A year of turmoil for France and Chirac

Vaiju Naravane

Poor economic performance, high unemployment, racial tensions, rejection of the European Constitution - the French had little to cheer in 2005.

THE YEAR 2005 was one of rude awakening for France and an annus horribilis for its President, Jacques Chirac. The entire year was dogged by poor economic performance, persistently high unemployment figures, and a runaway public deficit well above the European Union's prescribed levels. France, it has become increasingly clear, is suffering from a collective depression characterised by a shrinking withdrawal from the challenges and opportunities thrown up by a fast moving, globalised world calling for quick, innovative responses, speed, mobility, and above all flexibility.

As the May 2005 referendum to ratify the European Constitution approached, calls went up to preserve the French "model" of high government subsidies for health and pensions, a 35-hour work week, job security, and generous unemployment benefits. And this, in the face of overwhelming evidence that the country, already living on borrowed money, would not be able to sustain those payments into the next decades and that today's working generations would be unable to shoulder the burden of a huge, ageing population.

The French President's first big jolt came when a convincing majority of the French (over 52 per cent) rejected the proposed constitution, describing it as a neo-liberal threat that would expose the French to unfair cut-throat competition from economies like those in Eastern Europe, where labour is considerably cheaper and taxation significantly lower than in France. President Chirac had staked his entire reputation on the success of the referendum, even going to the extent of describing those opposed to the project as "anti-European." The French public's firm rejection of the treaty cast a shadow on the last two years of his presidency with an increasing number of people questioning his ability and even right to lead the country.

Soon after the referendum, amid cries of foul play, Paris lost its bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games to London. Both Tony Blair and Mr. Chirac had made the journey to Singapore to present their respective projects. Mr. Chirac suffered from unfavourable comparisons with Mr. Blair who appeared articulate, dynamic, and young before his rather heavy-handed, old-fashioned rhetoric.

Another reversal in the shape of a mini-stroke quickly followed. The President's week-long hospitalisation and even longer stay away from the public eye finally dented what little hold he appeared to have left over the popular imagination. At 73, Mr. Chirac appeared both old and adrift, incapable of steering the ship of state.

His illness prompted a tough succession struggle between his Prime Minister and protégé, Dominique de Villepin, and the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who heads the ruling centre-right UMP party.

Rioting by immigrant youth

Political pundits began predicting a rough ride for Mr. Chirac should he attempt a third term in 2007. But not even the keenest political observer could have predicted the political earthquake that hit France last November, when bands of enraged suburban immigrant youth (mainly North African Arab and black) went on a three-week-long rampage to shake the French Republic to its very foundations.

The immediate cause of the rioting was the accidental death by electrocution of two teenagers fleeing police checks combined with anger over tasteless remarks by Mr. Sarkozy on how he would rid the suburbs of delinquent "scum." The sense of outrage in the large suburban ghettos surrounding the capital spilled out into the streets. It was an entire generation of youngsters shouting out its anger and despair at the step-motherly treatment at the hands of the Republic.

The three-week-long spree of violence and the French Government's rather ham fisted response brought in much criticism from abroad. It set off a national debate with intense soul searching on questions such as the values of the French Republic, immigration, and integration.

France is fiercely set against multiculturalism and does not recognise racial, religious or linguistic differences in its population. No statistics are kept about colour, religion or faith. Most French people would argue that one of the Republic's main virtues is that it is officially colour blind and secular. Under French law, every citizen has a right to equal treatment regardless of race, religion or sex and the census does not record a citizen's ethnicity. The civil service is not allowed to hire on the basis of background. State schools bar all students from wearing religious signs or clothing, whether it is the Jewish kippa, the Sikh turban or the Muslim headscarf.

But in reality there is a yawning gap between theory and practice. These egalitarian laws have failed to bridge the social gap and deliver equal economic opportunities to white and coloured: unemployment rates among France's Muslim and African minorities are twice the national average. In some of the riot-torn suburbs, with big immigrant populations, unemployment is running at up to 40 per cent, compared with 10 per cent among the population at large, which is predominantly white and Judeo-Christian.

In Parliament, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin made a rousing speech in defence of France's republican values: "France is not a country like others," he concluded. "It will never accept that citizens live separately, with different opportunities and with unequal futures. For more than two centuries, the republic has found a place for everyone by elevating the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. We must remain faithful to this promise and to republican demands."

The riots of 2005, the worst France has known since the student uprising of 1968, opened a veritable Pandora's Box. France was forced to acknowledge that despite its glorious laws, society remains deeply racist. Studies have revealed discrimination in almost all spheres from employment to housing to the way people are treated by administrative officials and the police. A person is often denied a job interview on the basis of his name and address. The same CV sent with a Christian or French-sounding name and with an inner city rather than suburban address elicits far more responses from prospective employers. The media revealed the plight of several immigrant families forced to live in cheap hotels because they could not find a flat to rent despite legal papers and job certificates.

Integration means more than just forcing immigrants to adopt French ways. The economic issues cannot be sufficiently emphasised, for it is only by working, earning money, and being financially independent that an immigrant can develop the self-respect and dignity needed to be a productive member of society. While France has insisted upon the cultural integration of immigrants, it has offered little opportunity for economic assimilation.

If the November riots brought these questions to the forefront, they also saw France moving further to the political right with a radicalisation of centrist voters. In a survey conducted just after the riots, 71 per cent of those questioned approved the tough measures adopted by the conservative government, while the popularity of Mr. Sarkozy soared. Another opinion poll indicated that the ideas of Jean-Marie le Pen, the leader of the nationalist, xenophobic extreme right National Front, were gaining currency at the centre.

A well known right wing Jewish thinker Alain Finkielkraut further set the cat among the pigeons by declaring in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the notions of political correctness and anti-racism were becoming as totalitarian as communist ideology. This, he said, was preventing a clear identification of the problem - that there was a group of individuals within French society Muslims and blacks, who were leading pogroms against the French republic.

His analysis triggered a heated debate in France, with anti-racist groups threatening to take him to court.

The controversy generated by Mr. Finkielkraut also trained the spotlight on another aspect of the problem: the deep sense of hurt and discrimination felt by people from France's former colonies in the West Indies. Eighteen months ago, right wing legislators whose constituents were mainly former French colonials in Algeria, inserted an amendment to a law on colonialism that called for a positive portrayal of France's presence overseas.

But the law, which sailed almost unnoticed through France's centre-right dominated parliament in February 2004, has been increasingly criticised by residents of overseas territories such as Guadeloupe or Martinique. Partly aimed at garnering support from far-right voters ahead of the 2007 presidential elections, the legislation has boomeranged and the government now appears to be backtracking. Historians said it was not the role of parliaments or schools to re-write history, a view belatedly echoed by Prime Minister de Villepin.

With the Socialist party in disarray and a bitter struggle under way between Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. de Villepin, Mr. Chirac appears increasingly ineffectual. He recently announced a flurry of measures to fight the malaise in the suburbs insisting that public service should be open to all. But Mr. Chirac is now seen as someone on his way out, and, in the light of the decade gone by, as someone who talks big but does little.

The disenchantment with Mr. Chirac became all the more evident when the French public recently adjudged Francois Mitterrand the best President ever to have governed France. It is a measure of their disappointment with Mr. Chirac that leads them to acclaim a leader who was vilified a decade ago.

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