Oh for those peaceful days of the ’50s and ’60s

There’s a letter in today’s (UK-based) Daily Telegraph by that famous KGB-defector and media-darling, Oleg Gordiesvsky:

Sir – France always had a cult of revolution. The French public fully supported extremist political parties, Communists and Trotskyists, which had political violence as an integral part of their programmes.

Now they are reaping the fruits of it.

Oleg Gordievsky, London WC1

It’s not so much that this letter is wrong on its facts that I take issue with, it’s the “now they are reaping the fruits of it”, as if until now politics in France had been like a Scandinavian country run by clones of Sir Geoffrey Howe permanently drugged to the eyeballs on Mogadon.

It’s true that the last 30 years of French history have been relatively peaceful, but we’ve still had numerous motorway blockades, McDonald burnings (as an aside, by a man who became a folk-hero, though the story is rather more complex that it seems, as with much of French agricultural legend).

But the 30 years before that, ie 1945-1975, saw one of the least peaceful periods in any western country’s recent political history. The political instability of the fourth republic, with its weak centre and powerful extremes, the constant blow-back from Algeria, leading to a near-attempted coup d’etat in 1958 and 1962 by rogue Army elements, and what basically was an actual, if legal, coup d’etat by De Gaulle, whose Presidency was blighted by continual terrorism and assassination attempts, and nearing the end with the (probably least violent, but most well-known today of French protests) 1968 riots, when months later bodies of those shot dead by the security forces were still be found in the Seine. Oh and De Gaulle had fled to Germany at the height of it all. Most of this can be read in more (if not particularly illuminating) detail here.

It’s not all so silly in The Telegraph. A better letter (though I wouldn’t agree with all of it) notes the idiocy of Mark Steyn, their star columnist, who has argued that this is what multi-culturalism gets you.

Sir – Mark Steyn, in his enthusiasm to link France’s current unrest (and Europe’s apparently imminent doom) to multiculturalism appears to have forgotten that France has been consistently and stridently opposed to multiculturalism, disparaged by Left and Right alike as “le communautairisme à l’anglo-saxon… this conception of citizenship is deeply problematic; it means the French state is incapable of acknowledging that the present crisis is connected to years of topographical, economic and social marginalisation along patently ethnic lines. This, ironically, puts it in rather the same position as those, such as Mr Steyn, who would denounce its supposed indulgence of multiculturalism as being somehow a factor behind the violence.

W. L. Duffy, West End, Queensland, Australia

3 thoughts on “Oh for those peaceful days of the ’50s and ’60s

  1. Dieu merci! Finally, AFOE lives up to its usually balanced views on what happens in Europe and in the World. Of course, what happens in France since 13 days, is no islamic, nor even ethnic, conspiracy to destabilise the French state or the European Union.

    Olivier Roy, writer of an authorative book on the Western roots of islamist radicalism, analyses as follows what is happening, today in the OpEd contributors section of the New York Times (09 Oct 2005):

    ” …the reality is that there is nothing particularly Muslim, or even French, about the violence. Rather, we are witnessing the temporary rising up of one small part of a Western underclass culture that reaches from Paris to London to Los Angeles and beyond.”
    And Roy continues:
    “They express simmering anger fueled by unemployment and racism. The lesson, then, is that while these riots originate in areas largely populated by immigrants of Islamic heritage, they have little to do with the wrath of a Muslim community.”

    Solutions, i.e. emancipatory trajectories, exist and have proven their viability, in France and in other parts of Europe, but they are not market-driven (although they drive the market, create new ones) and they take usually more than 5 years of intervention into the areas by independent task-forces. This kind of destructive and hopeless rebellions will continue to occur, in Europe and elsewhere, as long as generations of people are being socially marginalised, because of their temporary uselessness in the actual industrial conditions. Roy:

    “Just look at the newspaper photographs: the young men wear the same hooded sweatshirts, listen to similar music and use slang in the same way as their counterparts in Los Angeles or Washington. (It is no accident that in French-dubbed versions of Hollywood films, African-American characters usually speak with the accent heard in the Paris banlieues).”

    They are, what was called in the 19th century the “Lumpen Proletariat”, i.e. those who destroyed from time to time new machines that needed less human labour, in their own workplaces. Nothing new under the sun. Roy describes this as follows:

    “Nobody should be surprised that efforts by the government to find “community leaders” have had little success. There are no leaders in these areas for a very simple reason: there is no community in the neighborhoods. Traditional parental control has disappeared and many Muslim families are headed by a single parent. Elders, imams and social workers have lost control. Paradoxically, the youths themselves are often the providers of local social rules, based on aggressive manhood, control of the streets, defense of a territory. Americans (and critics of America in Europe) may see in these riots echoes of the black separatism that fueled the violence in Harlem and Watts in the 1960’s. But the French youths are not fighting to be recognized as a minority group, either ethnic or religious; they want to be accepted as full citizens. They have believed in the French model (individual integration through citizenship) but feel cheated because of their social and economic exclusion. Hence they destroy what they see as the tools of failed social promotion: schools, social welfare offices, gymnasiums. Disappointment leads to nihilism. For many, fighting the police is some sort of a game, and a rite of passage.”

    In France, at least theoretically, exists (like in the U.S.A.) an egality of citizens by law. Elsewhere, this notion is less clear. In Holland, for instance, full citizenship has been made dependent on “integration”. But, those who fulfill the conditions and actually f e e l integrated, are, like in France, not accepted as such, in spite of their efforts. This capture within a no-win situation, causes rage and nihilism. From an economic view on sustainability, a relatively small investment into coordinated support of social emancipation, should be considered as an extremely sure and beneficial expense.

    But, every time these kind of rebellions happen, authorities launch expensive window dressing programmes of huge investments into local hardware and/or into security measures of a repressive kind, that irritate the inhabitants, destroy local small economic initiatives and are abandoned midway for other priorities. Leaving behind people who feel all the more frustrated and destroying any social networks and local knowledge and know-how that may have been accumulated.

    These problems of modern economy are too sensible to be left in the hands of people who are motivated primarily by their short term political ambitions, like Sarkozy in France. Nor to his rightwing opponents, who are only motivated by a desire to get rid of this populist, and not to seek a sustainable solution to this “fracture sociale”, although (as an editorial in “Le Monde” pointed out two days ago) this fracture sociale was a top priority of presidential candidate Chirac in 1995.

    More sensible policies are being proposed by local mayors, left- and right-wing confounded, and one can only hope, that they will be heard, this time.

  2. “the (probably least violent, but most well-known today of French protests) 1968 riots, when months later bodies of those shot dead by the security forces were still be found in the Seine.”

    Are you sure you aren’t mixing this up with the 1962 (iirc) Algerian demonstrations in Paris, in which hundreds of protestors were indeed killed? I recently read Judt’s _Postwar_, and I don’t recall anything in it about bodies being fished from the Seine after the 1968 events, though I could be wrong.

  3. I agree with your general analysis, but both you and the comment above are confusing different events here. To clarify:

    The now notorious demonstration after which bodies of Algerians were found in the Seine was on 17 October 1961. There was also a antiwar demonstration in February 1962 on which nine demonstrators – all French and mostly Communists -were killed by the police, though this happened at Charonne metro station, not on the banks of the Seine. However ‘Charonne’ is often confused in popular French memory with 17 October 1961 because it was much more widely publicised at the time. There were a few deaths in May ’68, but no bodies found in the Seine.

Comments are closed.