The Uses of France’s Riots

The French riots of late October and November were immediately pressed into service for ideological heavy lifting to serve several causes.  First, the “Clash of Civilizations” crowd immediately wished to place the riots in the context of a neoconservative crusade of Western civilization versus Islamic fundamentalism.  Of course, the fact that the rioters took their queue from American rappers and usually only spoke French gave them no pause.  Having spent about as much time abroad as George Bush before he became President, these “observers” from the American side of the Atlantic immediately inveighed against another attack against Western civilization from Islam.  For them, the call was bellowed out to pull up the gates to the citadel and lock out the new Ottomans.  Those who thought the source of the present difficulties was rooted outside Islam were declared naïve.  The frictionless discourse on Islamic fundamentalism showed no sign of being slowed by facts and attempts to elevate discussion by introducing them only took on a through the looking glass character as assertion of facts became evidence of “ignorance.”

The other chorus heard was from the liberalizers trying to advance the Lisbon agenda for the EU.  Surely, France’s problem was rooted in their European Social Model with high wages.  So emboldened with the events in France, many of these critics were even confident enough to admit that France has close to the world’s most productive economy, with per hour labor rates outstripping most of the developed world. 

Yet, other points should be considered in assessing the French situation.  One, immigration is certainly an issue, but so is economic policy.  The European Central Bank (ECB), through the Maastricht criteria, has set government inflation and debt targets so low as to have engineered a decade of high unemployment and slow growth.  The goal is to create a stronger euro to compete with the US dollar as a global reserve currency, and introduce a bit of Schumpeterian creative destruction to shake out older industries in the fashion of the US and Britain in the 1980s.  Then, there is prevailing contemporary economic theory, which is a kind of modern-day Lysenkoism in which the data must fit the theory and not vice versa.  The ECB seems determined to continue down its low-growth high-unemployment path regardless of consequences.  To be sure, France and Germany have stretched these debt and inflation targets during their recessionary periods, as is the prerogative of the powerful within the EU.  But, they have not exercised the same monetary stimulus policies to growth that Britain and the US have done since the departure of Margaret Thatcher and George Bush #41.  In the wake of these leaders both states pursued essentially Keynesian monetary policies encouraging growth.  Britain and the US certainly talk a good line on neoliberal policy, but neither walks the talk.

Second, globalization is partly to blame for France’s current unrest.  The collapse of the Soviet bloc and attendant expansion of the EU, along with related forces of globalization, led many French producers to flee to more states with lower wages and minimal safety standards, or in other words what is euphemistically called “flexibility.”  This history cannot be reversed, but neither should it be forgotten in implementing new policy.

Third, France has followed a disastrous policy on social integration with its North and West African immigrants.  Instead of mainstreaming them into French society it has ghettoized them in the fashion once taken by the US in the 1960s with high-rise developments.  Although instead of placing them in central cities, they are in suburbs.  This model has failed in both the US and France and must be changed. 

This begs the questions then of what else differentiates France from the US, since America is presented as the model to follow for creating social peace and employment.  The US does have more work.  But, again, this is as much rooted in the dollar as a global reserve currency and its expansionary monetary policy and military Keynesianism than its just celebrated low wages and no benefits for poor workers.  It must also be remembered the US merely locks up 2 million of its urban youth in prisons as a means of social control.  Recent events in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina should also remind us that among America’s African American poor not already locked up, and in the South sometimes impressed into work gangs, all is not so peaceful on the plantation as the neoliberal press declares.

One would hope then that France, and the EU, consider rethinking the ECB neoliberal line on debt and inflation, and follow Britain and the US on what they do instead of say, on this score.  Moreover, France would benefit from a full reassessment of its social integration policy that undoes the mess of its menacing suburbs.  Additionally, for any employment not created by economic stimulus policies, France might look at increased education and research spending in the fashion of Ireland and Finland. 

Copyright of authors: no publication without authors’ permission

Authors:  Jeff Sommers is a visiting US Professor to Stockholm School of Economics in Riga and former Fulbrighter to Latvia

 Dirk Hoyer is a current German lecturer in the Baltic States, past Bosch lecturer to Latvia, and former graduate student in France

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