Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Few Reflections

When the class divide in a society coincides with a racial, ethnic, and/or religious divide, trouble looms. For two centuries French politics was about finding rituals to tame the class struggle. Increasingly, these rituals seem irrelevant to today's fracture sociale. As in the picture above left (taken in the Paris Métro, click to enlarge), the political struggle becomes a Disneyesque farce to which the real actors in the society, standing stage center, pay no heed.

I am always suspicious of visitors who, after a short stay in a country, presume to diagnose its hidden maladies. But just as we see aging most clearly in those whom we know well but revisit at infrequent intervals, it is perhaps the occasional visitor who is the first to notice the premonitory signs of crisis. It is hardly the case that the presence of France's "visible minorities" has gone unnoticed, but it is striking just how much more visible they have become over the past decade. It is only in recent years that the numerals "93" have come to signify a zone of foreignness within the ring of greater Paris. I knew that, but still it was a shock when I emerged from Robespierre Station in the suburb of Bagnolet and walked down the avenue to Montreuil. Robespierre certainly would not have recognized the place, in which I felt as conspicuous as I would in Harlem. The Parisian bourgeois who commutes to his country house via the TGV or the périphérique would barely glimpse the magnitude of the change, but the pedestrian is awed by it.

Elsewhere the contrast is more compact but more acute. In a beau quartier of Lyon at high noon on a working day one sees a group of young men and women sitting in a circle on the sidewalk in front of a bank, drinking, playing cards, ignoring the bustle of busy people scurrying by. They have nothing to do but drink from jugs. Their presence seems not to bother anyone, as though they were invisible, but this is an illusion, because in fact they are the implicit Other in political slogans directed at la France qui se lève tôt and at those who allegedly want to travailler plus pour gagner plus. There is nothing immediately menacing about these idle youths, but their difference is apparent even if the males wear warm-up pants rather than robes and the females show no interest in veils and no sign of being oppressed by fraternal patriarchs. In the 19th century these were les classes laborieuses, les classes dangereuses, the terrifying brawn of a society increasingly ruled by brain, but now they are les classes fainéantes et donc dangereuses in a society in which the function of labor is to discipline as well as produce. It is the visibility of this indisciplined mass that makes it frightening, and it is ethnic and racial difference that makes it visible. France hasn't figured out how to deal with this yet. In this respect it is no worse off than most other societies, yet its republican ideology of absolute assimilation seems to amplify the resultant strains. My sense is that pressure is rapidly building. Sarkozy, who was elected by the bourgeoisie of affairs, which wanted to believe that everyone can be brought to heel by the discipline of work, and the nativist proletariat, which wanted to believe that there would be enough work to go around if only the foreign element were expelled, has given no hint of an answer other than le nettoyage au Kärcher. If the water hose fails, though, it will be the fire next time.

Back in the USA

I'm back, though not quite back in blogging form. It is tempting to try to sum up my observations on France in a short, pithy post, but I will resist the temptation for the moment. On the theory that a picture is worth a thousand words, however, I offer you two images of France today. The mammoth stands outside the Museum of Natural History and in front of McDonald's. The photo exhibiting some of France's "visible minorities" behind the Coca-Cola slate was taken from a café near the Censier-Daubenton métro. Much additional visual documentation of my travels can be found in the following Web albums: