The riots are just a symptom

The poverty and joblessness that helped spark France's recent mayhem stem from rigid labour laws and a too-powerful state

MICHAEL PETROU November 21 2005

The riots are just a symptom

The poverty and joblessness that helped spark France's recent mayhem stem from rigid labour laws and a too-powerful state

MICHAEL PETROU November 21 2005

The riots are just a symptom


The poverty and joblessness that helped spark France's recent mayhem stem from rigid labour laws and a too-powerful state


After waiting 15 minutes for a waiter in a bustling restaurant in Paris’s Latin Quarter, Jean-Marc Dreyfus, a 37-year-old French professional, decides the establishment is a good metaphor for what’s wrong with France. The place is clearly understaffed. Two men scuttle around trying to serve food and booze but can’t keep up with a growing crowd of patrons clamouring to hand over their money. More workers would improve service and bring in more cash. But Dreyfus says there’s little chance this will happen. France’s labour laws protect workers with jobs. It’s extremely difficult to fire somebody, so employers rarely take the risk of hiring more staff. “People with small businesses will say they could create two or three jobs, but they hesitate,” Dreyfus says. “They know if they take on these people and it doesn’t work out, they won’t be

able to get rid of them. So they use interns or overwork employees—anything to avoid hiring someone.”

Young Muslims may be rioting in the impoverished suburbs of France’s cities, but the country clearly has other—and not necessarily unconnected—problems. France’s rigid labour laws are just one aspect of a “social model” built around a powerful and centralized state. Almost six million French citizens are civil servants. That’s one quarter of the workforce—a higher ratio than in any other OECD country. In France, the most ambitious kids don’t go to university; they work and study for years to get into one of about 200 grandes écoles—the training ground for bureaucrats. And for good reason. Land a job in the civil service and you reap the benefits of France’s welfare state: 35-hour workweeks, seven weeks of paid vacation, a good pension,

and virtually no chance of ever getting fired.

Not everyone can work for the state, even in France. But some of these benefits are extended to other sectors of French society. Powerful unions, ready to strike at the drop of a hat, ensure that flexible labour reforms never get off the ground. French journalist AnneElizabeth Moutet describes strikes and demonstrations as a “national sport.” And in a country where political elites are endlessly terrified of U.S. movies and rock music, even lousy French artists are coddled. “We’ve created a generation of would-be artists,” Dreyfus says. “You have the same thing in England, the United States and Canada. They’re called waiters and waitresses. Here, they do nothing.”

It’s a sweet deal if you can get it. And because enough people think they can, many French citizens aren’t interested in change. A countrywide protest last month brought hundreds of thousands of workers onto the streets of Paris. It was difficult for most non-French journalists to cover, because no one knew what it was about. But Agnès Poirier, a journalist at the newspaper Libération, says a mass demonstration in the fall is an unofficially scheduled event known as la grève de la rentrée, because everyone is returning to school or work after summer vacations. “It’s a preemptive thing,” she told Maclean’s. “It’s a way of telling the government that we’re here, and if you try to mess around, we’ll demonstrate.” Demonstrators often say they’re fighting

‘When you’re looking for work, if you have black hair or an Arab name, you don’t have a chance’

against “Anglo-Saxon” economic models, or in favour of a more just society. Didier Hotte, a spokesman for the large and powerful Force Ouvrière union, said its members opposed flexible labour laws because this would destroy “the social links that exist between all levels of the population.” Dreyfus is a little more cynical. “We have a strong anti-globalization movement here. But people don’t join because they want to help the Third World. It’s because they are afraid of this flexibility.”

Those who benefit from France’s social model fight to keep it. But this same system condemns those outside its cushy cocoon. France’s jobless rate hovers around 10 per cent. It rises steadily for young people, many of whom linger in school well into their late 20s because they see no point in plunging into the labour market. This is bad enough. But if you’re young and Muslim, there’s little chance you’ll be enjoying state pensions, or seven weeks of paid vacation, anytime soon.

There are approximately six million Muslims in France—10 per cent of the population-most of whom are Arabs and Africans from France’s former colonies. Many have been in France for decades, but they live outside of mainstream French society, in a parallel universe of bleak housing estates, high unemployment, crime and racial discrimination. Around the time Dreyfus finally manages to speak to a waiter (an Irishman), thousands of these young Muslim men have been torching several hundred cars, a couple of supermarkets and a nursery school.

“You want to go where?” Jean, a cab driver, asks when directed to the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, the scene ofintense rioting. “That’s where all the shit is.” It doesn’t take Jean long to get fired up. “They’re savages!” he shouts, turning around in the driver’s seat. “There’s going to be a revolution, because the French are sick of this shit. They’re going to pick up the beurs [children of North Africans] by the seat of their pants and throw them out. Back to Algeria! Back to their countries!”

Jean’s anger abates, but he still won’t go to Clichy-sous-Bois. The next driver, a black man with an African accent, just laughs when asked to go to the suburbs. “Non. Non, merci? he says and drives off.

Once a cab finally gets there, it’s clear why no one wanted to drive into the area. Parisians often brag about the myriad of social services

‘They’re savages,’ yells one man. ‘There’s going to be a revolution because of this.’

supposedly available in France’s underprivileged neighbourhoods. “It’s not like the Bronx,” one man says. But in Clichy, the bottom windows of apartment buildings are broken, the walls covered in graffiti. Buses full of riot police line the roads, and more stand in phalanxes, behind their Plexiglas shields. “Well,

it is war,” the driver says as he drops me off.

There is some sort of commotion at a cluster of buildings. A group of about 50 riot police are gathered. “Bonsoir; mon petit? one says. It is not a friendly greeting. Amid the shells of cars burnt the previous night, gangs of teens are sneering at the rows of riot police on the other side of the street.

In a teahouse set back from the road, older men mutter and shake their heads. They say the police are racist, and that it’s impossible for anyone with an Arab name to get a job. But many are also disgusted with the young people. “What’s the point of burning cars?” asks George, a young shopkeeper originally from Lebanon, and one of the few Christians in Clichy. “That could be my car, my cousin’s car. It’s pointless.” George also blames the parents of the rioting teenagers. “They all have eight kids and are not responsible.” .

The shouting outside rises and falls. “If this keeps up, there will be civil war,” George says. He doesn’t want to give his real name; nor do any of the other adults. They say they’re afraid to speak on the record against the rioters, lest their cars or shops be the next to get destroyed. By now it is close to 9

p.m., and George advises me to leave. When the tea salon and next-door barbershop close for the evening, there will be no one left on the streets but aggressive teenagers looking for trouble and overworked riot police with short fuses.

The next day, in the suburb of Aulnay-sousBois, where dozens of cars and shops had been set ablaze overnight, a familiar scene is taking shape as teens and riot police eye each other from a distance. A group of men in their early 20s, one of whom is rolling a joint, is watching. Asked why young people are burning down their neighbourhood, “Coco” says police had fired a tear gas canister into a mosque in a nearby suburb. “It didn’t happen here, but we’re supporting them,” he says.

Mohammed, a black man, blames police racism. Others jump in and say they’re always getting slapped by police. Mohammed says that whenever Muslims are arrested, they’re never given food or, if they are fed, police spit on their plates. The young men say that the people who actually committed most of the arson are 14and 15-year-olds who call themselves “les killeurs desflics”— cop killers. “They’re young, but they’re angry, too,” Coco says.

Small groups of older men are also gathered on the sidewalk. Unlike Coco and his friends, dressed in jeans and baseball caps, they wear traditional loose-fitting shirts and trousers, and speak with softer voices. The kids burning the cars are “sick,” says one man who’s never had any problems with racist police. “There are good boys here, intelligent ones,” he continues. “But when you’re looking for a job, if you have black hair or an Arab name, you don’t have a chance.”

The French like to use the word “solidarity” a lot. Many think it’s a quality that sets their country apart from the naked capitalism of the British and Americans. But in reality, the French system is built on the solidarity of the privileged majority with itself. The restless youths in the suburbs surrounding most French towns don’t need more bureaucrats staffing “anti-discrimination agencies,” better public transport or another community centre. Whoever torched kindergartens, shot at police and beat an el-

'The suburbs are for foreigners/ says an immigrant from Lebanon. Td like to be French. But it’s impossible. Here I will always be a foreigner/

derly man to death in the recent riots needs to be thrown in jail. Those unable to get job interviews or rent apartments because they’re Arab or black need effective legal representation.

The rest need what generations of immigrants to North America have used to pull themselves out of poverty: jobs. This means relaxing labour laws so people can work parttime, full-time, more than 35 hours a week, or as work is available. If the French were really interested in improving the lot of their country’s Muslim and immigrant population, they’d rethink their restrictive social model and let those stuck in a purgatory of poverty and unemployment help themselves.

It’s unlikely to happen. Jean-Louis Debré, the president of the French parliament, dismissed his country’s rioters as “not part of our universe.” In the eyes of much of France, these sentiments apply not just to the rioters, but to the millions of ethnic minorities living just beyond the fashionable city centres.

The French right wants to deport these minorities altogether. The French left would rather keep them far from Paris’s sidewalk cafés and restaurants. No one wants to actually compete for jobs with them. “You’ve seen Paris, and you’ve seen the suburbs, and they’re not the same place,” says George, the shopkeeper from Lebanon who lives in the charred suburb ofClichy-sous-Bois. “The suburbs are for foreigners.” George has lived in France for 16 years. His family in Lebanon is dead. “I’d like to be French,” he says. “But it’s impossible. Here I will always be a foreigner.” M