the fatal computational error in that impressive formula -- capitalist wealth with generous social spending -- that makes up the fiercely defended "European social model."

This was plainly visible as I strolled through the bleak, featureless, concrete emptiness of the Cité des Trois Mille, a high-rise ghetto that was built as a socialist-utopian housing project for the new French working class of the postwar years, which exploded into the headlines this week as one of the first sites of paralyzing rioting. This charmless 'hood, whose population is more than 10 times the 3,000 suggested by its name, is a 180-degree inversion of the European success story.

The French dream, the one most visitors see on trips to Paris, combines the best of capitalism (high productivity and wages, job security, months of paid vacation) with the best of socialism (superb pension and maternity benefits, short working hours, excellent public education and health).

But life for the millions of young people in these blighted banlieues combines the very worst of capitalism (mass, permanent unemployment, exploitative casual work, no purchasing power) with the worst of socialism (hideous housing, oppressive police state, no choices).

"The kids here are fully French, they speak the language perfectly and consider themselves fully French, but they have nothing of the nicer things of French life -- the cafés, the culture -- none of that is available to them," my guide, a former resident of the area, said as she introduced me to the hollow-eyed young men who spent long hours "holding up the wall," staring into the middle distance and taunting any authorities who happened by. "For recreation in the evening, all they have to do is burn cars."

What is surprising is that this conversation took place not this week but more than a year ago, in the summer of 2004. The car-burning was already well under way: On Bastille Day, 2002, more than 90 cars were burned here; at New Year's in both 2003 and 2004, hundreds were burned. On most weekend nights, at least one plume of smoke can be seen. In many respects, the people in les Cités, as the high-rise slums are known, have been rioting for years. This season, they finally got noticed.

The riots have done for France what Hurricane Katrina did for the United States: They have revealed the existence of a huge, frustrated and hopeless underclass. What is most shocking is that France's social divide is, in some ways, worse than the one in the U.S.

This, after all, is the country that has fought the most aggressively to preserve its generous system of social benefits and its very expensive welfare state against threats from the European Union and the U.S.-influenced countries. It was in the name of "the social Europe" that France rejected the EU constitution this summer. No other major nation spends as much on social programs as France does: At least 52 per cent of the country's annual economic output is devoted to social spending. Canada spends about half that much.

So it has come as a huge shock, to French and foreigners alike, to discover that this system has produced so little value for the money. It has increased poverty and produced a huge and deeply unhappy permanent underclass of perpetually unemployed, poorly housed young people, most of them with brown or black complexions. How on earth can that be?

Nobody knows how many such people there are -- estimates claim there are 9.5 million fully disenfranchised, impoverished people, in a nation of 60 million. But they are a small part of a larger social problem: About 40 per cent of citizens of working age (18-64) have not had a job in the past year, and are entirely dependent on government support. More than 40 per cent of those jobless are permanently unemployed. (In Canada, the figure is around 10 per cent.)

This week, the headlines have emphasized the fact that the rioters are not white, and mostly are children or grandchildren of North African immigrants. Commentators on the right have been quick to blame the rioting on immigration and "multiculturalism" (a concept that effectively does not exist in France), while those on the left have blamed racism and the failure of integration.

Yet this does not quite add up: The rioters are not immigrants (even if their parents were); they are culturally assimilated and live their lives in fluent French. They do not want a separate cultural identity -- there has not been any sign of any Islamic or African cultural dimension to the protests. These are angry French people.

While it is undeniable that French society has a sharp and largely unspoken racial divide (you really do not see brown-skinned people with respectable jobs in France), the identity of the rioters is overshadowed by their very existence: Yes, the vast underclass is dark-skinned. But why should a country like France have a vast and unhappy underclass at all?

That question was posed this week by Agnès Poirier, a writer with the left-wing Paris newspaper Libération. She pointed out that those who attribute the crisis to matters of race are correct "only in part."

She asked: "What do we see when we look at the 'burning suburbs'? Dissatisfied youth with little education, hardly any job prospects, from poor and often broken families. Their misery is first of all social and economic. They are the French people who feel they are not represented by any political party, and especially not by the French left."

That is the core of the problem: In France, there is not a single political party, not even the radical branch of the opposition Socialist party, that represents the interests of this huge lumpenproletariat class. Quite the contrary: The agendas of all the parties appear harmful to the Cité-dwellers, and almost entirely designed to bring increasing comfort to the established working and middle classes.

While France redistributes more of its wealth in social spending than almost any nation, almost all of that money goes to the middle class and the better-off, employed branch of the working class -- the workers who get the 35-hour weeks and maternity packages, and don't live in the outskirts.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, only 27.6 per cent of France's social spending goes to the poorest third of the population. We can hardly gloat: In Canada, that number is only 22 per cent. In northern Europe, where such underclasses have not formed, it's around 40 per cent. And that spending, in France, is funded by regressive taxes that take proportionately more from the poor than from the better-off.

In effect, French voters have elected to build a huge concrete wall across their nation, said Parisian commentator Philippe Manière: "Those inside the wall have very good lives, and have good benefits, and guaranteed jobs. But their gains all end up hurting the millions of people who are kept outside the wall -- they have protected themselves and given themselves comforts at the expense of the other group of French citizens, who get nothing."

The 60 per cent of French citizens who live extremely well -- French "insiders" with perhaps the highest standard of living in the world -- are waking up this month to realize that their system is built on the shoulders of the deeply underprivileged 40 per cent.

The French right, under the Gaullist leadership of president Jacques Chirac, has been in power since 2002. Its reaction to this outsider class has been to brand its members criminals, making their lives more miserable. In his first six months in office, Mr. Chirac increased the French prison population by 12 per cent, spent nine billion euros more on the police and justice system, set up special, heavily armed squads in les Cités, and added 11,000 prison spaces.

This week, France's Interior Minister, the presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy, reacted to the riots by cracking down violently. Dismissing the protesting youth as "riff-raff," he imposed the equivalent of a War Measures Act, responding with mass arrests and deportations. Such laws have effectively turned les Cités into more dismal prisons, driving their residents further from French society.

But the French left, even the radical branch of the Socialist party, is equally uninterested in the fate of the millions of people who are neither workers nor middle-class. Its accomplishments, during its periods of power in the 1980s and 1990s, made life enormously better for those who have lifelong work -- and functioned equally well to keep the underclass imprisoned in their concrete canyons.

The left's chief accomplishment in its last period in power was the 35-hour work week, which effectively gave the employed classes of France an extra month or two of fully paid vacation each year, on top of the five weeks or more that were already mandatory.

That policy also effectively prevented further jobs from being created, especially the sort of low-wage, but permanent, service-sector jobs that could have helped people in the suburban slums. Small- and medium-sized businesses almost immediately stopped adding extra staff. Large foreign companies lost interest in opening plants -- direct foreign investment in France plummeted.

Dozens of similar laws have created two classes of workers. Both Socialists and many Gaullists have become devoted to the rhetoric and policies of anti-globalization -- which, in practice, help to protect the middle classes and the comfortably employed, and harm the sub-proletarians on the outskirts of town, for whom trade and "McJobs" could only be beneficial.

"Above all else, French public policy has been designed to protect and improve existing jobs, rather than toward anything that could cause any new jobs to be created," said Timothy Smith, a professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., whose prescient 2004 book France in Crisis has suddenly become a much-studied volume among the French elite.

France, he argues, believes itself to be a social-democratic, anti-American state, while its policies have led to the opposite of social democracy, and a race-and-poverty divide comparable only to that in the U.S. "The gap," he writes, "between the protected, the well-vacationed, and the unwanted on the outside grows wider each year."

In a country famous for having a revolutionary explosion every generation, this one has come as a complete surprise. It is hard not to feel strong admiration for the rioters: Spilling a minimum of blood, they have managed to awaken a myopic French society to the existence of a non-working class that had no name and no identity, that was ignored in the self-obsessions of the left and the right.

Perhaps France will one day be able to realize its revolutionary principles of liberty, equality and brotherhood, under the historic symbol of the burning car.

9 comments:

David Cho said...

That is an excellent article. A lot to digest and I suppose it gives both the Right and Left ammunition.

Kyle_From_Ottawa said...

As for the word Muslim, I think people don't quite understand it. The media, especially, seems to word it as though it's a synonym with Middle-eastern, which creates the impression that like Jews they are a culture, a race, and a religion all in one.

Kyle_From_Ottawa said...

Then again, many of my middle-eastern friends wonder how Afghanistan, Morroco and Pakistan get lumped into the middle-east, when they consider the middle east to be just the Persian Gulf countries.

RobfromAlberta said...

I think most people understand that Muslim is not equivalent to Arab. However, Islamic militance is not limited to Arab Muslims, so using the term "Muslim" in this case is not inaccurate.

RobfromAlberta said...

The real question here is whether the rioters do so because they are Muslim or because they are young, angry and disenfranchised. I don't know enough about the plight of French muslims to answer that question.

Kyle_From_Ottawa said...

"The real question here is whether the rioters do so because they are Muslim or because they are young, angry and disenfranchised. I don't know enough about the plight of French muslims to answer that question."

Well, according to my Algerian friend, it has more to do with the disenfranchised part. These are second and third generation French citizens, but are apparently treated as though they are second-class citizens.

He says there's far more racism in Europe then in either Canada or the United States, despite Europe's liberal-socialist leanings. My friends tell me that despite the Iraq war, sabre-rattling, etc, the U.S. is still a friendlier country to Muslims (and immigrants in general) then Europe. Basically, an Algerian will never really be considered French, no many how generations his family has lived there.

Still, it's not as bad as racism in the Middle East itself. For example, in Kuwait there are Persians that have lived there for centuries, but are not eligible for Kuwati citizenship because they aren't Arabs.

RobfromAlberta said...

He says there's far more racism in Europe then in either Canada or the United States, despite Europe's liberal-socialist leanings.

Of this, I have no doubt.

L-girl said...

He says there's far more racism in Europe then in either Canada or the United States

Oh yeah, I don't doubt that either. Everything I've seen points in that direction.

L-girl said...

The real question here is whether the rioters do so because they are Muslim or because they are young, angry and disenfranchised.

I don't see anything that leads me to believe religion has anything to do with it. I'm open to it if I do see it - I just haven't found anything credible that points to religion as a factor.

Young, without meaningful employment or any hope of finding any, utterly without status in (or invisible to) the mainstream - and the anger that stems from that. It's a recipe for angry violence.