Lost youth

Young French people are deeply frustrated by lack of opportunity and a lack of respect from their pa

"Unemployment and instability make us feel vulnerable," says Marion, a 23-year-old Master's student of communications taking part in a youth debate on the main issues of the French presidential campaign. "Our generation has to cope with a health insurance deficit, and pay for our parents' pensions, while spending half of our small salaries on rent. We'd be happy to reach our parents' standard of living. No matter how qualified we are, we fear for the future."

Like many young people in France, Marion has good reason to be worried. The biggest challenge facing her is that it now takes longer to find a proper job. In 1982, only 10 per cent of young people in France failed to find a steady job within three years of leaving education. In 2004, the figure stood at more than a quarter, and finding permanent work can take up to several years of internships and temporary contracts. Tired of working for little or no money, one group of disaffected interns has even formed a campaign group, Génération-Précaire (www.generation-precaire.org), to oppose what it sees as a latter-day form of slavery.

Those people lucky enough to find work will discover that the pay gap between generations has also widened. In 1975, workers aged 50 earned 15 per cent more, on average, than workers aged 30. Today this gap stands at 40 per cent, according to the sociologist Louis Chauvel.

And it's not just the jobs market that is proving difficult for young French people, who are less well represented politically than they used to be. In 1982, the average age of a politician or a trade-union delegate was 45. In 2000, according to the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies, it was 59.

Studying hard doesn't offer the guarantees it once did. After the government's efforts to increase the number of people in further education in the 1980s, the proportion of students in a single age group passing the baccalauréat rose from 30 per cent to 62 per cent between 1988 and 1994. Over the same period, the proportion of university graduates in a single age group rose from 10 per cent to more than 20 per cent. However, writes Chauvel, "because there are more graduates than jobs available, a significant portion of university leavers are unable to follow the same careers as the generation that went before them".

Gaëtan and Camille, aged 19 and 18 respectively, are studying arts management in Paris and they already know that life will be harder for them than it was for their parents, "when you could find a job even without training". The situation is worse still if you're black or Arab.

"When you say you're from here and you have an Arab name, there's no chance of being employed," says Fatima, 25, who works at a children's play centre in Villeparisis, to the east of Paris. Even finding a place to live is a hassle, says her friend Sabrina, 22. "Take me, for example. I don't look particularly Arab. I was about to sign a lease for a flat when the landlady saw that my husband had a Maghrebi name. She asked what nationality he was. French, we said. She replied: 'But you're of Algerian origin.' And she refused to let the apartment to us!" Renting, even if you are white and have a job, is so difficult that young people have formed a protest group, Black Thursday (www.jeudi-noir.org), which holds demonstrations in the form of parties, with champagne and music, during appointments to view properties.

Young people's anger and frustration ends up boiling over. In the suburbs, with their high concentrations of immigrants and poverty and their excessive police checks, this anger took the form of riots in the autumn of 2005. In the cities, at the beginning of 2006, schoolchildren and students joined forces with workers to demonstrate against the planned law for a CPE ("contrat première embauche"), which would allow employers to dismiss workers as they pleased during the first two years of a job.

These two phenomena differ, of course. The suburban riots were sparked by the acci dental deaths of two youths running from the police in Clichy-sous-Bois. The unrest was then ex acerbated by the one-upmanship of teenagers from rival areas, only too happy to profit from the surrounding chaos. The anti-CPE movement, on the other hand, was the continuation of a tradition of student and teacher activism that has opposed every national education reform for the past 20 years. That the CPE didn't directly target education is unimportant: young people simply felt that their professional future was threatened.

Riots and demonstrations "are two kinds of reaction by young people to the risks of social exclusion and a drop in social status", says Anne Muxel, director of research at Cevipof, the Centre for Political Research at Sciences-Po in Paris. Young people feel a lack of control over their own destinies. They have little faith in the actions of politicians, and if many of them continue to consider voting a duty, they don't expect it to deliver any improvement in their daily lives.

The result is that political activism often takes to the streets - against the CPE, for example - to return home only once the storm has passed, in anticipation of the next demonstration. People are turning away from conventional forms of power (politics, business and the media) in fa vour of direct action. In the eyes of many young people, the fact that in February parliament voted for a law obliging public bodies to give better help to the poorly housed, is thanks mainly to the actions of Les Enfants de Don Quichotte, a collective that donated about a hundred tents to the Paris homeless last winter.

In an opinion poll that asked young French people which values they would most like to see upheld, respect came first, followed by solidarity and then equality. According to Stéphane Wahnich, anthropologist and director of SCP Communication, which carried out the study, young French people want three things: genuine equality of opportunity at the political level and not just a theoretical framework of rights; respect for individuals, regardless of their race or social background; and solidarity for the poorest in the form of material support. The old-fashioned word fraternity no longer means much to most people. The term liberty placed right near the bottom of the survey list.

Far from the stereotype that a 35-hour week has bred laziness among French workers, young people place a great deal of importance on jobs: half of all young French people say they want to become civil servants, mainly for the job security. According to the sociologists Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet, work remains an essential way to branch out and forge networks.

Forty years after the libertarian explosion of May 1968, French youths have a respect for authority. Not in the reactionary sense, but in order to retain the lessons learned from the past few decades' experiments in human relationships - between parents and children, couples, and so on. Tolerance is still the guiding factor, but it now has its limits.

This partly explains the wave of young French people moving to the UK. "Emigrating allows you to regain control over your fate, to choose your life freely," says Wahnich. Many French people are also attracted by the legendary British tolerance: you can dress how you want - in a miniskirt, with pink hair - without attracting remarks, and police make fewer identity checks than their French counterparts.

Is this simply due to indifference to one another? Young French people prefer to see it as the respect to which they aspire.

Frédéric Niel is a journalist with La Croix.

This article was translated by Daniel Trilling

Kamini
Rural rapper

The internet buzz was enormous: over a few weeks at the end of 2006, millions of people watched a hilarious video clip of a black rapper from the middle of nowhere - aka a tiny village in Picardy called Marly-Gomont, where the only daily events are the passing of the postman, a tractor and a cow. Arriving as a baby with his father, a doctor from the Congo, Kamini, now 26, trained as a nurse in Lille while writing songs on the side. Far from the usual rap clichés of suburban violence, he recounts the boredom of a youth spent in the countryside. He shot the video with friends in three days for just €100. Overnight, Kamini became a star, his film was voted video clip of the year and he signed a deal with a major record label. He was even able to afford a webcam for his home. http://www.kamini.fr

Aurélie Filippetti
Political novelist

While remaining proud of her working-class origins, Aurélie Filippetti studied to become a French teacher. Her Italian-born father worked as a coal miner in Lorraine, where he was elected communist mayor of his village, badly hit by deindustrialisation. In her first novel, Les derniers jours de la classe ouvrière ("The Last Days of the Working Class", Éditions Stock), Filippetti, 33, tells of the dignity and suffering of workers when only work matters: "beauty can wait, and health, too". She campaigned for seven years for the Greens, but after they refused to put her on the ballot for the 2007 Lorraine regional elections, she joined Ségolène Royal's campaign team.

Marion Poussier
Activist photographer

Guards at the electoral headquarters of Sarkozy, Royal and Bayrou saw nothing when, in the dead of night, Marion Poussier and her friends glued posters, demanding the right for foreigners living in France to vote, on to the buildings' façades. The operation had particular meaning for Poussier: the 26-year-old photographer used her portraits of immigrants for this nocturnal exhibition. She draws her energy from encounters with young people and has photographed them like no one else. "Even when it seems like nothing's happening with young people, other than boredom, there's a huge sense of expectation with regard to other people and to life itself," she says.

Frederic Niel is a French journalist based in Paris, who has worked for Reuters, Phosphore magazine and other news organisations.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, France: Vive la différence?

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, France: Vive la différence?