As I write this, violent clashes with the police have been going on for nearly two weeks in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities, with cars being set on fire at a rate of nearly 1,000 per night. Why is this happening? How far can it go?
The existence of thousands of unemployed young people, without income or roots, idle and knowing only violence to express their quest for recognition, is not particularly French.
Everyone remembers the Watts, Newark and Detroit riots in the US in the 1960s, and the riots in Liverpool in the UK in the early 1980s, as well as in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley in recent years. Likewise, France witnessed riots in Vaux-en-Velin, near Lyon, 20 years ago. So it is important to distinguish what is common to many developed countries and what is specific to France.
All the developed economies have undergone profound changes over the last 30 years. We have gone from managerial to stockowner capitalism, from economies with large doses of state direction to far more deregulated markets, from the active and expansive social policies of the 1960s and 1970s to a world in which such spending is constantly shrinking.
Although wealth has been growing constantly -- GDP has more than doubled in the last 50 years -- the share of wages in the total has diminished by 10 percent, even while millions of the rich have become much richer.
Everywhere, this has meant massive pauperization of the least favored part of the population. In rich countries, mass poverty, which seemed to have been eliminated around the 1980s, has reappeared.
Access to good education, and even more so to the labor market, is increasingly restricted for many young people, especially those who come from poor or single-parent families or from minority ethnic backgrounds, languages or religions.
These people feel rejected and unrecognized. "Because they want to break us, we will break everything" is the motto that best expresses their mood. There are untold reservoirs of social violence in all of our lands.
But against this shared background, France exhibits some important distinctive features.
First, demography: for the last 50 years France has had much higher fertility rates than the rest of Europe -- 1.9 children per woman, compared with the European average of 1.6 and the German or Spanish rates of 1.3.
In Germany, every generation entering the labor market is smaller than the one exiting it. In France, by contrast, 200,000 to 300,000 more people enter the labor market than leave it in each generation -- and this does not include immigration, which, although slowing recently, represents a large number of job seekers. As rates of economic growth have declined, this has meant growing unemployment.
Then there is geography: France's massive urban concentration around the capital -- Paris and its suburbs contain nearly 20 percent of the population -- is unique in Europe. The sheer number of confused and disoriented young people has overwhelmed the French system's capacity to integrate them -- even though its capacity in this regard is, in fact, impressive.
Indeed, France has opened its public educational system to an extraordinary degree, refusing all group rights to minorities, but vigorously affirming personal rights, including full access to all social services, regardless of language, religion, or skin color.
The system is cracking, but only because of the limits of its absorptive capacity, not because of its core principles.
In these circumstances, every French politician has known for the last 20 years that France has been living with a growing risk that isolated incidents might coalesce into a critical mass of violence.
The task of social workers and police, therefore, is to try to resolve -- quickly and discreetly -- each particular incident, in order to dampen the revolt.
What needs to be done also has been well known since 20 years ago, when a nonpartisan report by a cross-party group of big-city mayors unanimously agreed on measures to be taken: efficient repression, highly developed social prevention, a permanent local police presence, and a renewed effort at reintegrating delinquents.
The difficulty with implementing this policy has been that its preventive aspects -- social support and reintegration of delinquents -- appear to the frightened population living in the affected areas as being "soft on crime" and overly generous.
But for the past three years, France has had a government that no longer believes that a socially oriented urban policy works. It believes only in repression and says so openly. As a result, local police forces have been reduced from 20,000 to 11,000, while the national riot police have been reinforced.
France is now experiencing a practical demonstration of this insane and totally inefficient policy, with Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy providing a telling illustration of the new orientation when he described the rebellious young as "scum." It was the proverbial match thrown by a careless smoker into a parched forest. The young responded with a vengeance to Sarkozy's provocation.
The main risk now is that events in the suburbs of large French cities will serve as an example to other young people, whether in the less urban areas of France or in other European countries, who feel socially excluded and are, perhaps, just as prone to violent outbursts.
Solving the problems underlying the French revolt will require time, discretion, mutual respect, community-based social and police work -- rather than a centralized, repressive approach -- and a lot of money. But France is by no means the only country that should be worried.
Michel Rocard, a former French prime minister and leader of the Socialist Party, is a member of the European Parliament.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
On Wednesday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a news conference via video link to announce a major strategic defense partnership, dubbed “AUKUS.” In an indication of the sensitivity and strategic weight attached to the pact, discussions were kept under wraps, with the announcement taking even seasoned military analysts by surprise. AUKUS represents a significant escalation of the transatlantic strategic tilt to the Indo-Pacific and should bring wider security benefits to the region, including Taiwan. At the forefront of the trilateral partnership is a bold plan to transfer highly sensitive US and
In an op-ed on Friday, Chen Hung-hui (陳宏煇), a former university military instructor, applauded the government’s efforts to reduce the “supply, demand and harm of cannabis.” (“Cannabis use booms on campuses,” Sept. 10, page 8). Chen recounted a story of a boy who partied with the “wrong crowd,” smoked cannabis and died. This story cannot be true, because cannabis is not deadly. Consuming too much can feel mighty unpleasant, but it will not kill a person. This fact is not only backed up by science and statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control, but is well-known in countries where cannabis
On Wednesday last week, the Transitional Justice Commission announced its plan to transform Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall into a park that would reflect Taiwan’s authoritarian past and its transition to democracy. This is a necessary step for the nation. Statues are powerful symbols of a glorious past and present; they represent an attempt of the past to reach into the future and allow for reflection on the past. However, as masters of the present, we must consider how future generations will look back to our days and the past that the generations collectively share. Taiwanese society is divided over the future
Bilateral relations between the US and China appear to be heading nowhere but down, but China’s leaders seem not to have given up on their broad-based push for a more cooperative relationship — yet. Late last year, when it became apparent that Joe Biden would succeed Donald Trump as US president, China’s leaders set in motion a plan to salvage relations with their greatest rival. In December, through public remarks from Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅), they offered the incoming administration a deal: If it would work to return the bilateral relationship to the “right track,” Beijing would