Amid the pandemonium at the Gare du Nord last Tuesday afternoon, when a stand-off between police and French youths degenerated into a pitched battle that lasted well into the evening, an English family sat calmly sipping cups of tea.
‘There seems to be an awful lot of police about,’ remarked my friend Rhino’s step-Mum. ‘Can you pass the milk?’
Below them, in the shopping centre under the Eurostar terminal where Rhino’s parents had arrived for a weekend break in the City of Light, the familiar stench of tear gas filled the air. A reminder of the tensions still simmering after the November 2005 riots that swept across immigrant neighbourhoods.
In contrast to the remarkable British sang-froid displayed by Rhino’s family, the presidential candidates worked themselves up into a pitch of excitement. Socialist candidate Segolene Royal pointed the finger squarely at Nicolas Sarkozy, who had just stepped down from his job as France’s No. 1 cop. She accused the right of failing on crime issues, while centrist candidate Francois Bayrou said Sarkozy’s policies were alienating suburban youth. Sarkozy, ignoring whistles and cat-calls as he took the train from the Gare du Nord the next day, defended the police and claimed the left were siding with hooligans and law-breakers.
France politicians, it seems, are just as excitable as the country’s youth, turning a relatively minor incident, which resulted in the arrest of 13 people, into a campaign issue. It’s a reflection of the collective madness, what I call French Schizophrenia, that is gripping the world’s sixth largest economy. There is no structure to the debate among the presidential candidates about France’s future. The campaign is unpredictable, a whirlwind of emotion, driven by the feeling of the moment rather than a clear political direction. And after five years of growing fear and uncertainty, a clear direction is exactly what France needs.
(For a first-hand account of the therapeutic benefits of tea-drinking during riots, I bring you Rhino and his fabulous Bookpacker blog.) P.S. I did not steal the wallpaper from him. It’s just we both have good taste.