Living on a Volcano

As I write this, violent clashes with the police have been going on for nearly two weeks in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities, with cars being set on fire at a rate of nearly 1,000 per night. Why is this happening? How far can it go?

The existence of thousands of unemployed young people, without income or roots, idle and knowing only violence to express their quest for recognition, is not particularly French. Everyone remembers the Watts, Newark, and Detroit riots in the United States in the 1960’s, and the riots in Liverpool in the UK in the early 1980’s, as well as in Bradford, Oldham, and Burnley in recent years. Likewise, France witnessed riots in Vaux-en-Velin, near Lyon, 20 years ago. So it is important to distinguish what is common to many developed countries and what is specific to France.

All the developed economies have undergone profound changes over the last 30 years. We have gone from managerial to stockowner capitalism, from economies with large doses of state direction to far more deregulated markets, from the active and expansive social policies of the 1960s’ and 1970’s to a world in which such spending is constantly shrinking.

Although wealth has been growing constantly – GDP has more than doubled in the last 50 years – the share of wages in the total has diminished by 10%, even while millions of the rich have become much richer. Everywhere, this has meant massive pauperization of the least favored part of the population. In rich countries, mass poverty, which seemed to have been eliminated around 1980, has reappeared. Access to good education, and even more so to the labor market, is increasingly restricted for many young people, especially those who come from poor or single-parent families or from minority ethnic backgrounds, languages, or religions.