November 23, 2005

Is France back to normal?

Well, the French ambassador to the US thinks so.

According to ambassdor Jean-David Levitte, religion had little to do with the rioting that swept his country for three weeks. Instead, he told Reuters, the mostly young rioters were angry because of discrimination and lack of economic opportunities.

"We know that jihadists are recruiting teenagers, but this has nothing to do with the general unrest in those neighborhoods," he said. The teenagers want to be considered 100 percent French, he said. "They want full equality.

Levitte's words about the unrest in France are more sensible than much of what has come from the government in Paris, where [among other things] the Interior Minister called the rioters 'scum.'

Levitte's characterization of France's current state as 'normal' is dead-on, although not in the way that the ambassador meant. According to journalist Doug Ireland, the right-center French government has responded to the riots by doing nothing to deal with the problems that caused them, much as the Socialist government that preceded it was content to ignore the inequalities and discrimination faced by citizens of African and Mideastern origin.

The Chirac-Villepin government's response to the root causes of the rebellion was pitiful -- and reflected [conservative essayist] 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 Jules_ferry 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 [President Jacques] 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%.

Ireland's comments above are part of an excellent article describing how the riots ended, what the French government has been doing since the rioting stopped, and how the riots may affect the electoral fortunes of the opposition Socialist party. We highly recommend reading the whole piece, which you can find here.

Posted by Magpie at November 23, 2005 12:38 PM | International | TrackBack(1) | Technorati links |