Saturday, November 12, 2005

France and all the rest …

My crumbs, I hear you cry … an entry. After my failed attempt at an entry last week, I am able to write to you again. So much has happened in the last week. Two weeks of riots have hit French cities and according to some people may extend to a wider European audience. For me the riot has been in my diary as things seem to be double booked and VERY busy.

France has always been a hot-bed for discussion for a couple of years now since my time there when student protests against education reforms took place. These were the result of ultra-conservative elements in the French government were forcing through reforms that were seen as limiting students’ choice. There was air of social discontent. I used to have a poster on my wall from a socialist students’ union in France which condemned President Chirac as old, out of touch and part of the gentrified elite. If France had an aristocracy this man would be a part of it and French students felt that they were being ignored.

At the same time as I was in France, I sang in a Choir that was based in a poor district where many of the population were from the former French colonies. During the current disturbances, the hall where I sang has been destroyed. The areas of Echirolles and Village Olympique also came to my attention when I did some work with France Bleu Isère, the local radio station. I paid a visit to a school which was being added to a Zone d’Education Prioritaire (a ZEP, a priority education zone). I spoke to the headmaster. He condemned his pupils saying that all they wanted to be were footballers and stars of ‘Star Ac’ (a Fame Academy equivalent). He defined his role as making sure that these people from a deprived area did the least bad possible. At the same time the difficult discussion over the future of the Muslim hijab (head scarf) was going on and pupils were being excluded for adhering to their religion. Once again the French state was trying to be the dominant culture and a right-wing angle of government was dominating culture.

When I spoke to French friends, there was a feeling that the individuals race and religion were unimportant. They should not be used to define my nationality. They saw themselves as French above all. The problem is that parts of society that were not middle class, Republican (ie defending the French republic) and a-religious then you felt ostracised.

A few weeks ago I attended an night at the University of Sheffield Union of Students. It was an indie night where the music was brilliant but not main-stream. The individuals there were looking to define themselves by the music they listened to. People at times feel lost in a big wave of society and looking at these dancing, sweaty music-lovers I realised our need to find similar people both to relate to and define ourselves by. We need to join a minority group as a way of forming individual identity and class is a good social identifier. This can be religion, sexuality or cultural decisions.

In France, the rioters are protesting against the state’s attempts to remove their individual identity. They are not all the same as the state wants them to be identical. This lack of satisfaction with the state, I came across when I lived in Lyon for a month at the end of my first year at university. The man I lived with commented that ‘there are more swimming pools around the local assembly than communists.’ He very much felt that his political opinion was being missed. The previous summer I spent time with my French teacher’s parents who insisted on still using ‘Anciens Francs’ and this can still be seen in France. The Ancien Franc, is the currency before, the Euro and before the Franc, dating back some thirty years but the French felt so distanced from the state who saw the economic situation rather than the individual identity of its peoples.

When examining those who are rioting, it is not purely arabs. The riots this afternoon in Place Bellecour in Lyon were white, black and arabs. They are protesting about a system of government which seemed old-fashioned and distant. An economy which is stagnating with unemployment at about 12%. The state is not perceived as being great on the world stage and the French feel saddened that they could not even win the Olympics. The state is seen as treading water and not actually going away.

To be clear, these riots should not be seen as being bigger than they really are. This is no May 1968, the protests which eventually lead to the downfall of De Gaulle. There are no leaders to the movement and few links with official Political movements or Trade Unions. However, journalists in France are trying to tie today’s riots with those of forty years ago as well as simplifying them down to a simple case of race riots.

Over the last two weeks at Journalism school I have been concentrating on what I write, how to get the essential out of a story and how to be very concise. At times, I fear that the truth could be lost with all that. At the same time, I have been popping off to Chesterfield, some ten minutes from Sheffield. As I wandered the streets, it was all my lessons coming together. Suddenly, I kept falling over news stories from Sexual Health Clinics to repairing the Church roof. From dog walking qualifications to the local hospice. So much is happening. The law, ethics, researching techniques and broadcast capabilities are starting to come together. It just makes me irritated when I watch the news and questions are not posed by the journalists, yet alone answered or when the story is over-simplified.

What is happening in France is not the simple race riots that are being portrayed by the media. The situation is far more complicated and my job as a future journalist is to be able to show not the scandalous or blinkered. I have to tell the whole story as honestly as I can. But the details of the life of a trainee journalist I think is an entry for another day.

As the French say, whatever their creed, politics, religion or position in the riots,

A plus, CJG x

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