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French Society Is Flawed
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Editor
Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" (2006)

Social upheaval has been part of the French psyche. The French Revolution in the closing decade of the 1700 saw the emergence of a new ruling elite and radical thinking based on liberty, equality and fraternity.

These concepts still rule the French society, as we saw during the student movement in the late 1960s, and more recently when a new employee contract was drawn up. The agreement, which allowed employers to fire new staffers without justification at any time within their first two years, was contested so aggressively that the country's Prime Minister had to step down. The deal went into the dustbin.

Earlier, Parisian suburbs were in flames when French North Africans, mainly Algerians, who live in ghetto-like conditions, gave vent to their anger over unequal opportunities. Denied many privileges and rights, including jobs –overtly or covertly – they adopted violence to fight such injustice.

Prejudice and discrimination have been part of their lives since the days of French colonization. A new film, "Days of Glory," by Rachid Bouchareb reveals how the Government has been denying pension to the North African ex-servicemen who fought along with the French Army during World War II. The movie also shows how the French stole credit for those victories that the North Africans won over the Nazis.

One has always noticed a trace of bitterness among the French North Africans, and the country's slide into a state of flaw has merely widened the rift between them and the French French. Sociologist Mermet has this pessimistic view to offer: "Things will radicalise," he says "There is a real risk of explosion. We are in a pre-revolutionary situation."

French cinema too has been reminding citizens how close the nation is to anarchy. A new work by Sofia Coppola, "Marie Antoinette," paints the last days of the French monarchy at Versailles to highlight how an unfeeling queen (who asked her subjects to eat cake if bread was unavailable) and a weak king provoked the people into storming the Bastille, which signaled the start of the revolution. The message here is clear: a Government unresponsive to the plight of its people faces the danger of being toppled, a situation that can lead to lawlessness and rebellion.

Much of France's present-day woe arises out of a combination of good intentions, bad policies and vested interests. After all, it cannot be denied that among the rich Western European and North American States, France, despite its poor job creation efforts and an alarming rise in unemployment, has the most impressive social spending record. Significant pension increases and labour law innovation are part of this.

Yet, poverty has been spreading. There are 4.5 million poor people in France out of its total 60 million. Another 5 million survive barely above the poverty line. Today, 30 percent of the French youth have no work, and 75 percent are underemployed.

Timothy B. Smith says in his book, "France in Crisis," that the "big" State in the French style is not necessarily a "Socialist" State. A Socialistic society spreads costs and benefits, burdens and responsibilities in a more equitable fashion than this. France was a more Socialist nation in 1980 than it was in 2000, than it is now.

Struggling to come to grips with rising crime, sluggish growth, joblessness, poverty, religious extremism and racism, France still lives off the 1960s and the 1970s boom time, made possible by a robust post-War economy. The French are still plundering these assets. But, these are rapidly shrinking and will disappear soon.

There are some who want this "loot" to continue, this state of affairs to carry on, because they still enjoy the bonuses that have never been, in the first place, accounted for in France's statistics. These vested interests have triumphed over the notion of common good.

French writer and journalist Francois de Closets writes in his new book that "France is now divided into those who are protected and those who are fed to the lions. Even more distressingly, these protected elites justify their egoism by couching their discourse in terms such as justice and equality."

Once egalitarian and fraternal, France is now frighteningly unequal and fragmented, largely because some have stubbornly refused to allow change. The society is utterly flawed, smug and selfish.

With most French men and women in financially dire straits, the government must realise that the system needs to be overhauled. An attempt must be made to return to the founding principles. Social and economic reforms are imperative to check France from sliding further into the pit. But will the privileged allow this to happen?

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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.






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