Lindsey Hilsum observes les manifs

Americans, having trumpeted globalisation, are suddenly bleating about what it means for jobs and so

The French understanding of history is in jeopardy. I know this because an earnest young man pulled my arm during one of the many protests in Paris over the past couple of weeks to tell me that the archaeologists were on strike.

"Please report that," he said. "The archaeology departments in the universities are closed."

"No archaeology!" I exclaimed. "Zut alors!" That got me thinking - are les manifs, as the French call these demonstrations, ahistorical? That's what les Anglo-Saxons tend to think. We hated Margaret Thatcher, but even some New Statesman types are secretly grateful because her loathed-at-the-time economic strictures dragged us into the 21st century. Now we have only 5 per cent unemployment, while it is 9 per cent for the French, rising to 23 per cent among the under-25s.

About five years ago, I asked Daniel Cohn-Bendit to describe the legacy of the 1968 rebellion in Paris, which he had led. "Socially, we won," he said. "But economically, we lost." Now a German Green MEP - he had dual citizenship and the French didn't want him - he said that history would see 1968 as the beginning of profound social change across Europe. It paved the way for feminism, the gay movement, a breakdown in rigid family structures and a wider tolerance of sex before marriage, ideas now widely accepted. Yet the socialist economic model of the '68 revolutionaries was exposed as a failure even before the Berlin Wall fell, when we finally understood that the Marxist idea of "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" was a utopian vision, not an economic policy.

This theory explains British politics of recent years. The Tory party was ahistorical when it rejected the socially libertarian, economically liberal Michael Portillo in favour of "family values" candidates. Labour rode the historical post-'68 tide by embracing social change at the same time as accepting capitalist realism. David Cameron may yet be too late.

Cohn-Bendit describes the actions of French protesters as "defensive, based on fear of insecurity and change". I think he's right. It is hard to sympathise with the students when a majority declared in a recent poll that their highest ambition was to become a civil servant. The slogan "Non à la précarité" ("No to insecurity") is scarcely compelling as it shouts for cradle-to-grave benefits rather than revolution.

We like to mock the French, who are delightfully easy targets. Where else would les intermittents - intermittently employed actors - go on strike? In a wonderfully headlined article, "Les intermittents contre l'hyperflexibilité", Libération revealed that they were late for the strike, presumably because they couldn't get up in time.

None the less, I suspect that les Anglo-Saxons may also be late and ahistorical. The Americans, having trumpeted globalisation and free trade, are suddenly bleating when they find out what it means for jobs and sovereignty. They don't like outsourcing when companies sack expensive US-based workers in favour of cheaper labour offshore. Congressmen blocked a deal whereby a Dubai-based firm would run US ports, even though it was clearly capable. It was racism pure and simple - this company is Arab, so, politicians concluded, there must be a risk of terrorism. Similarly, a bid by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, a state-owned company, to buy the US firm Unocal was withdrawn in the face of opposition. Free trade and the open market are

fine until perceived as bad for American interests.

What no one predicted in '68 was global economic integration and the coming issues of immigration and race. In the joyless suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, centre of November's anti-establishment riots by black and Arab youths, I found little interest in this year's demonstrations. Sitting in a smoke-filled Turkish café, Youssef Bouzide, a thoughtful, sad-eyed man of Moroccan origin who founded the "Collective Association of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity United Together", was more concerned about improving education for deprived children, and an anti-racism exhibit he is organising. Young men hanging around the bleak shopping centre were not heading for Paris to demonstrate - although they were vaguely against anything the government proposed - because they did not feel part of French society, with its ritual manifs and sense of historical vindication.

In the end, France, Britain and America are living the same historical moment. What the establishment fears is the Other - L'étranger, as Camus put it - whether it be the black and Arab youths of Clichy-sous-Bois, Dubai Ports World, or Britain's post-colonial, alienated Muslim youth. Yet those issues are already nearly history. The US and Europe are about to be hit by the economic power of China and India, and the pressure of well-educated Chinese and Indians pulling economic levers across the world. This is their century, not ours. The French may be behind the times, but we may all soon be swept away by the tide. Smugly, we might feel that the French demonstrators are bogged down by an old social model while we slip ahead. But the pace of economic change is now so fast that even keeping still makes no difference. We are all marching backwards from the Place de la République to la Bastille, and who knows where after that.

Lindsey Hilsum is international editor for Channel 4 News