Thursday, November 10, 2005


An excerpt from Frank Furedi

Although the spread of unrest from Parisian suburbs to other parts of France can be seen as a result of spontaneous emulation, its main driver has been the response of the authorities themselves. The French elite lacks purpose and is politically exhausted. As I argue in greater detail in my new book Politics of Fear, for the first time in the modern era the European political elites lack a project. They no longer have a mission to perform, and do not possess a distinct outlook that can inform their policies and day-to-day actions.

In recent decades, these elites have embraced the EU and sought to cobble together a European identity that might render public life with some meaning. However, this elitist managerial project lacks the capacity to inspire the public. The rejection of the EU Constitution in France and Holland earlier this year clearly demonstrated this technocratic institution's lack of legitimacy.

The current state of political exhaustion shows that public life lacks a sense of purpose, perspective and meaning. Most government policies try to get around this problem by avoiding it. The celebration of diversity is probably the clearest example of such an evasive strategy. Celebrating the many is a meaningless act that simply recognises the reality that we are not all the same. It is as vacuous as the worship of one or a few. Diversity is a statement of fact - and to turn a fact into an ideal is to avoid having real ideals altogether. More specifically, it spares the authorities from spelling out what defines their society. That is why the French policy of assimilation and the British pursuit of multiculturalism have such similar outcomes: these policies are about avoiding the hard task of saying what it means to be British or French, and therefore implicitly raise the question of meaning in an acute form.

What the events in France demonstrate is that power means very little without purpose. Power and authority gain definition through a sense of direction. Without meaning, even the power of the military and the police loses much of its force. And the more this powerlessness becomes exposed, the more it encourages those who are estranged from society to have a go. This is not simply a case of official incompetence, but rather points to an elite that no longer believes in the legitimacy of its own authority and way of life. The way in which this crisis of belief has been intensely amplified through the French media has been one of the main drivers of the recent unrest. But don't blame the media: their cynical criticism of French authority is quietly shared by those who wield power. By letting the cat out of the bag, the French media simply transmit the message that politics lacks meaning.....

Somewhere between De Gaulle's aggressive nationalism and the silent, spineless and confused politics of today, France has lost its identity. When I talked to political activists earlier this year, I was told that the French are different to the Anglo-Saxons because they embrace the 'social' model. Now that the myth of the 'social' model has been exploded by the outbursts in the ghettoes, it is difficult to point to any values that are distinctly French. That is why all the recent speeches that refer to France sound so hollow. It is not surprising that people who originate from Africa or North Africa are not particularly inspired by the French flag. The emperor wears no clothes, and it is difficult to be impressed by non-existent garments.

The cumulative effect of the loss of meaning in France, and the undermining of the elite's authority, is the intensification of conflicts and divisions. The people that live in the immigrant suburbs of Paris not only lack access to resources - they are also profoundly estranged from the values and way of life associated with France. The youngsters torching cars and burning down their schools have no distinct political project or objective. They are not driven by social perspective or an Islamist ideology - at least not yet. They simply desire the kind of French prosperity that they see on the other side of the tracks, but without wanting to be associated with any idea of France.

To put it bluntly: there are no French values to share. In the absence of a common web of meaning, even small differences can turn into a major conflict. In such circumstances, there is every incentive to inflate suspicion and magnify difference. That is the politics of today, and probably of tomorrow.

One last point: the Anglo-American media have been quick to preach to the French about the enlightened ways of doing race relations, and call on them to learn from America and Britain. Maybe this learning should be the other way around. The problems that afflict France are not the result of unimaginative Gallic policymaking. They are ultimately the product of a political exhaustion that is no less prevalent in Britain or Belgium than it is in France. The solution lies not in dreaming up clever ways of managing community conflict, but in demanding that societies stop evading the fundamental questions posed in our times: what is the purpose of politics; who are we as a society; and what defines our humanity?


Silly old me! I always thought "Lady" was a term of respect!

Women are no longer ladies and older people are never senior citizens, according to equality officials at Hull City Council. Council workers were stunned, and many offended, when they received an email warning them to mind their language. In a list of unacceptable terms, girls, elderly, pet and love appeared next to words already widely recognised as being offensive, racist or homophobic.

The council has since said it should not have banded the terms together. The guide to 'professionally appropriate language' was issued on behalf of the corporate equalities manager Julie Thomson. It advises that traditional northern greetings such as duck, flower, dear or sweetheart are unacceptable and women should only ever be referred to as women. Likewise, older people are never senior citizens or wrinklies and disabled people should not be called wheelchair bound or infirm.

Liberal Democrat leader Carl Minns said the guide was a classic example of political correctness gone mad. "My initial reaction was a mixture of being quite offended and quite amused," he said. "I was offended because it was a blanket email and the implication was that I'm using inappropriate language and amused because it's a typical silly season story. "But I think that by putting really offensive language next to words like ladies and elderly it cheapens the effect. "Any public organisation has to have a set of standards where it treats people courteously and efficiently but the way to do that is to treat people as individuals and be sensible about it," he said.

The council said the guide was based on a manual published by the TUC and Unison, entitled Diversity in Diction, Equality in Action. "The guide highlighted older descriptions that have been, or are being, phased out of common use, as well as derogatory terms that are wholly unacceptable," a spokeswoman said. "There is obviously a world of difference between these terms and the council accepts that these should not have been banded together under one 'catch all' heading of 'unacceptable'."

The acting head of equalities Alan McKenzie has since written to everyone who received the email to apologise "unreservedly". "Clearly it caused offence to many people and for that I can only apologise


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