The Guardian published on its website an extract from a book by Andrew Hussey The French Intifada: how the Arab banlieues are fighting the French state, on February 23rd. This extract made quite the buzz on my Francophone Twitter timeline with many comments being quite approving.
I fail to understand this positive perception. While I had never heard of Andrew Hussey before, as per his Wikipedia page, he is a cultural historian and biographer who works at the University of London Institute in Paris, his historical works on Paris and French culture sound interesting. Yet, this long article (or extract) fails to convince or to provide much of an insight.
Hussey starts out with a description of the riots in the Gare du Nord back in 2007, when a ticket control resulted in a young man’s broken hand and the subsequent – and rapid – mobilization of hundreds of banlieusards wreaking havoc in the station, the most important regional train hub linking Paris to its poorer Northern suburbs. He links this violence with 2005, “when two young men were electrocuted while trying to escape police”, which “was followed by almost a week of rioting every night, during which thousands of cars were burned.” So far, so good, and clearly the frequency of these riots – one could mention Lyon in 2010 as well – shows that something is rotten in the state of France’s societal fabric.
Yet, Hussey then goes off the rails when he claims denial of the fact on the part of those who blamed a “fracture sociale” for these riots. Instead – citing Gilles Kepel – he argues that “what happens here is because of our relationship with the Arab world, and our history there.” He then goes on to recite in detail the Tunisian revolution as an expression of the same sentiment that caused French youths of Arabic origin to whistle the French national anthem before the France-Tunisia friendly match in Paris in 2008.
This is absurd on multiple levels of course. Yet, apart from a few sloppy errors such as implying that the military had originally partaken in the repression of demonstrations in Tunisia and the ministerial portfolio of Michèle Alliot-Marie his description of events is sound and full of vivid detail. It is his very facts that contradict his assessment though. If it was “a young Congolese man” whose arrest caused the riots at the Gare du Nord, if these rioters were made up of “mainly black[s]” [and Arabs], then how does that square with Islam and/or a coherent Arabic society – a sort of ummah (أمة) if you want – lying at the root of this unrest?
The application of one identity – Arabic or Islam – to a whole group of people only some of which are even of Arabic origin or Muslims is not only nonsensical per se, it also pretends to explain the motives of rioters in France with a dangerous simple-mindedness. Yet, it is highly dubious to argue that the banlieusards’ ‘us’ against ‘them’ logic is based on an underlying religious commitment or an adherence to pan-Arabism. If the latter had been the case wouldn’t French Arabs have demonstrated – rioted if you may – following Alliot-Marie’s proposal to supply Ben Ali with French security expertise against the demonstrations in Tunisia? Wouldn’t rioters in that case have targeted shops run by français-de-souche or in general non-Muslim business owners just like African-Americans in Los Angeles had done with Korean-American-run shops? Yet, neither of this took place.
If Hussey is as familiar with Tunisia as he purports to be, then he will be aware of the strong economic roots – youth unemployment, corruption, and inequality especially – of the Tunisian revolution. Religiously motivated demonstrators, let alone those demonstrating out of a pan-Arabic sentiment, were at best part of a barely visible minority there also. These social grudges are of a national nature though, and while some of the same underlie societal problems in France – youth unemployment mainly – the scale of both their pertinence and outcome is incomparable.
There are obviously some parallels between riots in France and Tunisia, the exploitation of social media and mobile phones, which lead to a potentially much quicker mobilization of popular or mob reinforcements for example. Or, arguably, in general the 21st century’s high street-level mobilization as could also be seen recently in Turkey, Egypt, Ukraine, et al. Yet, none of these parallels are based on French colonial history, Islam, or some kind of an inherent Arab cultural link that surpasses generations, country borders, and the Mediterranean to extend from rural Tunisians to suburban French city-dwellers.
Hussey himself admits as much when he talks about how “it is almost impossible for immigrants to France from its former colonies to feel authentically “at home” there.” Yet, if this is – one of – the reasons for conflict, it is not something that is peculiar to either Muslims or Arabs, nor can the same argument feasibly be made for the revolutions in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world. By linking the Tunisian revolution and French riots to an ill-defined Arabic/Islamic society, The shame is that Hussey undercuts his own – or Kepel’s – intriguing argument of French colonial history lying at the core of the country’s recurring violent eruptions by this orientalist scapegoating.
J’ai récemment publié un billet sur Rue89, une critique du livre « Made in Germany : Le modèle allemand au-delà des mythes » écrit par le rédacteur en chef des Alternatives économiques Guillaume Duval.
Steven Erlanger, the NY Times London bureau chief, has written a piece that made quite the buzz in social media about France as ‘A Proud Nation [That] Ponders How To Halt Its Slow Decline.’ I am a bit at a loss as to why this piece would be considered as noteworthy. More of the same it would seem, preaching to the – Anglo-Saxon – media choir that has announced the imminent end of the French model for decades. Craig Willy has written convincingly about this in regard to the Economist, so let me just add a few points in response to Erlanger’s piece.
He starts out wondering whether “a social democratic system that for decades prided itself on being the model for providing a stable and high standard of living for its citizens can survive the combination of globalization, an aging population and the acute fiscal shocks of recent years.” Now, of course all three of these are true for the rest of Europe – to some extent the Western world + Japan – also, except of course that France in fact is in a notably better position in what concerns its demographics than, say, Germany or really almost anybody else in Europe (the one exception being Ireland). Why France should be discussed as a particularly failing model based on criteria that actually speak favorable to its – relative – sustainability hardly seems logical.
Yet, “Mr. Hollande may simply lack the political courage to confront his allies and make the necessary decisions.” What those decisions are seems far less clear, which really is little surprising seeing the contentious nature of academic debate on these questions. Still, for Erlanger it is clear that “in a more competitive world economy, the question is whether … the French can continue to afford [their]” “social model.” “Based on current trends, the answer is clearly no, not without significant structural changes — in pensions, in taxes, in social benefits, in work rules and in expectations.” I don’t fundamentally disagree with his overall assessment of France requiring some reform, I do wonder if the New York Times would ever publish a similar piece arguing the same thing for the US’ military and public health spending for which “based on current trends, the answer is [as] clearly no.” France is in no way an outlier in the unsustainability of its public finances and this hardly is a reflection of the size of its social model.
Let’s keep on going though, French “growth is slow compared with Germany, Britain, the United States or Asia.” Ignoring the (still) rapidly developing nations in Asia that it is a bit weird to directly compare to any rich Western country, how does France compare with the rest of the West? France is growing slower than the United States and export-dependent Germany, growth has interestingly enough been faster in France since 2005 than in the UK though. This even while the latter clearly outperformed France from 1995 onwards. Not only does the rest of Europe differ little from France once more (it is worse off actually), it is additionally far from clear what a comparison between the British and French experiences of the crisis should tell us.
I could go on and wonder about Erlanger’s criticism of “82 percent of the new jobs created last year [being] temporary contracts” that are “not the kind of full-time work that opens the door to the French middle class,” which of course sounds like exactly the French Leftist he had been criticizing before. Isn’t that the kind of deregulation France is supposed to pine for? Or that a national debt figure of 90% of GDP is little different from Germany (82%), the UK (88%), and much better than the US (101%). Obviously France needs to do some reforms, but so does most everybody else. The attention focused on France’s supposedly dire economic situation in the English-language media in particular – but also in Germany – hardly seems justified by any objective measure. To the contrary, it is oftentimes based on faulty assumptions.
As Merkozy said today negotiations on the so-called Fiscal Pact (really: International Treaty on a Reinforced Economic Union) are advancing and it is expected to be signed by March at the latest. A second draft of said treaty has been leaked meanwhile. Open Europe has put forward a discussion of the revisions between the first and second draft treaties circulating. I believe that the most important change between the two versions lies in the expanded role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the second draft. As Open Europe puts it:
Article 8 stipulates that the ECJ would have jurisdiction over any violation of the entire Title III, i.e. on all the provisions of the so-called “fiscal compact”. In the previous draft, the ECJ only had a say on Article 3(2), i.e. on whether national governments have correctly transposed the balanced budget rule into their national legislation;
Furthermore, according the revised text the Commission “may, on behalf of Contracting Parties, bring an action for an alleged infringement of Title III” before the ECJ.
In the previous draft the ECJ effectively only would have had the power to judge the validity of the national implementation of a debt brake or golden rule of ‘constitutional or equivalent nature.’ This time around it has additionally been be given a de facto veto over national budgets! Signatories of the Fiscal Pact will have to ‘apply the following […]: The budgetary position of the general government shall be balanced or in surplus.’
In other words any country having signed the pact (including non-Eurozone states in my understanding) or the Commission may take any other signatory in front of the ECJ if that first country’s budget is not ‘balanced or in surplus.’ The ECJ will have to allow for ‘the budgetary impact of the economic cycle […] and […] exceptional economic circumstances, or […] periods of a severe economic downturn,’ but in principle it will have the power to declare a sovereign country’s budget invalid. Think about this for a second.
Obviously the vague definitions and circumstances laid out above hardly make this kind of judicial enforcement fool proof and for normative reason that is probably for the better. Still, the symbolism of the heart of national parliamentary sovereignty to undergo supra-national control represents another step towards increased integration.
Last week saw a flurry of relevant players weighing on the debate of how to escape from the crisis trap and shape Europe going forward. Lots of interesting ideas and proposals floating around.
The speech that arguably caused the biggest uproar was Radek Sikorski‘s (the Foreign Minister of Poland) in Berlin. He laid out a stark dystopian-utopian dichotomy of Europe warning of ‘disintegration with appalling human cost‘ (Yugoslavia) or federation, ‘deeper integration, or collapse‘. His choice is clear as he – in broad strokes – lays out what a reformed European Union could look like. His proposals effectively includes more majority-vote decision-making (even if he never explicitly says so), automatic sanctions to strengthen fiscal discipline, stronger roles for the Commission, the Council and the European Court of Justice, the European Central Bank (ECB) as a true lender of last resort (LoLR) and calling on it to act soon, a smaller (‘Member States should rotate to have their commissioner‘!), more effective Commission, an empowered European Parliament formed at least in part via ‘pan-European‘ lists. In other words a strong move towards a more federalized EU, spearheaded by the Eurozone but not taking place outside of existing community institutions and based on significant treaty changes. For this, in a striking statement, he calls for Germany to lead, to – finally – act. ‘I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.’
So much for Poland, in France two differing visions were put forward by President Nicolas Sarkozy in Toulon and the French Parti Socialiste‘s presidential candidate François Hollande in front of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament. Hollande attacks the German-inspired austerity model as a solution to the crisis and disdains the need for treaty change, he in turn proposes a pact of responsibility, governance, and growth (‘une pacte de responsabilité, de gouvernance et de croissance‘). Most notably this were to include an increase in the guarantees going to the EFSF, a partial European debt collectivization (maybe along the lines of the Redemption Pact proposed by the economic advisers of the German government), and the ECB as a true LoLR. He wants an investment program at the same time financed via Eurobonds (Me: ’cause that’s gonna happen…) even while promising to lower French debt in the short- and mid-term (‘un déficit de 3% du PIB en 2013, un retour à l’équilibre en 2017‘).
Sarkozy has less manoevure for campaign promises as the opposition candidate in his proposals on Europe’s future. He also wants to reduce French government debt, while also reforming labor market laws (‘la retraite à 60 ans et les 35 heures ont été des fautes graves‘). Sarkozy stresses the Franco-German partnership, ‘la convergence‘ between the two in a Europe of stability (‘une zone de stabilité‘). He puts forward the (Franco-German) company line of more European solidarity necessitating more (fiscal) discipline (‘L’Europe a besoin de plus de solidarité. Mais plus de solidarité exige plus de discipline‘). He wants to re-found Europe (‘Elle doit être refondée‘) not in a supranational manner though but in a (Gaullist) intergovernmental one. At the same time he wants to move more decision-making into qualified majority voting (QMV) procedures. He is in favor of a government of the Eurozone, essentially run or at least dominated by the heads of state and government. He wants to create a European Monetary Fund (EMF), which were to take its decisions under QMV. The ECB he considers an independent actor, while emphasizing his hope and conviction that it will intervene in the face of deflationary pressure. Finally, he is in favor of increased coordination on budgetary questions coupled with automatic and more severe sanctions for those states not adhering to the debt rules. All this should be reflected in a new treaty. One last add-on, in a typical Sarko populist move, he wants to revise Schengen to be able to deal better with immigration questions.
On to the Germans then, were Bundeskanzlerin Merkel laid out her vision in front of the Bundestag on Friday. Following Merkozy’s newly agreed upon decision to not lay pressure on the ECB anymore she also stresses the bank’s independence. What she stresses – little surprisingly – are automated actions against states in infraction of debt rules, these procedures should be controlled by the Commission or the ECJ. Merkel once again stresses that Eurobonds are not a viable solution right now (‘Euro-Bonds [können] jetzt nicht als Rettungsmaßnahme gegen die Krise eingesetzt werden’). She wants to empower the ECJ to allow it to take cases because of infractions against the debt rules. More generally she wants to create a -n ill-defined – Stability and Fiscal Union, including a strong ESM and reforms of labor laws in some member states. Does that mean her proposed treaty changes include labor and maybe social policy transfer to the European level, at least partly? She makes clear that the treaties need to be changed either within the EU 27 or within the Eurozone if not possible otherwise.
Last but most definitely not least, here is arguably the most important speech of last week (at least in the short term). Mario Draghi’s, the President of the ECB, statement in front of an apparently almost empty European Parliament. Draghi interestingly enough stressed the ECB’s goal ‘of maintaining price stability […] in either direction‘ and as applied to ‘both the setting of official interest rates and the implementation of non-standard measures‘. Will the ECB increase its – non-sterilized – intervention then? Secondary Market Purchases (SMP) 3.0? Draghi also calls for ‘fiscal compact‘ as the ‘most important signal from euro area governments for embarking on a path of comprehensive deepening of economic integration.’ He then answers to critics wondering how such a ‘longer-term vision can be helpful in the short term‘ by telling them that ‘other elements might follow‘. Ever greater, monetary expansionary union?
So what are we left with then? Sarkozy and Merkel are preparing treaty changes – intergovernmental one, much more federalist the other. Both are stressing the independence of the ECB, Sarkozy with the explicit hope of it intervening massively, Merkel – as insinuated by the opposition – only praying for it at night. Sarkozy wants more solidarity (Eurobonds!), Merkel believes they are the wrong solution as of this moment. Sarkozy wants to move ahead with tighter – again: inter-governmental – economic governance within the Eurozone, Merkel prefers treaty change for the EU 27 or at least with an opt-in for everybody interested (Poland! Sweden?). Lots of issues to work out before Monday’s episode of Merkozy running Europe. The German opposition wants the EFSF to become a bank, Hollande is looking for a European investment program based on Eurobonds – I think we can safely ignore both of these for the time being, the latter more so than the former. Sikorski is practically begging the Germans to finally put an end to this crisis, while effectively calling for a federation of Europe. Draghi, finally, hints at ECB intervention once a ‘fiscal compact‘ is underway.
It’ll be an interesting week once more to say the least.