Nearly everyone in France is proud of the “French social model”, if only because it is so different from the hated and feared “ultra-liberal Anglo-American” ways. For a people of high average intelligence, the French ignorance and credulity about the outside world is often staggering. Lurid tales about the misery of working people in Britain and the cruel lack of health care and poverty relief in America are avidly lapped up and much satisfaction is felt that such horrors are safely warded off by the pride of progressive France, the most caring and universal “social model” ever realized.

The principal achievement of this “model” is that it has maintained unemployment at about 10 per cent since it was fully unfolded in the 1980s and looks like maintaining it around this level in the years to come. To this somewhat doctored figure should be added another 1-1.5 per cent in make-believe employment funded with public subventions, and 1.2 million of mostly young people not eligible for unemployment who receive a minimum income of about $400 a month. Regular visitors to France testify that they see more beggars on the streets than ever. However, French opinion from the presidential and ministerial level downwards, is convinced that unemployment and poverty are the result of “the Crisis” (there is always some undefined crisis going on in the outside world and France is always its victim). The “social model” is not its cause; rather, it serves as the bulwark against it.

The Revolt of the Idle

With the model at cruising speed, an average of a mere 80 parked vehicles a night are burnt by small street gangs in search of a kick. At 30,000 vehicles per annum, the loss is hardly remarked. When last November the nightly burnings hit a peak of 1,400 vehicles, not to speak of the (partial) burning of 255 schools and kindergartens, 233 town halls and other public buildings and even a church as the gangs competed with each other for reputation and television coverage, stoning firemen and battling the police, the “social model” was manifestly running in top gear. The police made 4,700 arrests, though it could secure only 600 prison sentences from notoriously left-leaning magistrates who would “see no evil, hear no evil” and let the rest go for lack of evidence.

After the mutual exhaustion of rioters and the police brought things back to dismal normalcy, frenzied efforts got under way to explain, and explain away, what had happened. The intelligentsia of the Left Bank concluded that the riots were a very understandable protest against “social exclusion” in the high-rise ghettoes on the outskirts of Paris and other big cities where mostly second-generation descendants of Arab and black immigrants are cooped up, crushed by inequality and racial discrimination. The trigger of the broad revolt was allegedly pulled by the maverick minister of the interior, a suspected “ultraliberal”, who unforgivably called some of the rampaging youths “riff-raff” and “scum”.

This version of the story is mostly arrant nonsense, high-fallutin’ rhetoric and also axe-grinding. The obvious reason for the flare-up is that a mass of closely packed young males living in almost total idleness, with their most likely prospect being continued idleness as far in the future as they can look, is as unstable as some kinds of high explosive. To be made to get up in the morning, wear clean clothes, do work involving reasonable physical exertion, forced to speak articulate French instead of the slurred argot they use to demarcate themselves, would liberate them from their deadly boredom and make them employable. However, putting them through such a cure would involve coercion, would “degrade and stigmatise them” and is politically unthinkable.

The Curse of Futile Education

There is one sacred purpose, though, for which coercion is not only permissible, but an actual virtue, and that is compulsory education to the age of 16 in what is arguably the world’s most rigid, standardized, self-willed, exacting yet ineffective systems of public education. Dozens of books have been written about the decline and degradation of the once glorious French state schools due to a mixture of political cowardice, egalitarian dreams, union tyranny and silly dogmas. The single-minded aim of the French public school is to push 80 per cent of final-year students through the baccalaureat, an examination in abstract subjects. Every graduate of the “bac” is entitled to a place at a university, and those who do not get some kind of diploma or degree are seen as failures or dropouts. Stooping to a blue-collar job is considered humiliating and a waste of precious education.

The net effect is a flood of unemployable psychologists, sociologists, law and arts graduates whose learning, such as it is, is of no use to anyone and most of whom are destined to live on unemployment benefits and in permanent boredom. Children of coloured immigrants have even worse chances for reasons I will come to presently.

At the same time, there is all over the country a chronic shortage of plumbers, electricians, masons, carpenters, gardeners, repairmen and handymen. Master artisans will not employ help because of the fear of paperwork and the fear of not being able to lay off the employee if need be.

The bane of an ambitious but deeply misguided education has been tragicomically illustrated after the November riots by what is not an apocryphal anecdote but a true story. Faced with 25 per cent youth unemployment (reaching 50 per cent in the “sensitive” suburbs that have rioted), and with a great shortage of blue-collar skills, the premier Mr. de Villepin announced that henceforth 14-year olds will be allowed to become apprentices and not be forced to attend school until they turned 16. The teachers’ unions produced the expected sound and fury about equality of opportunity and the socialist parties the expected condemnation of humiliation and leaving children to fend for themselves. What was shockingly unexpected was the reaction of the employers. One of their spokesmen apologetically explained that it is really quite important for apprentices to be able to read and write, and therefore it might be a little unwise to let them leave school at 14. A glowing tribute, this, to the results achieved by French state education that, incidentally, consumes one quarter of the budget of central and local government and is perpetually and stridently asking for more as the number of school-age children is falling.

Do the Riots Predict Decline Or Breakdown?

The failure of “anti-elitist” universal education to teach pupils to read and write, let alone to spell and do sums—and above all to behave—is shared by many nations. The bias against blue-collar occupations shown by the educational establishment and the “culture” that surrounds it, and its over-production of hopeless aspirants for white-collar careers that society cannot offer, is more particularly French and is an obvious source of bitterness and instability. Second-generation Arab and black youths are the worst affected by it. This looks like discrimination on grounds of race. The government rejects affirmative action as contrary to the precepts of equality. Instead, it is throwing money it has not got at “social housing” to thin out the ghettoes, it promises to double the teaching staff at the worst schools and will recruit for state jobs preferentially from the rebellious suburbs.

Some of the devices it is grasping at border on the pathetic. A prize example is the attempt to promote, and perhaps to make mandatory, the anonymous job application. The C.V. must not contain the name, age, sex and address of the applicant to stop employers discriminating against Arabs, blacks and also whites living in the suburbs that are politely called “sensitive”. Employers are very unlikely to recruit anonymous applicants and would certainly find ways to get round such a measure, but the government can at least say that it is trying.

When unemployment is as high as the “social model” makes it, thanks to its top—heavy social insurance premiums which raise wage costs to the employer way above the take-home pay employees must get, many things start going awry in a society. One of them is discrimination: employers will recruit, if they recruit at all, among candidates about whom they know the most, who have credible sponsors and are within easy reach. Discrimination against Arabs and blacks will stop when unemployment decreases and the labour market reaches equilibrium—an outcome blocked by the elaborate barrier of the much-touted “French model”.

The three weeks of mayhem in November 2005 had little or nothing to do with Islam, ethnicity, misery, and not much with the drug trade, except insofar as such things will thrive better when unemployment breeds hopelessness and boredom. The rebellion had no leaders, was spontaneous and chaotic.

It did damage France’s reputation as a civilised tourist destination, but its direct material cost was a fleabite. It was, however, a warning signal that all is far from well with the French “social model”. The chances are that the smallish explosion of November 2005 will not be followed by a much bigger breakdown within a few years. The most likely scenario is still that the country will continue to decline relatively smoothly. The remaining, smaller probability that the “model” will self-destruct, however, has become distinctly more visible since the riots.


*Anthony de Jasay is an Anglo-Hungarian economist living in France. He is the author, a.o., of The State (Oxford, 1985), Social Contract, Free Ride (Oxford 1989) and Against Politics (London,1997). His latest book, Justice and Its Surroundings, was published by Liberty Fund in the summer of 2002.

The State is also available online on this website.

For more articles by Anthony de Jasay, see the Archive.