Home inFocus The Governance Issue (Fall 2023) French Malaise Strikes Again

French Malaise Strikes Again

Amir Taheri Fall 2023
Demonstrators in France. (Photo: Paul Gourmaud)

Judging by France’s recent history, the month of June should be a quiet moment when people prepare for summer holidays in exotic places. Protest marches, riots and even revolutions usually take place in the spring, with May being the hottest month for political gesticulations. The baccalaureate exams are over, the annual bonuses are paid, and the fruit-picking is finished. Thus, the riots that produced mayhem in Parisian suburbs and a dozen other places across France came like bolt out of the blue.

“Race riots shake France,” was one headline in British newspapers. “Muslim youths on the rampage in Paris suburbs!” was a German newspaper’s shorthand account of the events.  These included the burning of over 100 public buildings, including city halls and schools, the torching of scores of buses and trams, and hundreds of cars, the looting of countless shops, and, more dramatically, the ransacking of Bibliotheque Alcazar, Marseille’s iconic public library.

It Wasn’t a Race Riot

So, what is going on? What we witnessed was certainly not a race riot. In fact, though France has its own share of bigots, as a nation it’s the least racist of all European countries. It had black African and Arab Muslim members of parliament and even cabinet ministers at least half a century before the US allowed its “visible minority” a side-chair in places of political power. For decades, France was a refuge for black American writers, musicians, human rights activists and “ordinary” citizens unhappy about racial discrimination.

These riots did start with the killing of a 17-year boy of Algerian ancestry by the police. But the killing was not racially motivated and, as protesters made clear, what was at issue was police brutality rather than racial hatred. The victim, Nahel Merzouk was of Muslim background and some of the rioters who went on the rampage did mouth militant slogans. But the root cause of the anger that provoked the riots was a deep dissatisfaction with the way the country is governed.

A Failure of Governance

The riots came as an unexpected prolongation of months of protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to increase the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 years. Interestingly, even some opponents of the change agree that the reform was necessary to shield the national pension fund from bankruptcy.

What caused deep anger was the fact that the measure, having failed to secure a majority in the National Assembly, was pushed through an extra-parliamentary device meant for use in highly exceptional cases.

France has never fully reconciled itself with representative democracy, always running its political life in two separate spaces, the parliament and the street. It has never managed to create political parties with a lifespan long enough to change the nation’s political culture in favor of institutionalized politics. Between the parliament and the street where barricades can be erected the French also dream of a providential man – someone like Napoleon Bonaparte, Gen. George-Ernest-Jean-Marie Boulanger, Leon Gambetta or Charles De Gaulle-to transcend the two spaces.

As the state machinery has grown to a gargantuan size, it has suffered a degree of desacralization that has turned it into an unfriendly, if not actually hostile, presence in the eyes of many French. And, yet, because the state controls more than 57 percent of gross domestic product, more than Poland and Hungry did even in the Communist era, it is seen as a pickpocket that could also put some money in your pocket if and when you know how to persuade or force it.

A costly beast, the French state is built on five levels: communal, departmental, regional, central and European. With the ever-speedier changes in information, knowledge and technology, the beast is often behind events in real life. Until not long ago, it even had a Ministry of the Plan to establish Soviet-style five-year plans that would become outdated before they were even published. Thinking it knows best, recently the state decided to distribute billions of euros to farmers to prepare for the latest fashionable “national concern,” climate change. The bureaucrats sent to distribute the money quickly found out that the farmers were already coping with the problem in a wide variety of often ingenious stratagems without waiting for Olympian deities to become generous.

The French Malaise

Almost half a century ago, the best-seller The French Malaise by Alain Peyrfitte spoke of a democratic deficit in the French system.

A Gaullist baron, Peyrfitte put the blame on the citizens who, being rebellious by tradition, disobeyed their democratically elected masters, making it difficult to implement necessary reforms or keep good leaders, such as General De Gaulle, in power. Democracy, he argued could not solve problems in the manner an instant coffee is made and served. The French leader needs time to do the great things he is destined to do for the nation. But time is precisely what the citizens don’t or cannot give the leader.

The same analysis has produced rumors about Macron looking for a way to seek a third term as president, something forbidden by the law. That, of course, could be done through a constitutional referendum and shady political deals.

However, the malaise that France suffers from is unlikely to be cured by such shenanigans. What has happened in France in the past five or six decades is a major change in the balance of power between the state and society. French society today is far better educated, self-confident, better informed and more enterprising than the French state, which has become costlier, less efficient and more arrogant.

The “cold monster,” as the French call the state, has lost its monopoly on information and seems unable to create new interfaces with society. Its old strategy of pouring money at problems, as shown by the latest “disturbances,” has proven ineffective.

The suburbs that burned are precisely the ones that the French state has invested more than 30 billion euros in “improving” over the past 20 years. The result has been the creation of a whole generation of “assisted” people whose ethnic and/or religious backgrounds are treated as heirlooms to justify government handouts in various guises.

But just as man can’t live on bread alone, he won’t be grateful and obedient by handouts alone.

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe. This article originally appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.