Both revolts send messages. The message of the mostly Muslim suburbs resembles the message of class conflict in the past—the demand for equality. The crucial difference is that the conflict is no longer one economic class against another, which was a purposeful conflict, but protest by those excluded for cultural and racial reasons (which money doesn’t cure) from the larger society. The response to that exclusion can only be immigrant assimilation. This was understood and is not impossible, since France has always been more colorblind than any other country in Europe—assimilation for the French is a matter of language and culture. But whether the public response will be adequate remains to be seen; so does the degree to which the Muslim minority is prepared to be assimilated.
Villepin, in putting forward a change in the employment laws, inadvertently opened a fundamental question about what economic and social model should be adopted in France, just as two years ago the referendum on the European constitution posed disturbing questions about the political future of the European Union and the direction being taken by European capitalism.
The French obviously are not alone in their concerns. A kindred debate about “models” of capitalism persists in Germany, which has suffered recent labor unrest, connected to demands for wage sacrifices by workers, and in the European Commission itself, which since EU expansion to twenty-five members has, under the commission presidency of Portugal’s José Manuel Barroso, tipped away from the established “European social model,” with its emphasis on provisions for welfare, and toward Anglo-American market capitalism, provoking considerable controversy. Even Britain saw its biggest strike since the 1920s on March 28, when workers for local authorities protested against proposed changes in their pensions.
In France, where there is a lower rate of union membership even than in the US, and unions are concentrated in state employment where jobs are protected anyway, union leaders thought it politically useful for their members to demonstrate alongside the students; but union participation started to fade in early April, while student enthusiasm remained high. It costs a bus driver wages to take off time for the demonstrations. For students, taking to the streets is part of their political coming of age.
The French, of course, have been against capitalisme sauvage ever since that rough beast loomed amid the satanic mills of Britain in the nineteenth century, subsequently making its transatlantic journey to establish its new lair. The usual foreign description of the French problem is that the nation and its political and economic elites are failing to confront the demands of the globalized economy, taking refuge in the unrealistic notion of a French “social model” that has no place in the modern world. Hence, any effort to make the employment market more flexible meets with popular rejection, with consequent high French unemployment.
In fact, the rate of French youth unemployment is not what it usually is made out to be, since free baccalaureate- and university-level education keeps young people off the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.