Emmanuel Todd, the man who predicted the end of the Soviet Empire before anyone else (and for the right reasons), whose ideas on the French "social fracture" 10 years ago were used by Chirac in his successful campaign to be elected president (and then ignored when he was in power), and whose book After the Empire : The Breakdown of the American Order
is a must read to understand the Bush White House, has been interviewed in Le Monde
about the current events in the French banlieues. It is a fascinating read, and I provide below a full translation.
First, as an appetiser, the summary of his "After the Empire" book on Amazon:
A bestseller in Europe, this provocative but erratic manifesto stands Euro-anxiety about American hegemony on its head. French demographer Todd (The Final Fall: An Essay on the Decomposition of the Soviet Sphere) cites Paul Kennedy's theory of imperial overstretch and Michael Lind's notion of the American overclass to paint America as a "predatory" but weakening empire, its unilateralism and militarism a sign of frailty, not strength. Misguided free trade policies, he contends, have hollowed out America's industrial base and decimated its working and middle classes, polarizing the country into a society of plutocrats and plebeians. Dependent on imports, America has degenerated into a parasitic, Keynesian consumer-of-last-resort, injecting demand into the world economy while producing nothing of value. To mask its decline, America pursues a foreign policy of "theatrical micromilitarism," picking fights with helpless Third World countries like Iraq to convince the world's real power centers-Europe, Japan and Russia-of its military prowess and validate its spurious image as global policeman.
And now the interview. Translation - and all associated errors mine.
Q - In 1995, you analyzed the "social fracture", an expression which then presidential candidate Jacques Chirac used successfully for his presidential campaign. Ten years afterwards, where are we?
A- The expression "social fracture" is not mine. It is from Marcel Gauchet, but it is invariably attributed to me. I've given up fighting that. In a note of the Saint-Simon Foundation, at the time, I had described the reappearance of the popular forces after the collapse of Communism, by noting that blue collar workers and employees still accounted for 50 % of the population. From census information, it appeared that the idea from Giscard d'Estaing that "two French out of three" were in the middle class was not true. Between two elections, the political community is regularly blinded by the opinion polls, which reflect the biases of the upper classes. That gave us the polls which showed that Balladur would be elected, or that the referendums on Europe would pass easily... It is only during the election campaigns that the popular classes weke up gradually. Each one then believes to see a change of mood of the electorate, when it is only, in fact, the emergence of the popular classes: the opinion of the people who do not have an opinion on everything constantly. For ten years, poll after poll, the alienation of the working and popular classes with regard to the leading class in the broad sense has only grown: the results of the last referendum of May 29 on Europe demonstrated it again.
Q - Are violences in the French suburbs a consequence of this alienation?
A - In recent years, the French political life has been a succession of catastrophes which have left the foreign observers increasingly amazed and agog. The first catastrophe is the presidential vote in 2002, with a first round which brings the extreme right in the top two candidates and a second round where Jacques Chirac is elected with more than 80 % of the votes. The second catastrophe, if one places oneself from the point of view of the leading classes, is the referendum on Europe. For months, all the commentators were convinced that yes was going to pass and, at the end, the "non" won easily. Shock, surprise, despair. The leading classes just start to fall asleep again, while trying to convince themselves that the situation is become again stable, when occurs the third catastrophe: this crisis of the suburbs (which no one knows yet if it is finished). And, each time, the delegitimation of the leading classes becomes more obvious.
Q - Is the scenario of the catastrophes of which you speak always the same one?
Not, they do not involve the same groups. The Le Pen vote in 2002 is the old French popular vote which forms the heart of vote FN. With the referendum, you see the involvement of part of the middle class, that linked to the public sector, which I would call the petite bourgeoisie d'Etat (lower State bourgeoisie). The third catastrophe, that of the suburbs, bring into play other actors: young people from immigration. Those are still separated from the French popular classes for historical and cultural reasons, although they belong to the same world in social and economic terms. The three groups which I have just described have in common a deep antagonism with regard to the system and the upper classes.
On the other hand, one does not see any solidarity between them. For example, I remain persuaded that the two groups which produced the "non" victory in the referendum (the popular classes and the petite bourgeoisie d'Etat) have deeply divergent interests. The first are in rage against the statu quo, which means, for them, unemployment and falling wages in a world open to competition; the second wishes the maintenance of the statu quo, which leaves it sheltered from free trade and with a guarantee of employment.
Q - Is there an antagonism between these two categories and the third, that of the young people from immigration who burn cars?
A - It is very worrying to see burning cars, buses and nursery schools. And the things can still degenerate. Despite everything, I lean for a rather optimistic interpretation of what happened. I do not say this about the situation of the suburbs, which is by places disastrous, with rates of unemployment of 35 % amongst heads of family and of racial discriminations fro recruitment. But I do not see anything in the events themselves which radically separates the children of immigrants from the remainder of French society. I see the opposite exactly there. I interpret the events like a refusal of marginalisation. All of that could not have occurred if these children of immigrants had not interiorized some of the fundamental values of French society, of which, for example, the couple freedom-equality. As regards other actors, the government-managed police, the local authorities, the nonimmigrant population, I saw exasperation perhaps, but not rejection in block.
Q - Do you want to say that the young people revolt because they integrated the republican model and feel that it does not function?
A - Exactly. I read their revolt like an aspiration for equality. French society is facing a rise in inequality which touches the whole of the developed world. Rather well tolerated in the United States, where its only political effect is the success of neoconservatism, this planetary rise of inequality is resisted more in France. It comes down to some deep anthropological values which were in the heart of the country family structures of the Parisian agricultural basin. This underlying backbone of equality, which goes back to the XVIIth century, or even earlier, is not found at all in the English farming community, where the transmission of land was much more unequal.
When one is in the upper classes, one can be made do with the rise of the inequality, even if one is against it in principle: it is not too uncomfortable. On the other hand, the popular classes or the middle class live it very badly. That gives the Le Pen vote, which has a real component of equality, with a capacity to saying "fuck you" to the elites, and a component of inequality, with the idea of finding a scapegoat lower than oneself (the immigrant). As regards the kids of suburbs with African or North African origin, they are not at all in the same situation as the Pakistanis of England or the Turks of Germany. For instance, the rates of mixed marriages at the beginning of the years 1990 was already around 25 % for Algerian girls in France, whereas it was 1 % for the girls of Turkish origin in Germany and lower for those of Pakistani origins. The simple racial mix of the gangs of young people in France is impossible to conceive in Anglo-Saxon countries. Note that I do not want either to give an idyllic vision of a France of 1789 which would be in play, with the postulate of the universal man, this dream of the républicains ( ed - i.e the French secular model)
Q - What do you think of the reaction of the Republic vis-a-vis the riots?
A - I was not against the idea of a curfew in view of really worrying violences. As a whole, I find that the reaction of the police force and the government was very moderate. In May 1968, one shouted "CRS- SS ", but the police force showed exceptional control. At the time, the media of left said that the police had not used force because the middle-class did not want to kill its own children. Today, in the suburbs, one saw that the Republic did not shoot either at the children of immigrants. Those were not the only ones concerned. There was an effect of capillarity between all youths, even in the most remote French province. The first death, only indirectly linked with the events, brought an immediate drop in the level of violence. The foreign press which makes fun of France should contemplate this example.
I find of particular stupidity for Nicolas Sarkozy to insist on the foreign character of the young people involved in violences. I am convinced on the contrary that the phenomenon is typically French. The racially mixed young people of the Seine Saint-Denis fall under a tradition of social uprising which is frequent in French history. Their violence represents also the disintegration of the African and North African families in contact with the French values of equality. In particular equality of the women. Despite inevitable fits and starts, the second and the third generation of immigrants are integrated relatively well within the French popular classes, and some join the middle class or higher.
If I am not optimistic from the economic point of view as I think that the globalisation will weigh more and more on employment and wages, I am optimistic in the field of the political values. In terms of result, after these two weeks of riots, which does one see? These marginalized people, introduced like outsiders to society, succeeded through a movement which became national to have an impact in the political debate, obtaining changes in the policies of a right wing government (by forcing it to restore the subsidies to associations in the banlieues). And all that in reaction to a verbal provocation of the Minister of Interior which will undoubtedly realize that they have broken his career. One can be more marginal!
A lot of this is compatible, I think, with what I wrote last week (Paris 'riots': My aunt's building burned yesterday night) in that he focuses on economic and social factors and is not so pessimistic on the integration of these immigrants' kids into French society. It is also in line with my article from a few months back in the WSJ (Can Do France), which underlined the real strengths of the French economy while noting that it appeared to be failing because it was betraying some of the principles (i.e. equality provided by the State) that many citizens crave. The idea that the lower classes in France do not tolerate the growing unequality and feel betrayed by the elites which have stealthily encouraged such global trends inside France is a very important one. His description of the different subgroups that have been protesting is also essential and shows that tailoring a political message to reach all of them is not going to be easy, but one item stands out.
Globalisation reaps unequality.
Countries that appear the most successful today are either those that embrace and promote such inequality (in the name of efficiency - "a rising tide lifts all boats"), or those that fight it really (the Scandinavian model with its all-inclusive social net). Doing some half baked reforms does not work, or puts too much of the burden on parts of the underclass (those that have no access to any historical privilèges or that have to face insidious racism in addition), especially at a time when "refome" has become short hand for lower wages and fewer rights for workers. In France, only a few pay the "reforms", but all feel threatened, and this is not so well tolerated, as history shows. Thus the need to change the way the French elites have adapted (too well, as far as they were concerned, forgetting the rest of the country behind them), and the political party that will express this best could win in a landslide. Conversely, if it is ignored, it will feed the appeal of the destructive national-populists and could lead to more unrest
This is also relevant in the USA, I think. Inequality has not become yet a hot political topic, in part because it has not been identified as such, and because it has been historically tolerated as the counterparty to better opportunities. The political force that makes the case today that the "opportunity" side of the balance is no longer available to many could have a head start to work on the "inequality" concept, and bring in a political change favorable to the left.