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On the French societal malaise - a response to tyronen

by Ben P Fri Nov 4th, 2005 at 02:32:25 AM EST

This started out as simply a comment in tyronen's diary, but quickly developed into something I knew would require a diary itself. This is simply observation from a non-Frenchman who knows a fair bit about French society, although I'd be happy for others to correct me and challenge me. Indeed, part of this diary's purpose is to challenge and provoke. It also comes from someone who position on the American center-left is profoundly liberal (in the European, as well as the American sense). Call me a "social liberal," perhaps.


This is my take, and I think this will be controvertial, but I want it to be that way. Its not a question of the welfare state. Clearly the problem is deeper and more structural than that, and I think it goes to the very heart of the French notion of republicanism. IMO, the republican ideal is a very "modern" (in the technical sense) concept (indeed, perhaps a hyper-modern construct) in a post-modern world where the kind of unifying narrative and assumption of the fundamental similarity of people is no longer viable. Strangely, this is exactly how the neo-cons think too, and it is why they think you can invade a country and "remake" a culture, indeed a region, in an American image. Indeed, there is much about the French republican model that the American right would like - ie "color blind," all individuals are basically the same, they must conform to some kind of model of "Frenchness," etc. Its not for nothing that neo-cons are often called "Jacobins," as too are those who favor a centralized state-model in France.

The French republican ideal is simply incapable of dealing with a multi-ethnic society, and as such, I think it has to be rethought to provide a more flexible, decentralized polity. (and I don't mean in terms of economics, I'm going deeper here) Actually, although Sarkozy is an opportunist and a thug, he actually has some ideas along these lines. From an outsider's perspective, Sarkozy actually talks some sense - in terms of his willingness to challenge "laicite" fundamentalism (which to American center-leftist, seems to be a ridiculously dogmatic policy) and to suggest affirmative action programs for Arabs and Africans.

As to the French left, I think tyrone is being slightly unfair. As some above point out, the left has not really been in power much since WW II. And under Mitterand, there were some sensible moves to devolve power away from Paris and towards the regions. Likewise, as Jerome notes, when Jospin was PM, he made some common-sense policing reforms, devolving police responsibility to a local level, which Sarkozy has since repealed.

The French left's problem is that is deeply divided between social liberals (basically, people who pursue ideas like the American Democratic Party, although this analogy isn't great, or perhaps the British Liberal Democrats) and anti-capitalists, who reject capitalism out-and-out. While many of these folks are in the Communist Party and various Marxist-type offshoots, there are a fair contingent within the Socialist Party itself. Witness the split over the referendum. If I had to take a guess, I would say that the second contingent is much larger. Thus, it becomes very difficult for the French left to get into power, and is the main reason why Le Pen was able to get into the 2nd round in 2002 (because the left split so many different ways). IMO, the near future for the left is not auspicious, because so many within the "left" refuse to countenance compromise with capitalism. As such, I wouldn't be surprised to see Le Pen and Sarkozy get into the second round in '02. Basically, the left can't get a substantive and dramatic challenge to the status quo together because too many of its voters and adherents are too wedded to it - in other words, to being anti-capitalists in a world where anti-capitalism is bankrupt. (no pun intended) Or, at the very least, it has no realisitc opportunity of presenting a candidate who will win over the nation's voters as a whole.

Fundamentally, I think it is going to take Sarkozy winning in '07 before enough people wake up. Sarkozy's brilliance is that he presents himself as the man with no-nonsense solutions to what pretty much most folks in France recognize is something of a societal malaise. I think there are other folks who can/could offer such a strategy of "rupture" outside of the right, but the above circumstances make it very hard for such alternatives to emerge. Because non-right wing politicians simply don't have a constituency for a kind of politics that would attack traditional shibboleths.

Of course, this is only the beginning of a conversation. There is much I have left out - about the nature of the American underclass versus the French underclass, the nature of immigration in both socieities (as well as other as in other European countries), a more detailed reading of French history and the development of democracy and the republican ideal. Hopefully, we can get to this in the comments.

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Well, if we're going to have Barroso, Blair, Sarkozy, Merkel, Berlusconi and Kaczynski calling the shots in Europe in 2007, I'm about ready to give up.

This is an excellent diary and we need a serious debate on what an "enlightened" approach to multiculturalism would be.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Nov 4th, 2005 at 04:17:49 AM EST
I responded to Migeru in the other thread, but will copy it here, as it is highly relevant.


the French "Republican Principle" and its inability to accomodate true ethnic diversity.

That "inability" thing is crap, and it is only coming from our current inability to look at thing beyond the next quarterly figures. Integration takes place over generations, and France is doing just as well as it did with Poles and Italians and others in previous generations. It's just that we now see Poles and Italians as fully integrated and don't remember the problems back then, and we see the more recent North African immigrants are only partly integrated and as a "problem".

Here's one graph, I fully intend to come back with more:

This shows that while there are real differences between immigrants and natives, there are almost none between sons (in this graph, but this also applies to daughters) of immigrants and sons of natives.


In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Nov 4th, 2005 at 04:32:14 AM EST
Mec, you actually have the data at your fingertips to inform any debate.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Nov 4th, 2005 at 04:35:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
These are 1999 figures for people aged 30-59. In other words people born between 1940 and 1969 to immigrant parents. Considering the patterns of French immigration I strongly suspect the majority are white, probably a large majority - Poles, Jews, Italians, Spaniards, etc.  In this case the stat of 'children of immigrants' is not a useful proxy for non-white. Btw. do you know how Arab Algerian pre-independence immigrants are counted in these stats - i.e. are they considered immigrants or not?
by MarekNYC on Fri Nov 4th, 2005 at 04:51:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Except that even today you have more "immigrants" coming from Club Med countries (Spain, Portugal, mostly) than from North Africa.

I WILL get more data, but it takes time to collect. All the studies I have seen point towards the fact that, adjusted for income levels, immigrants do just as well, if not better, than natives. The catch is of course that immigrants are more heavily represented in the lower rungs.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Nov 4th, 2005 at 05:05:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I would agree to that, as it follows my own observations... Second generation immigrants are french, feel french and are happy... when their income is average. But the lumpen proletariat is more heavily distributed among those immigrants.. As usual (There was the Yugoslavian's era and even the Russians a few years ago, but the sheer numbers were very low)!

"What can I do, What can I write, Against the fall of Night". A.E. Housman
by margouillat (hemidactylus(dot)frenatus(at)wanadoo(dot)fr) on Fri Nov 4th, 2005 at 05:56:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
All the studies I have seen point towards the fact that, adjusted for income levels, immigrants do just as well, if not better, than natives.

 The question is not whether immigrants do ok but whether racial minorities are being integrated. Therefore studies looking at immigrants in general are not relevant. Drawing conclusions about the situation of racial minorities in France by looking at studies on immigrants makes no more sense than arguing about the situation of racial minorities in America based on studies on the American population as a whole. The closest you could get, I imagine, would be a study looking specifically at children of immigrants from North Africa.

by MarekNYC on Fri Nov 4th, 2005 at 01:52:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
8 days of riots and look up Jospin on google and you get a very tedious comment on EDF privatization:

Lionel Jospin a accusé jeudi Dominique de Villepin de commettre une "faute majeure" en ouvrant le capital d'EDF, dénonçant par ailleurs un gouvernement "étroitement lié aux grands milieux économiques" et inspiré par "le libéralisme économique".
"C'est une faute majeure qui risque d'être commise" avec la privatisation partielle d'EDF, a prévenu Lionel Jospin lors de l'émission "Question ouverte" sur France-2. "Derrière le dossier EDF, il y a le dossier nucléaire (...) et ça, seule une très grande entreprise publique peux l'assumer. Il y va aussi de notre indépendance nationale", a-t-il fait valoir.

That's going to rally the people and set old Sarkozy on his ear. Unable to speak directly to the people indeed! Why he sounds Presidential, Chirac-ean even.

by citizen k (sansracine yahoo.fr) on Fri Nov 4th, 2005 at 09:54:20 AM EST
He said that at least one week ago. It was discussed here, I think (check the "Breakfast" threads - and I did one story on his interview as well).

And are you saying that we should speak about nothing but the "riots" in France? They were not even the first item in the news in the past few days - they seem to have caught the attention of the rest of the world more than that of the French, for some strange reason. (Denial, you will presumably say)

and EDF, as the service public par execellence, is pretty directly relevant to what the State could or should do in semi-abandoned areas.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Nov 4th, 2005 at 06:39:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think Sarkozy was right - Jospin cannot talk to the people and confront directly their experiences. He is a Kerry, an out-of-touch bureaucrat mumbling the ponderous phrases of his class.

He needs to stop worrying about what changes he would make to the drapery in the Presidential Palace and stop delegating to the porte-paroles (another great french phrase) and he could do worse than imitate
some predecessors like Juares:

"Je n'ai jamais séparé la République des idées de justice sociale sans lesquelles elle n'est qu'un mot"
by citizen k (sansracine yahoo.fr) on Fri Nov 4th, 2005 at 08:40:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What's that fascination for (incompetent) opportunistic populists vs competent bores? I take it that this is a vice our countries indulge in as long as they feel rich enough - until crisis really strikes and you need someone serious to clean um the mess. Italy is getting there with Prodi vs Berlusconi; it seems that neither France nor the USA are ready yet for sanity - heck the USa are closerto it than we are.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Nov 5th, 2005 at 03:05:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You are confusing bureaucratic and political competence. The failure of the Kerrys, Dukakiss, Jospins, Blairs, and so on is that they define "the left" as the administration of power by self-satisifed bureaucracies. They offer no real path for the poor, they have no social justice agenda, and the good things they do are easily swept away when they loose hold - like the neighborhood cops of Clinton and Jospin. I didn't put Clinton on that list because, in spite of himself, Clinton sometimes (rarely) veered into substantiality. But I think it tells us a lot about the problem of the French left that a smart observer like you would refer to Jaures as an "incompetent populist" and not understand the critical importance of Sarkozy's taunt. Juares was the only major socialist european leader to keep his head and his principles before WWWI. The rest succumbed to the temptations that we have seen here in the US with the Iraq war - the temptations of identifying with power and the state. You can say that the riots are not riots, you can say that Jospin's leaden rhetoric is something more than another helping of Mitterand's Vichy monologue, but the cars still burn, the unemployed still join extremist groups because the "left" has abandoned them, and the Chiracs still hold power.
by citizen k (sansracine yahoo.fr) on Sat Nov 5th, 2005 at 09:17:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I am sorry I did not make that clearer, but i certainly do not put Jaurès in the incompetent populist category. In his time, that would be Jules Guesde.

On the other hand, I would put Blair in that category, for sure. Spin over substance. Jaures is that rare breed of a politician having both substance and style, but absnt both, I'd rather have substance than spin, hence Jospin rather than Blair or Sarkozy. And personally, I am happy with the style of Jospin. Jospin did nopt abandon the unemployed, but the "left" did abandon Jospin, in their usual quest for the perfect utopia. And they got Chirac. Adn they seem not to have learnt a thing from that.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Nov 5th, 2005 at 05:04:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
They were not even the first item in the news in the past few days

Maybe not in every outlet, but on Thursday night on France 2 (tj 20 h) the first ten minutes of the broadcast (at least) were devoted to the riots.

As to the French left, Jospin does strike me as a bit bloodless. On the other hand, and I know you don't like him because his position on the EU, I saw Fabius speak quite well to the situation in an interview after the France 2 news on Thursday evening. Fabius strikes me as a more interesting and bold politician, frankly.

Ben P

by Ben P (wbp@u.washington.edu) on Fri Nov 4th, 2005 at 10:39:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
On TV yes, of course. As I said, burning cars make for good TV (and the France 2 people got their car burnt, so that must have impacted them... But on radio, there has been some perspective.

Fabius is a smart guy, but I will never listen to him again after the lies and the shameless opportunistic stunt he played last year. Should it be Le Pen vs Fabius, I won't vote. It's that bad. Enough with the shameless liars.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Nov 5th, 2005 at 03:08:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Here I agree with Jerome. Fabius stabbed the PS in the back in order to try to move up the list. He is a clown.
by citizen k (sansracine yahoo.fr) on Sat Nov 5th, 2005 at 10:17:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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