DIARY OF A JOURNEY THOUGH EUROPE (Part I)
By Theodore Dalrymple (Feb. 2006)
We depart our house in la France profonde as the riots continue in the larger towns and cities. Like 95 per cent of the population, we’ve seen nothing untoward: the banlieues are another country, they do things differently there. We joke about the situation with the workmen who are making alterations to our house; we are all confident that if the riots burst their banks, as it were, and spill over into the areas where good people like us live, the CRS (the Compagnies Republicaines de Securite) will be only to happy to do what they have traditionally done, which is enthusiastically to apply truncheons to heads.
What do the riots mean? Our roofer thinks that the president and the prime minister, Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin, have let them run their course to discredit the hard-line minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, whom they hate, but who is by far the most popular politician in France. Unless something is done to destroy his reputation in the meantime, he will almost certainly win the next presidential election. To demonstrate his impotence in the face of a serious challenge such as the riots present, therefore, is to show that he is all mouth and no trousers, and would be a bad president.
If this is the strategy, it certainly hasn’t worked. The more Sarko, as he is known, is hated by les jeunes in the banlieues, the higher his popularity soars. When he called les jeunes, who dress in the internationalised costume of the American ghetto, la racaille (scum), he was only echoing the thoughts of almost all Frenchmen. Of course, a society in which there is a large and seemingly alien minority inclined to violence and detested by the majority, is a stage-set for a terrible denouement. As yet, there is no plan for averting it.
What do les jeunes want? First of all a good time, of course. Bakunin’s famous aphorism about the destructive urge being a constructive one also would have been nearer the mark if he had mentioned that it was, above all, a highly enjoyable one. Destruction is fun in itself; but to destroy in the name of a supposed cause, that is little short of bliss! Impunity helps, of course.
Insofar as les jeunes have a discernible if unexpressed demand, it is that for extra-territorial status within France. They want to be left alone. They do not want the state to interfere in their affairs – theft, drug-dealing and the abuse of women – in any way whatever. It is worth recalling that the riots started when two youths were electrocuted to death after they climbed over two walls into an electricity transformer, festooned with warnings of danger, believing themselves to be pursued by the police who had interrupted them and several of their colleagues as they were peaceably trying to break into a warehouse. It was wrong of the police to interrupt them in their ‘work‘, and even worse of them to try to apprehend them.
In fact, a riot after a youth has died while being chased by the police in the course of his everyday activities is now almost a tradition in the banlieues. There riots are seldom reported in the foreign press, and rarely get more than a mention even in the French press. The young want the police to leave them alone: they desire nothing whatever from the state except, of course, ever-larger and more generous subventions. Those they would condescend to accept, as being only their due.
For its part, the state has been content to let les jeunes get on with it, more or less, with occasional incursions by the police into their territory just to let them know who is really boss when push comes to shove. The inhabitants of banlieues have been left to their own devices, and given enough money to survive and a roof over their head, in return for acceptance of permanent unemployment and marginality, as well as geographical separation in housing projects that resemble South African townships in the ease with which they can be cut off militarily from the rest of the city. The Parisian boulevards of Baron Haussman were also designed to give the give the forces of law and order a good clear sight of the mobs that gather periodically in French history to protest their conditions, but it must be admitted that the Baron did his job with considerably greater aesthetic aplomb and imagination than the followers of the odious Le Corbusier.
This is what the French have hitherto called their social model, though it results in widespread antisocial behaviour. The riots are actually only the continuation of the everyday life of the banlieues by other means (car burnings are now continual.) The liberalisation of the French labour laws, which mean that an employee costs his employer about half as much again in social protections as his wages, would no doubt ease unemployment; on the other hand, I am not confident that the labour of a youth brought up in one of the banlieues, where he has idled his life away between petty crime and the consumption of popular culture, would cost less than it was worth at any conceivable rate of pay.
The only aspect of Islam that really interests the majority of les jeunes in the banlieues is the domination and abuse of women. They cannot be said to be religious in any other sense. They do not pray, they do not go to the mosque, they certainly do not give ten per cent of their income to the poor. Of course, there are a few among them, perhaps those of slightly above average intelligence, who will listen to the siren song of Islamism as the supposed solution to their existential impasse, for youth is always in search of complete answers: and, as the world has already seen, it takes only a relative handful of people to create an exceedingly dangerous mayhem. But for most, it is the justification of the oppression of women that keeps les jeunes so deeply attached to Islam. Indeed, the oppression of women is the only source of pride for them, since no other is available. At least they are kings of their own castle.
Following the French press, it was curious how little the absence of young women on the streets of the banlieues was remarked upon. No one asked what the meaning of this absence might be. Eventually, Liberation, the newspaper founded by Jean-Paul Sartre, found some young women, photographed them (one of them in the hijab) and gave them what the French call ‘la parole.’ Not surprisingly, they supported the action of les jeunes, and it did not occur to Liberation to ask itself whether its straw poll was any more use than asking North Koreans in the street what they thought of the Dear Leader.
Meanwhile, for everyone else in France, life goes on as normal: which is to say, pleasantly enough on the surface, but with a gradually increasing awareness that something is going profoundly wrong. Not for nothing are the French the heaviest consumers of tranquillisers in the world.
Entering Switzerland at Geneva to meet an old school friend, one enters a bourgeois paradise. One feels one lowers the tone just by entering it. The streets are spotlessly clean, the wealth is vast. Even the interiors of the elevators in public car parks are clad in marble and lit with crystal. In England, such luxury would invite, and call forth, immediate vandalism.
Of course, the Swiss are rigidly, almost morbidly and intimidatingly law-abiding. If you break a traffic regulation, even in a harmless fashion, ordinary citizens are likely to stare at or gesture to you in a hostile way, or reproach you in deep disapproval. And the Swiss are said to be the only people in the world who will attend a neighbour’s party and then call the police when they leave to complain about the noise the party is making. Perhaps this is an urban myth.
There is one thing, however, about which the Swiss are extremely flexible, and which has brought my friend here: tax. Not only every canton, but every commune, sets its tax: and each commune is in competition to attract wealthy, or potentially wealthy, people into it. The beauty of the system is that the taxes raised locally are kept locally. If you go to the tax authorities, therefore, and tell them that an authority down the road has just offered you residence if you pay x francs a year, they are quite likely to offer you residence if you pay x – 1 francs. A virtuous competitive circle to lower taxes is thus set up. All the authorities are interested in is whether you will represent a net gain to the area; they have no interest in knowing the size of your income and then squeezing you until your pips squeak.
Moreover, since the money raised locally is spent locally, the population has a genuine and abiding interest in making sure that it is spent wisely. In large centralised states or societies, the bureaucracy has a vested interest in spending money unwisely, for by doing so it creates the very population that allegedly needs its ministrations. Not so in Switzerland: the population is the master of the bureaucracy, not – as in the rest of Europe – the other way round.
We go to my friend’s apartment in a small and luxurious block a little way out of Geneva and up the mountainside. It overlooks the lake, and you can see Mont Blanc in the distance. The cold air is astonishingly bracing, and gives a pleasantly scouring sensation in your lungs. I almost wish I had tuberculosis, to experience the relief such air would provide. I understand The Magic Mountain and the lure of sanatoria a little better now.
My friend’s neighbour below has a balcony so huge that it has a real garden in (or on?) it, including a lawn and miniature palm trees. It is so perfect, so clean, that one could safely perform surgery in it. Despite its perfection – every blade of grass the same length, nothing out of place – the lady downstairs comes out to improve it every night. Improving perfection, that could be Switzerland’s mission statement. It is astonishing what this woman finds to do in her garden, which to me looks so utterly finalised.
I take our dog, whom we have brought with us, for a walk. I am very nervous, in case he relieves himself in the wrong place and calls forth retribution. Surely the Swiss, with their vast pharmaceutical industry, must be genetically engineering the wasteless dog? When my dog does a wee against a garden wall, I look around me as I used to look around me in the Communist bloc when meeting a dissident.
We go to Lausanne. It is surprisingly run-down. The local authorities are concerned because there are so many dependents on public funds here, about a tenth as many, proportionately, as in England. There are large areas with housing projects and graffiti, and conspicuously non-Swiss people walking about (someone has to do the menial work). You can see the area is multicultural by the take-away food outlets. There is litter in the streets and hopelessness in the air. Could there be riots in Lausanne? The newspapers are worried by the possibility of infection from France.
Oddly enough, I feel a sense of relief at observing the evidence of decay. I love the bourgeois world, but have been so long out of it that I soon begin to experience la nostalgie de la boue. Like many people, I am highly contradictory: I love what I hate.
We stop briefly in Basel to see the Holbeins in the art gallery. Half of Holbein’s working life was spent in Basel. There is an exhibition of de Kooning – ‘an American master’ – at the gallery at the same time. I trust I will offend no one when I say that I prefer Holbein. True, both Holbein and de Kooning applied paint to flat surfaces, and to that extent they belong in the same category; but otherwise, I think that they had very little in common.
We return to France: Colmar in Alsace, to be exact. The riots are continuing.
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