March 25, 2006

More France

An unusually blunt and bleak piece about France's latest woes at the Washington Post:
This is the second time in four months that France has been seized with violent protests. And in an important sense, these are counter-riots, since the goals of the privileged students conflict with those of the suburban rioters who took to the streets last November. The message of the suburban rioters: Things must change. The message of the students: Things must stay the same. In other words: Screw the immigrants.
I feel a bit foolish for thinking this, but I can't help but think that there's a real chance that France's civil unrest might, in the not-so-distant future, turn into an actual civil war. This could, perhaps, qualify as another absurd belief.... But the mix of ingredients in French society is unquestionably volatile:
  • An elite clinging to outmoded social structures, failed policies, a rigid language, and past glories.
  • A national proclivity towards revolutionary convulsions (how many Republics per century is optimal?)
  • A political class trained to manipulate the mob
  • A persitent underclass of unassimilated immigrants who, rightly, feel excluded from the social protections of the state
  • A strong, organized network of radicals who swim within the unassimilated sea, preach extreme religion, and receive support from foreign governments
  • A brewing generational conflict between the older (more native) French who benefit from the social policies and the younger (more immigrant) French who will be asked to bear the cost, with no hope of reaping the same pay out
  • Spoiled students who believe their "resistance" links them to the revolutionaries of '68 when their insistence on the status quo and sense of entitlement makes aristocratic reactionaries a better analogy.
Perhaps I'm just in a pessimistic mood and France is certainly not alone in any of these issues. But I believe it's likely they will either have a Thatcherite revolution or mass civil conflict. For now, the prospects for a French Thatcher do not seem good.... Posted by richard at March 25, 2006 09:32 PM

This is not only absurd, but foolish. Yes, France has issues, but please, this latest protest is just about spoiled students fearing they will have to earn a paycheck. I don't think it's the precursor to civil war. Can we try to stay within the realm of reason, please?

Posted by: Mike F. at March 27, 2006 01:44 PM

Mike, I didn't mean that these particular riots are going to turn into a civil war. By themselves they are exactly what you say.

I just think the overall situation looks like it could head towards something bad if no one shows up to lead the country.

Their system will collapse under its own weight (and the weight of demography) if they don't fix it. And there are a lot of people from the nativist hard-right, to the communist left, to the Iranian- and Saudi-backed Islamists who want nothing more than to capitalize on it if it does. They all look more likely to dig in their heels than compromise.

I think that a lot of the social policies can get twisted into an us vs. them mentality, especially by the nativists.

I'm not saying it's a done deal or anything, but this is a country where things regularly get decided by how much of a mess of things you can make (see trucker unions on highways).

I'm just worried it will get a lot bloodier before it gets better. Call me foolish....

Posted by: richard at March 27, 2006 03:35 PM

He's no Margaret Thatcher, but de Villepin does seem to be sticking to his guns on this point. Maybe he gets voted out of power for it — on my "voters hate the strong medicine" theory — but you have to give him credit for having a decidely Un-French Moment here.

I think what we're seeing is that France is finally being subjected to the indignities of actual economic competition, as the combined vestiges of earlier colonialism and international clout (UN Security Council member, founding member of the EU) are affording them fewer and fewer privileges — to the point where they're willing to cut sweetheart deals with the likes of Saddam Hussein to get an economic advantage.

To the extent that France has wielded economic power, it has done so derivatively, because it had political power. Failing that, it's been sneaky (Oil-for-Food). In desperate times, it falls back on protectionism, emphasizing the signature French products that they've given the world.

Well, now the French will be tried on their merits, and with Eastern Europe rising producers and India, Russia, and China rising consumers, they're going to feel a pinch. There's only so much camembert and champagne you can sell (particularly if our redneck Congress has anything to say about it).

Anyway, I would agree with an assessment of "France at a Crossroads" (borrowing a title phrase from every third Economist cover). Some well-heeled, legitimate economic and social reforms are needed, or there will be an ongoing security problem.

Civil war? I dunno. I don't see the EU allowing it. There would be an awful irony to the Germans sending troops to France to save it from itself, and I should hope the French pull out all the stops to preempt that kind of situation before it could develop.

It seems to me that France tends to respond to pressures economic and social by simply asserting some kind of national privilege. The problem is that the European Community (and the world community, too) is less and less willing to play favorites. Something has to give, and maybe policymakers over there have finally caught on.

You have to admire these rare moments of leadership, when a government has the right answer and does not shrink (so far, anyway) from administering it to the angry, entitled mobs. The key is for enough of the population to appreciate the effort, so that the reforms can keep coming.

Posted by: Phutatorius at March 27, 2006 04:37 PM

Okay, perhaps I went too far describing it as "civil war". Perhaps I can backtrack a bit and replace it with something along the lines of "civil conflict of a scale as great, if not greater than, May '68".

Would I be foolish to predict a "general insurrection" in France in the next 10 years?

Posted by: richard at March 27, 2006 07:26 PM