08:42:07 pmCategories: Politics

Security à la français: précarité and insécurité

From a large demonstration 04/10/05: “against uncertainty, for a real increase in buying power and against dismantling of the labour regulations”.

Last week I was back home for a few days, and I went to a seminar on the wide-ranging notion of safety/security (“trygghet”). As it happens, two aspects of “security” play important roles in French politics and society; however, these aspects do not seem to be very high on a security agenda in a Norwegian context. I think this difference in emphasis points to interesting economical and social differences between the two societies.

It was in fact at language school at l’Alliance française, amongst middle class students from all over the world, that I realised the insecurity the middle classes is experiencing at the moment, perhaps almost globally, but particularly in continental Europe. The buying power of the majority of the population is in many countries going down. (Excuse me for appearing naïve, but the accelerating consumerism in the Norwegian society must have blinded me to the situation elsewhere). Large parts of the population can no longer take for granted the growth and upward social mobility from one generation to the next, which has been such important forces in the capitalist societies since the second world war.

In France, unemployment among the under-25-year-olds is 21% (and of course doubled in the so-called “problem areas” (zones sensibles)). Thus précarité (insecurity, uncertainty, particularly concerning social issues, like job security) is a key aspect of French political discourse, especially among the left.

The news coverage before Christmas frequently returned to the issue of the dropping buying power, and at Christmas time the TV news showed report after report about the homeless (les SDF; sans domicile fixe). A typical story of a SDF shown on the news is about a normally well-dressed and well-kept male perhaps around the age of 40 who had “everything a few years ago, but then he lost his job…” According to a friend of mine, such stories are not common at German television. Despite high rates of unemployment, homelessness is apparently not such a big problem there. The atmosphere of la précarité in France is obviously reinforced by the enormous lack of suitable housing, a problem Germany does not suffer from.

The other aspect of security in French politics and society is l'insécurité. If the notion of précarité appeals to the left, insécurité is a winner on the right. For some reason, insécurité has particularly come to mean urban violence (but it can also be used in relation to road safety and food safety). (Since the French can’t talk about “race” and ethnicity, they have come up with a whole range of terms that can connote “race” and ethnicity… I think insécurité sometimes have such connotations, but probably not always. I will certainly return to this particular French way of talking about social and ethnic issues, which is very different from the Anglo-Saxon way).

“Insecurity” has not been very important in French politics the last 4 years (thanks to some clever political stunts by Interior Minister Sarkozy), but after an absurd incident of violence and harassment on a train in Southern France New Year’s Eve, it’s up on the agenda again – 15 months before the next presidential election, as the journalist commented. It was probably the overwhelming focus on “insecurity” in the media and in the political discourse that made the socialist candidate loose to the extreme right candidate in the 2002 elections (see “It’s better to vote than to burn cars”). Thus, if French politics are returning to the issue of insecurity now, it means that it’s taking a turn in a particular direction.

In the news today, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin announced a new employment policy for the young unemployed, a move which of course can be latched on to the précarité debate. Interior Minister Sarkozy, on the other hand, announced 700 new positions in a kind of railroad police, and a few days ago he suggested the creation of a school police as well, thus clearly an issue of l’inséurité.

Neither précarité nor insécurité have such prominent positions in the Norwegian society. As I mentioned, the difference in focus – and reality – epitomises differences between the two societies: Norway has an oil economy apparently in safe distance from the vagaries of the world (when oil prices are rising with consequences for populations all over the world, Norway is making a bigger profit than ever). The French society is noticeably part of to the rest of world – culturally, economically, politically and physically – in a different way than Norway.

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