Wednesday, November 30, 2005

# Posted 11:30 AM by Patrick Belton  

BANLIEUE POSTMORTEM: There's a great bit, I think, somewhat self-interestedly, to be written about how the French government is dealing with its banlieues in the aftermath of the riots, and how the debates over just how to do this are altering the political landscape and power dynamics within it. A few possible themes, if I could lay out several thoughts in bullet form:

* The responses have kept within the inclinations of each member of France's triumvirate, each acting within their brief. Chirac has said or done little; Villepin has responded bureaucratically, proposing a governmental agency charged with promoting equal opportunity (legislation will be presented to the Council of Ministers in late December) and a programme of voluntary civil service for youth (the age at which school leavers can now begin apprenticeships drops from 16 to 14 in an initiative incorrectly attributed in some newspapers to Chirac but also a Villepin initiative); Sarkozy, in what for him is now a trademark political trope, has coupled a firm law-and-order line ('the best prevention is certainty crime will be punished') with previously heterodox political solutions lifted from the Anglo-American world (notably, aggressive affirmative action for banlieue youth within the civil service, fire and police brigades, and post-school Prepa programmes preparatory to admission to the Grandes Ecoles; affirmative action till now had been considered as contravening republican egalite.) Sarkozy's strength and much of his political appeal has always lain in proposing flagship 'left' policies (affirmative action, abolition of 'double punishment' or 'double peine' for immigrant delinquents, right to vote in local elections for immigrants) with a very 'right' law-and-order discourse; it has so far worked, and he continues to do so now.

* The political implications of the banlieue response are, first, to reinforce Chirac's passing as an effective political actor; Le Monde ran pieces on the 28th and the 29th to criticise his silence, comment upon his recent infirmity, and mock a 10 Nov. gaffe where after a substantial silence on the banlieues he said 'I will have time (e.g.: biological? political? merely personal?) to share with you my reflections.' Second, the Sarkozy revolution, like the French revolution before it, will have won its most profound victory in causing even its opponents to use its language to oppose it. Villepin, the embodiment of a poetry-writing, cultured, hyper-establishment Enarque, has now caught up with the renegade pro-American Sarkozy in polls - but by adopting his rhetoric of radical change (see, for instance, his CNN interview of last night, in which he accepted Christiane Amanpour's contention France 'has a very serious social malaise, a very serious social problem that requires dramatic solutions'). It's comparatively easy to misunderestimate Villepin's political talents and assets (as Figaro's editorialist did on the 25th): he is rather dashing, a poet, and a brilliant speaker (though he has toned down the latter two to respond to Sarkozy's counterestablishment appeal), enjoying full Chirac support and poll ratings which have topped Sarkozy's. But it is by adopting Sarkozy's language of substantial reform that he has drawn even with his rival.

* That both France's prospective dauphins are running from a position of revolutionary change is telling, marking the final dropping off in a tradition of French political deference whose origins were rooted in the titanic figure of De Gaulle, whom the early Mitterand emulated with some success, though now the remaining political capital of the Elysee under the strong-presidentialist Fifth Republic is spent down after the disappointing performance of Chirac. The final decline of France’s confidence in its political estate is a play in three acts. The first is the Chirac-Le Pen electoral contest of 2002, where a candidate from far outside the political pale landed in the final runoff thanks to protest voting. The second is the ‘Non’ vote of 29 May of this year, drawing equally from those holding opposing viewpoints regarding Europe and market liberalisation, being at root similarly a vote against the governing establishment. The third is playing out now.

* The broad themes of the moment are that France now stands at a crossroads, both in the philosophical evolution of its colourblind republicanism made now to confront a discontented and underprivileged minority population (q.v. imported affirmative action solutions versus those based on the traditional but increasingly debilitated integrationist model), and also between rhetoric and programmes associated with establishment and counterestablishment solutions (q.v. programmatically, between the introduction of new state bureaucracies as part of Villepin's Plan Banlieue, vs Sarkozian vast liberal market reforms to reduce unemployment; and rhetorically, between the contrast made by Villepin's traditionalist republican rhetoric against both Sarkozy's synthesis between republican tropes and the influence of market or multicultural approaches from outside France, in his 2004 book La Republique, Les Religions, L'Esperance and subsequently; and the strongly critical language of Nicolas Baverez's La France Qui Tombe (2003)). note to self: write better sentences

* From this point forward, Villepin's main strength is that he runs the government, Sarkozy's that he runs the leading party - the UMP, which he wrested from Chirac last year. Historically, party control has proven more important than government control in winning elections: the main example is Chirac vs Balladur in 1995, when Balladur, then PM and encouraged by high poll ratings, ran for President without the RPR's (the then-Gaullist party's) backing but was overtaken by Chirac, who came from far behind thanks to his control of the RPR. Since an anti-corruption measure passed the early 90s, parties are subsidised by the State, and wealthy, especially the UMP (due to its overwhelming parliamentary majority). Parties are very much in France vehicles to support a man, are dissolved and recreated very easily, and have sparse roots in the general population, membership being more restricted than in English-speaking countries or Germany. All this stands in Sarkozy's favour so far.

* From the notebook, a possible lead graph set aside for future use - For 22 days between 27 October to 17 November, Paris burned. It has before: its riots in 1848 urged the values of Republic and modernity against Bourbon restorationism; 1968's were then the streetfights of postmodernity, pitting power against a liberal discourse which had obscured it, and in the process splintering the Sorbonne. The epochs of the world are birthed on the barricades of the Left Bank: in 2005, what giant slouches there to be born? (This remains to be seen - then move into France at a philosophical and political crossroads)
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