France is Not Alone in Living Above a Volcano

In the past weeks, the violent and contagious Paris riots drew the attention of the world to the presence of a large mass of unemployed minority teens in France’s urban center. Many commentators have focused their responses on the lack of social integration of the country’s predominantly North African minorities. Offering a different interpretation, former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard contends that France is not alone: in the past thirty years, all of the developed countries of the world have undergone changes initiating a return of mass poverty and large classes of underprivileged and discontented citizens. According to Rocard, the differences for France are located in demographics and geography, not minority rights. While critical of the current French government’s social policies, Rocard warns that the young and unemployed in other European countries “feel socially excluded and are, perhaps, just as prone to violent outbursts.” – YaleGlobal

France is Not Alone in Living Above a Volcano

Michel Rocard
Friday, November 18, 2005

As I write this, the French are still reeling from violent clashes with the police that have been going on for weeks in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities. At its peak, cars were being set afire 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 United States in the 1960s, and the riots in Liverpool in the United Kingdom in the early 1980s, as well as in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley in more recent years. Likewise, France had 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 during 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 parts of the population. In rich countries, mass poverty, which seemed to have been eliminated around 1980, 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 to 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 has been reinforced.

France is now experiencing a practical demonstration of this insane and totally inefficient policy, with Interior Minister 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 prime minister of France and leader of the Socialist Party, is a member of the European Parliament. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (

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