This past week, the conservative Paris daily Le Figaro ran an opinion piece that was a rather surprisingly acute diagnosis of what caused France’s violent rebellion of ghetto youth:
“The urban guerrilla confrontation…is just one more piece of evidence of the total disconnection between French society as it has evolved and the political classes that have never changed. The French State (that is, those who run it) for thirty years has displayed a remarkable autism that equally affects all political parties — all of which recruit in the same backwater defined by the elite national graduate schools of public administration whose task is to form each new generation of French bureaucrats….The State has no clothes– but doesn’t know it. Hidden away in their 18th century palaces, this unrepresentative political class, more than ever pre-occupied with its internal quarrels, has as its principle objective its own survival. The autism of the State appears incurable. Meanwhile, France — the real France — is burning….
“Can one imagine, then, that this political class will admit it has badly mismanaged the State for three decades? That it will recognize the inanity of its archaic republican discourse [against ethnic 'communitarianism'] even though those real communities exist? That it will admit that ‘affirmative action’ American-style should have been tried long ago, because discrimination is real? In the real world the State is totally inept: two years ago it let 30,000 old people die of dehydration in barracks for retired seniors utterly devoid of air conditioning…This political autism is the true cause of the arson that has touched 274 French cities and towns. Instead of pointing the finger at a handful of incendiary adolescents, we should ask why the State didn’t see them coming. Who created the lawless zones where the fires started: the adolescents? or the autistic State?”
What makes this acid diagnosis remarkable is that this guest commentary was written by Guy Sorman, a well-known conservative, free-market essayist who frequently appears on television. That a neo-Hayekian like Sorman endorses affirmative action by the State is powerful testimony indeed to the all-pervasive racism that was the principal root cause of the ghetto youths’ rioting (see my own long analysis, “Why is France Burning? The rebellion of a lost generation.”)
Unfortunately, not a single major political figure or party supports adopting an affirmative action policy — and it is unlikely to happen any time in the near future. Affirmative action runs counter to that “archaic republican discourse” which, in asserting all French citizens are “equal,” refuses to recognize race or ethnicity as the basis for any government action –and which even prevents the government from gathering statistics based on race or ethnicity, making the socio-economic and educational progress of minorities impossible to measure, and rendering them officially invisible for all intents and purposes. (Unofficially, of course, people of color are routinely targeted by the police on the basis of ethnicity, and frequently discriminated against by government agencies.)
THE GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE — It wasn’t until the 13th day of the rebellion — when arson, vandalism, and rioting, which had begun in the suburban ghettos of Paris, had spread right across the country, as youths of color imitated the violence of their generational peers as seen on TV — that the French government finally reacted. The aristocratic Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin at last went on television to announce the government’s response to the racism and social rot that had caused the
rebellion: repression. The conservative government of President Jacques Chirac declared a state of emergency, using a 1955 law passed during France’s colonial war in Algeria that permits the imposition of a curfew and suspension of civil liberties, including those of the press, and permits detention without trial, the use of military tribunals and bans on public meetings. The Syndicat des avocats and the Syndicat de la magistrature (the lawyers’ and judges’ unions) issued a cry of alarm, denouncing the “disastrous war logic” inherent in invoking the law. Pointing out that this law was not even used in the May 1968 student-worker rebellions, their joint statement said: “Stopping the violence and re-establishing order in the suburbs is a necessity. But must that imply submitting them to emergency legislation inherited from the colonial period? We know where the cycle of provocation and repression leads…. The ghettos have no need of a state of emergency. They desperately need justice, respect, and equality.” But the cowardly opposition Socialists — frightened by opinion polls showing huge support for a hardline law-and-order policy — meekly acquiesced in the State’s use of this liberty-shredding colonial law. (Only the Communists, the Greens, the extreme-left Trotskyists of the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire, and the anti-globalization movements denounced this policy of blind repression.)
The ghetto youths’ violence was already diminishing significantly when the state of emergency was declared — even as anti-Arab incidents reflected the sharp increase in racism which the rebellion had motored. In the waning days of the youth rebellion, three mosques were firebombed within days: two Molotov cocktails where thrown into a mosque in Carpentras at the hour of prayer, when the house of worship was filled with the faithful — and France’s largest mosque, in Lyon (France’s second-largest city), was firebombed, as was a mosque in a ghetto suburb in the Loire.
The curfew authorized by the state of emergency was imposed by prefects — who are closer to the situation on the ground than their Paris-based masters — in only 6 of France’s 92 departments. Clearly, the prefects thought it a useless and needlessly provocative measure when aimed solely at the ghetto youth. But among the repressive measures adopted by the government was the punishing of parents for the alleged crimes of their children, including curfew violations. For example, on the 13th night of the rioting, the primetime newscast on France 2 public television profiled the arrest of a single mother of four — a simple, working-class Pakistani woman overwhelmed by the task of raising her large brood alone. Her crime? Her 16-year-old son had been arrested for crouching behind a car, which — the police claimed — he was about to set aflame (even though no incendiary equipment was found on the youth.) “I can make him behave when he’s at home,” the woman weeped, “but when he’s in the street with his pals I have no control over him” The woman was hauled off in front of her minor children, incarcerated, sentenced to a training course in how to control her kids, and finally released. Every ghetto kid in France who saw this (and repeated similar arrests) on TV could easily imagine his own mother being carried off in a police paddy wagon — a sure prescription for further bitterness and alienation from authority. Such repressive actions may have contributed to ending the riots — which were already sputtering out — but at what social cost? There was another contributing factor to the end of the rebellion, as my old friend Helene Hazera — the host of a broadcast on France Culture public radio who has a prodigious knowledge of Arab and Franco-Arab music and culture — reminded me on the phone from Paris: “Algeria just went through an incredibly bloody civil war that lasted a decade, and that took the lives of over 100,000 civilians. Every Franco-Algerian family has relatives or friends whose lives were consumed in that horrible civil war, found it traumatic– and had no wish to see any imitation of it on French soil where they live.”
The Chirac-Villepin government’s response to the root causes of the rebellion was pitiful — and reflected Guy Sorman’s diagnosis that, as he put it, the French political classes “believe that nothing should change because France is perfect as she is and perfect as she was.” The centerpiece of the paltry social measures announced with great fanfare by Prime Minister Villepin was lowering the legal age for apprenticeships in manual technical trades — to only 14 (multiple police reports at the height of the violence suggested the average age of arrested rioters was 16). This age-lowering twist shredded a century and a half of formal French educational policy, which has always been to maximize the educational experience of children; and it now gives an official imprimatur to permitting kids to end their schooling just when it becomes most crucial.
No new measures to improve or desegregate the rotting, impossibly overcrowded ghetto schools were announced by Villepin — and the government did not explain where it would find employers willing to take on inexperienced, delinquent, non-scholastic, barely post-pubescent kids and train them in plumbing, electrical work, baking, or other not uncomplicated trades. Aside from restoring some of the devastating cuts in subsidies for the locally-run neighborhood associations in the ghettos that work with youth — budget-slashing which had contributed mightily to causing the rebellion — Villepin had nothing more than rhetoric and repression to propose. Nor did the government choose to restore the “emploi-jeunes” program of temporary minimum-wage youth jobs, an inadequate invention of the previous Socialist government which Chirac and the conservatives had completely abolished.
When Chirac himself — whose invisibility during the violence had been much criticized in the press — finally went on TV this week to address the nation, he, too, had little more than empty words. His only concrete proposal was the creation of a “youth volunteer service corps” to help prepare kids for careers in the army (half of the program), the police, and health services, with a goal of 50,000 such minimum-wage posts within three years — a drop in the bucket. But even that was a phony — within 24 hours, the press reported that Chirac had simply consolidated and given a new name to already-existing programs in the three sectors. No new money was involved.
Perhaps the biggest void in Chirac’s and Villepin’s proposals was the absence of any new money or enforcement mechanisms to fight racial discrimination in hiring and housing. France has laws on the books against such racial bias — but spends almost no money to make them stick, so employers and landlords are free to discriminate against people of color with impunity. And they do. Life in the 750 suburban ghettos throughout France will go on as before, except that the already-deep alienation of ghetto kids from the larger society will be intensified by the repressive measures — earlier this week, even though major violence has ended, the government renewed the state of emergency for another three months. No wonder that a poll for the Journal de Dimanche last week showed that only 29% of the French thought Chirac had anything to offer to cure the causes of the rebellion — while a new poll released today on France 2 TV said Chirac’s overall approval rating had plummeted to just 35%.
THE SOCIALISTS ON THE ROPES AS THEIR CONGRESS OPENS —
And what of France’s principal opposition party in the wake of the riots? It’s not a pretty picture.
Yesterday the emergency congress of the French Socialist party began its deliberations. What led to this special party congress? It had been called in the wake of the May 29 referendum on the proposed European Constitution — which had been a disaster for the party’s leadership under the colorless, uncharismatic neo-centrist Francois Hollande. The party’s patron (or boss) as its elected First Secretary, Hollande had imposed a Yes vote for the Euroconstitution as party policy, even though nearly half the party membership was opposed to it. The referendum was a stinging rebuke to Hollande and the other “elephants” (as they are referred to) of the party’s well-known Old Guard — a whopping 70% of the broad left electorate (including 75%of the working classes) voted No in the referendum to a Euroconstitution seen as setting in concrete a corporate-dominated Europe/
Hollande’s alliance with the conservatives in the May referendum campaign was symbolized by his posing for the cover of the large-circulation weekly Paris Match in tandem with the hardline conservative Minister of the Interior, the demagogic Nicolas Sarkozy (the leading candidate for the right’s presidential nomination in 2007) to urge a Yes vote. But the left electorate’s huge disavowal of the official Socialist position demonstrated that Hollande was tone-deaf to the left’s electoral base, and provoked a daggers-drawn internal party conflict between supporters of the Yes vote and the more left-wing supporters of a No — a precursor of the increasingly bitter contest for the Socialists’ 2007 presidential nomination. It was in an attempt to defuse this internecine war that Hollande had called this week’s unusual party congress, which will put his leadership of the party to a vote.
But in fact, the outcome of the congress was already decided on November 9, when an internal party referendum on its future platform and orientation was held in the middle of the youth rebellion. In this vote, in which the party’s 127,000 dues-paying members cast ballots in their local party sections, there was a choice between three principal platforms (or “motions”
in party parlance): that of Hollande, an indigestible mish-mosh of non-specific, boiler- plate party rhetoric; the left-wing motion championed by Laurent Fabius (a former Socialist Prime Minister in the early 80s under President Francois Mitterrand, Fabius is an aging yuppie dandy, and a champion of pro-corporate market economics who — in quest of his party’s presidential nomination in two years — recently gave himself a political face-lift, leading the No campaign against the pro-corporate Euroconstitution and, in an alliance against nature, making common cause with the party’s left wing); and the motion of the Nouveau Parti Socialiste reformist faction led by Socialist deputies (members of parliament) Arnaud Montebourg and Vincent Peillon, whose principal innovation is crusading for a new French Constitution that shears presidential powers and gives them to the prime minister — they have a tactical alliance with former party chief Henri Emmanuelli, a principal leader of the party’s left.
In that party referendum ten days ago, Hollande and his Old Guard allies — all of whom are of the Mitterrand generation (like former Culture Minister Jack Lang; former Employment Minister Marine Aubry, now mayor of Lille; and former Economics Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, all with presidential ambitions) — rang up a solid enough victory, with ten percentage points more than the two other opposition motions combined.
The Montebourg-Peillon-Emmanuelli faction’s motion got 24.5%, making it the largest bloc opposed to the Hollande leadership; while the motion presented by Laurent Fabius and his left-wing allies, led by Senator Jean-Luc Melanchon, got just over 21% — not much more than Fabius and his supporters had harvested in the last party congress before “Fafa” (as Fabius is derisorily known) had his left-wing face-left, which appears to have little credibility with the party militants. Despite charges by the two opposition factions of ballot-stuffing and inflated membership rolls in fiefdoms controlled by the dominant Hollande leadership (charges which, according to press accounts, appeared to have some merit), Hollande’s ten-point victory margin in the internal referendum was more than enough to assure that he will be re-elected the party’s leader in the coming days by the party congress. Autism, indeed — plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
But the Socialist congress is having to digest two new public opinion polls out this week that are devastating for the party’s image and electoral chances. A poll taken for the weekly L’Express and released two days ago showed that only 23% of French voters think the lot of their personal socio-economic category would be improved if the Socialists re-took power, while 58% of all French voters (and 54% of left voters) judge the programatically bankrupt party “inefficient” (read: impotent) on the political stage.
Simultaneously, a poll for Le Monde released four days ago showed that 60% of all French voters don’t think the Socialists can win the next elections (that number goes up among younger voters — 63% for the under-30s, and 66% for the 30-49-year-olds.) Moreover, 59% say the Socialists are fulfilling their role as an opposition party “badly,” 57% say the party isn’t listening to the real concerns of the electorate — and on the crisis in the ghettos, 52% say the Socialists would have acted “the same” as the right. In summarizing its extensive poll, Le Monde noted that “The disconnection between the Socialist party and its base is clear, even though the right is having difficulties. ‘What is striking,’ says poll director Stephane Rozes, ‘is the gap between a country that by a large majority wants a different governmental course, and the Socialists as the tool to achieve that difference.’”
The left, after all, has been in power for 14 of the last 24 years — while the ghettos festered. And an official study released last year showed that 70% of the children of the working class remain workers like their parents. France is still a terribly class-bound society, with restricted social mobility up the economic ladder. The Socialists haven’t had a vigorously left economic program since the cyncial Mitterrand, and his then-P.M., Fabius, imposed austerity, tax cuts, and denationalizations and took their party to the right on economic issues in 1982. This lack of a real alternative economic program to that of the right is a large part of the Mitterrand legacy — along with a long history of party corruption and the shaking down of corporations for campaign cash in scandals that made headlines for a decade, and an imperial abuse of power. Just two weeks ago, a French court finally issued a guilty verdict in the illegal wiretapping by the Elysee Palace (the presidential residence) during Mitterrand’s presidency — the targets were journalists, writers, politicians, show-business figures, and even of some of Mitterand’s own associates — and in stinging language the court held that Mitterrand himself was directly responsible for initiating and approving the wiretaps, which he read with great gourmandise. Wiith all that unappetizing Mitterrand-era baggage in the Socialists’ caboose, is it any wonder voters are cynical about the party?
The lack of a substantially different economic policy from that of the right was a major reason for the Socialists’ huge national defeat in 2002, when its presidential candidate (then-Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who had campaigned by saying, “My program is not a Socialist one” – and who is now agitating like a man who wants to run again) was defeated for a place in the runoff by neo-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen. But the Socialists’ leadership seems to have learned very little from either its crushing 2002 defeat, or its defeat on the Euroconstitution earlier this year, in which it was rejected by three-quarters of the left electorate. (See my article for The Nation on the Socialists’ 2002 defeat.)
Now one of the biggest fears of the Socialists’ leadership is the spectre of an independent presidential candidacy by Jose BovÃ©, the articulate and highly popular leader of the Confederation Paysanne (the peasant farmers’ union) who’s become a major figure in the international anti-globalization movement, and a French media star frequently seen on television. BovÃ© has been mulling a run as the candidate of the “left of the left.” The highly media-savvy BovÃ© has considerable support in the Green Party, might get the support of the largest Trotskyist formation (the LCR), and could command enthusiastic troops from the anti-globalization and ecology movements, as well as attracting younger voters. A BovÃ© candidacy could produce a repeat of the 2002 disaster, when disaffected left voters deserted the Socialists for two Trotskyists — especially the attractive, mediatic young postman Olivier Besancenot, the LCR’s candidate then. The pipe-smoking farmer BovÃ© has already served jail time for leading a protest against the lack of nourishment in fast food that ransacked a McDonald’s franchise — and last week he was again condemned to four months in prison for leading ecology activists (including two parliamentarians) in the destruction of a field of genetically-modified corn. These deliberate brushes with the law have made him even more popular as a selfless martyr, one who could attract voters fed up with politics-as-usual.
There are no fewer than eight major presidential candidates vying for the Socialist party’s 2007 nomination — including not only party leader Hollande but his common-law wife and the mother of his children, Segolene Royal, a neo-centrist “family values” advocate who heads the regional government in Poitu-Charentes, and who has displaced Jack Lang as the most popular left politician with the general electorate in public opinion surveys taken in the last several weeks since she declared her availability for a presidential run. And the pollsters say the public believes the Socialists are more preoccupied with “personal quarrels” rather than with “principled arguments.” In the party congress’s back rooms, a game of “liars’ poker” (to use the phrase in today’s Liberation) is being played, as the party’s leaders try to paper over their differences and come up with a face-saving “synthesis” of the divergent factions’ positions that will allow the party to present the semblance of a united front. But from the polls it’s obvious the voters aren’t being fooled.
And the most popular political figure in the country remains the demagogic, right-wing Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. “Sarko’s” popularity jumped 15 points over the 18 days before the ghetto youths’ violent rebellion finally subsided….at least, subsided temporarily. (Sarkozy, by the way, last week called the publisher of a tell-all book by his estranged wife on the scandal that separated them into his Interior Ministry office, threatened legal action, and browbeat the publisher into withdrawing the book from sale — even though 25,000 copies had already been printed, were warehoused in a Paris suburb ready for distribution, and suppressing the book cost the publisher a bundle. This led the TV humorist Laurent Ruquier to joke, in prime time, that “if the suburban youth had burned down that warehouse, Sarkozy would have given them a bonus!” The suppression of the book by Sarkozy made headlines.)
Meanwhile, there was a mini-riot last night in the university city of Grenoble in which 30 people (half of them police) were injured by bottle-throwing students. It’s cause? The annual festival to celebrate the arrival of the Beaujolais Nouveau (a particulary insipid and inferior wine I never cottoned to). No curfew was invoked, no riot police sent for — because (as could clearly be seen on French TV’s news reports) the middle-class students confronting the cops were, of course, all white.