Courting the right-wing vote in France

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Paris, France —The French government decision to invoke legislation first devised to quell protests around the Algerian war of the 1950s — the so-called curfew law — in response to repeated incidents of violent action by youth in working class areas outside Paris, and other French centres, is not about dealing with the issues surrounding what has become an international news story.

The action by Prime Minister Dominque de Villepin and his cabinet is one part provocation, two parts electoral strategy (designed to allow the party of French President Jacques Chirac and the Prime Minister to capture the support of the anti-immigrant National Front voters), and three parts an admission of failure by the French state.

Contrary to the usual reporting, police behaviour is the proximate cause of the car burnings, the reason for the spread of the action, and for the ongoing nightly commitment to violent protest.

The underlying issues of youth unemployment, religious and racial discrimination, and disaffection from French society will not be addressed by a law that looks suspiciously like the anti-terrorist bills introduced in the U.S., and in countries such as Canada, following the World Trade Centre attacks.

The curfew law broadens the power of the police to stop, search and hold suspects. It was abuse of the existing police powers to run identity checks as part of a systematic harassment of youth from the poor, one-time immigrant communities that led to the car burnings.

Already spoiled relations between the police, and the French youth, are likely to worsen as a result of the suspension of civil liberties the curfew law represents.

It is as if the right-wing French government has given up trying to address the real problems of social integration, and decided instead, not so much to calm the fears of its voting public, as to act to confirm their prejudices.

French cabinets under President Jacques Chirac have included a Minister of Social Cohesion and a Minister of Equal Opportunity. So, it is not as if there was not a general understanding of the challenges facing French society, when one-quarter of its youth are from recent immigrant families, and the unemployment rate among that group is at least 40 per cent.

What is being played out is a classic maneuver by the French Prime Minister de Villepin to outdo his Minister of Internal Security, the flamboyant Nicholas Sarkozy, in a public duel to see who looks like he carries the biggest stick in dealing with the protests among youth who are of largely Muslim origin.

The prize is to see who can carry the right-wing banner in the next presidential election. With de Villepin and Sarkozy as the leading players in the presidential succession drama, the protesters, and the police, are but bit players, useful as foils in building an audience for the presidential contenders.

However, the real drama is taking place on the streets. Behind it lies the failure of the unitary French state to make a place in the republic for the offspring of the workers who moved to France in the golden years of low unemployment to do the less appealing jobs for low wages.Citizenship within the French republic was built through institutions, notably public education. The national groupings that made up what became France — the Bretons, the Alsatians, Basques, Corsicans, and the others, each with their language and distinct national history — were made French through war, politics and the state.

The French state has resisted multi-culturalism in the name of equality. But, equal access to the public school system has not been able to overcome the social inequalities of the immigrant experience. Public education could teach language, impart history and skills, but it did not integrate the young people into a society outside the immigrant working class communities.

The failure of France to deliver a better standard of living, and improved public services has led to the rise of the National Front, ready to blame immigrants, not world capitalism, or European integration, or failed right-wing policies, for shortcomings in society.The National Front candidate was second in the first round of balloting in the last presidential election. The known anti-immigrant vote is three time the size of the recent immigrant population.

Send in the police, suspend normal protection of civil liberties, show you can stand up to the sons and daughters of immigrants, and, in the ongoing search for votes, you do not have to address the shortcomings of your national policies. That is the meaning of the curfew law.

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