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?

PAUL POPPER/POPPERFOTO
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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain