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les evenements My grandfather died at Dien Bien Phu; my great-grandparents in Russia were shot by the Bolsheviks and my father began to work for the right-wing newspaper Minute when he was 18. les evenements
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The Independent Culture
The first six months of Jacques Chirac's presidency have been a time of turmoil. Bombs, strikes and riots have rocked the country. Racial tension, high unemployment, economic uncertainty and international opprobrium over nuclear testing combine to create an atmosphere of national malaise. In this report, Mary Dejevsky, The Independent's Paris correspondent, analyses the traumas and their causes, and, in a series of interviews in the capital and outside, Angela Lambert hears the voices of a nation in painful spasm. Portraits by Jean-Christian Bourcart

Jacques Chirac, Frenchman, populist politician and cartoonist's dream, has been in office barely six months out of his seven-year mandate. He might seem, on the face of it, an ideal leader of France, embodying all the virtues and vices of the people he was elected to lead: their style, their quirkiness, their arrogance, their courtliness and their volatility. Yet he already has to confront crises on almost every front.

The jobs he promised have not yet materialised; his Government's economic measures have reassured neither the public nor the markets, and have destabilised the franc. His diplomacy, with the early exception of his Bosnia demarches, has left France isolated even from long-standing friends. Recent bomb attacks have cast doubt on the President's ability to protect France, sapped confidence and sown new divisions between the white and brown populations.

Mr Chirac's fall from grace in the eyes of French voters has been the steepest of any elected president. But the fault may not be entirely his. A Gaullist of a highly traditional stamp, he has arrived in power just when France is caught up in social and cultural transitions of a historic order.

Six months ago, French voters understood that perhaps better than he did. It was less his nationalistic Gaullism that attracted than his Gaullist one-nationism because it met their concern about debilitating social divisions. Now, they discover that his Gaullism is indivisible. They have elected an old-style French politician when they understood the need for a new- style politician with an international dimension.

To this extent, the crisis is less one of leadership, or even competence, than of France's need to complete a painful transition from the Fifties to the Nineties while still remaining French. This is a transition between generations and cultures that holds great threats and great promises, and exposes great gulfs in understanding on the way.

These gulfs opened up most strikingly in the fracas over nuclear testing. Many younger French people and, it appeared, some of the younger ministers, thought Mr Chirac had been elected to heal France's domestic social ills, not to alienate the world or pollute the South Seas.

It was no good for Mr Chirac to cite scientific data and say that nuclear tests do not pollute. While he may have been technically right, the public debate in France was not about science. Nor, unfortunately for Mr Chirac, was it about sovereignty or defence. It was about France's self-image and about joining the modern world. In failing to recognise this, Mr Chirac emerged as a political relic, out of tune not just with much of world opinion, but with his own younger generation. Even for France, standing alone against the world is now a hard act; it will become even harder.

A second sign of the times was the seemingly trivial case of Mr Juppe and his plush Paris flat. Could signing over to yourself a rather desirable piece of real estate, not to own, but only to rent, really cause the downfall of a prime minister, in France? Last month, it very nearly did.

Mr Juppe was unlucky. His years in power have straddled a period of change that his technocrat's brain may have grasped, but not his political wit. In 1990, as a deputy mayor of Paris responsible for the city's finances, he signed a lease on a large and prestigious flat owned by the council; the city fathers paid for its refurbishment. His rent was set at less than two-thirds of the market rate.

Mr Juppe's son and daughter, his first wife and his half-brother were also allocated subsidised flats in this sector of privileged council housing. Then, this was nothing unusual; it was just one of the unquestioned privileges available to the elite, and Mr Juppe, acknowledged to be one of the least corruptible of men, had qualified for the elite through hard work and academic brilliance.

But what was a minor privilege five years ago, became a political millstone over the summer, not - it appears - through personal or political jealousy on anyone's part, but because unearnt benefits of this kind are on the way to becoming unacceptable to voters. The trend could already be seen when the candidates' personal assets became an issue in this year's presidential election.

There is, of course, plenty more conventional corruption in French public life; some of it a legacy of dubious political funding practices; some the large-scale endemic corruption found in local and national government the world over. But the Juppe affair and those related to it are different. They represent the decline of assumed privilege, perhaps even its end.

A margin note to the Juppe affair was supplied by the fit of public doubting that accompanied celebrations for the 50th anniversary of France's elite college of administration, the Ecole nationale d'administration (ENA), in early October. Mr Juppe, once a star student, declined to preside at the anniversary ceremony; the rumour was that he thought it bad for his image.

The questioning, by ex-students among others, was profound. Had the ENA - until very recently the pride and joy of France - outlived its usefulness? Had its tradition of highly academic excellence, applied across politics, civil service and industry, with almost guaranteed lifetime employment for its graduates, perhaps handicapped France economically and socially? Even a year or so ago, such introspection would have been heresy; it might even have been condemned as unpatriotic. No longer. There is now talk of the ENA's amalgamation with a more practically orientated college of administration; even of its closure.

A fourth, and perhaps more ominous, sign of the times is the French public's response to the security measures introduced after the bomb attacks and the killing of the terrorist suspect, Khaled Kelkal. Opinion has been deeply split along ethnic and generational lines.

With segregation of communities more conspicuous in France than in most of Britain, it was a shock for white French city dwellers to learn that at least some of the recent bombs were probably planted not by the crack troops of international terrorism, but by youths from their own inner cities, youths like Kelkal, educated - and alienated - by France.

France has between five and six million first or second generation immigrants of North African origin. Where cultural assimilation and integration was the order of the day, and largely accepted by the older generation, at least as an ideal, their children are caught between the world of the Maghreb and their often unsatisfactory experience of France. Their active discontent is now fostering a rethink of social policy that could either make France a more genuinely mixed society or spark open revolt.

A final, perhaps extreme, but still telling sign of strain, highlights changing families and lifestyle. When a 16-year-old youth went berserk in the small southern village of Cuers in September, shooting dead three members of his family, two friends and ten other people, it emerged that the incidence of multiple killings in France had risen sharply over the past five years. While the most murderous by far, the Cuers episode was the sixth multiple killing this year. Each began as a family killing, each involved step-relatives or in-laws and almost always involved people living, or recently moved, from the deep countryside.

It does not take much imagination to see in these tragedies a heightened expression of the tensions afflicting a society moving away from extended rural families accustomed to living under one roof, to looser family structures of the sort most common in towns. In Britain, the move from the countryside and the loosening of the family structure happened in sequence. In parts of rural France, the two processes are coinciding, sometimes, helped by the ubiquity of the hunting rifle, with murderous effects.

A consideration of multiple family killings takes the argument very far from Mr Chirac and his abilities or otherwise to succeed as president of France, but it underlines a reality. To blame Mr Chirac for the malign effects of the profound, and - in north European terms - belated changes now in progress, is to underestimate what is happening in France today. Equally, if in seven years' time France has weathered the transition and emerged less divided, more outgoing, but still French, the credit will not belong entirely to the President.

Kamel (he is afraid to give his full name)

is 22, second-generation Algerian, unemployed; lives at home with his parents and several of his 11 siblings in Pantin, a banlieu in the northeast of Paris. We meet in the back room of an Algerian restaurant, lined with paintings of Algerians in national dress. He is nervous and very much on the defensive

Both my parents were born in Algeria and came here in 1962, at the end of the war. Most Arabs live in the suburbs outside the Peripherique [the ring road that surrounds Paris] where the atmosphere is explosive. It is more a matter of atmosphere than of actual events. So far there have been no deaths but plenty of Molotov cocktails ... It's much worse than when I was growing up. Now, I'm afraid all the time.

As a child, I never had any idea what I would do and no dreams, either. It was very hard at school. They were all boys, mostly Arabs - only two or three French in the class - and they were always rowdy and mucking about and made it difficult to learn. I left school at 17, I lacked the right grades. Three months after leaving school I hadn't found work. Then I got a job for a short time delivering pizzas. The company was run by a Portuguese. I've never worked for French people. Whenever I rang up and tried for a job I was turned down because of 1) my name; 2) the area I live in and 3) my voice. It's hard not to think it was racism. It's got worse and worse. Now I sell flowers or odds and ends in the market but the other traders keep their distance and are bloody-minded. The French may not have been racist in the past but they certainly are now. You can't even walk into an ordinary bar or cafe - you get filthy looks. I don't walk out, I stay, even if somebody insults me. This is a democracy. I have that right.

I used to have friends with good jobs but now most of them have left the company or factory because it was getting bad and they could feel the aggression. Wherever you go you face prejudice - from other people, from the police - you feel hatred all the time. The young French are more or less untouchable because the police are always racist - always, always.

You're harassed all the time and nobody cares. It's a daily event. You have to produce your identity card all the time - every day it happens, every day - and it makes me angry - I hate the people who govern us - I didn't bother to vote because I'm not for any of them. Left or right, it makes no difference.

For young Arab women, les Beurettes, it's easier to get jobs in shops, selling things, as waitresses - on the other hand they're more afraid, especially if they're pretty. At least we as men can express it; the women just have to suppress it and all their fears are internal.

OK, perhaps it's not everybody but even when people say Good morning and smile at you, that's hypocrisy. The growth of Islamic fundamentalism has made it worse. They call us Islamistes - I am French: I have a French identity card. I was born here - and I'm sick of people getting up on TV and calling me names, bracketing me in their stereotypes. I'm from Pantin: that's my locality, my area. I've only been to Algeria twice in my life.

I'm not an extremist, but believe me, I'm beginning to wish I were. I'm sick of all this. You push and push and everybody beats you back. What are you supposed to do? Sometimes I tremble inwardly: What can I do? "

Let's not dream, Madame! I live with my parents - I've got no choice. I've got six sisters and five brothers. We've all been very well brought up but only one of my brothers works. If I wanted to marry, how could I? I can't have a home, I can't start a family. It's not normal. For an Arab to succeed is impossible. You struggle all the time against humiliation. Yet there are very few Arabs in old people's homes - for us, that's unimaginable. It's part of our culture: we just wouldn't abandon a member of the family. It's harder for us to get rich because we have to take responsibility for everyone in the family.

The image I'd like you to present of us is of people who are like everybody else - ordinary, welcoming, hospitable, generous - but that's not allowed. We invited some journalists to come and hear the best of the Arab singers - really somebody wonderful - but nobody came. Imagine, if we'd said, "There's going to be a riot, a big fight" - everybody would have been there! How do you change people's ideas, take away the fear and prejudice and the hatred? There's 50 years to be undone.

Cyril de Beketch

25, unemployed, joined the Front National in 1985 at the age of 15 because he wanted to be politically involved. Cyril is modest and diffident and looks younger than 25. He carries his own tape recorder, so I presume he is recording our interview.

My grandfather died at Dien Bien Phu; my great-grandparents in Russia were shot by the Bolsheviks and my father began to work for the right- wing newspaper Minute when he was 18. My family is very nationalistic but basically very anti-Communist.

I don't fight against, I fight for ... for a whole, complete France, for the traditions and history of France. I'm not backward-looking, but the price of change must not be an annihilation of our difference as French people.

The main problem today is that the Government of this country does not have the strength to govern and get the country back on its feet. Today we must fundamentally modify the basis of French politics and society. If we had a government with proper authority the problem of immigration would disappear. Chirac is a grave mistake. He has risen but he is not capable of governing. He was Prime Minister and had various other important jobs, but he has made no fundamental changes. Mitterrand said that three months after being elected President, Chirac would be ridiculed - and it's happened. Now he's on the point of changing his Prime Minister. It's madness! I think Le Pen would have made the best President out of all the candidates - he's extremely intelligent. I don't want a civil war and I believe Le Pen could be President without violence.

When I joined the Front Nationale (FN) ten years ago I was at the lycee. I was not a very diligent student and I didn't like school because there were lots of lazy and rebellious pupils and I had respect for authority. So I left and started work at 18 as a writer with National Echo - one of the party journals. I stayed two years and then left for a more interesting job with a different publisher, still handling the same ideas. I stayed for four years and left last year when I was made redundant. Now I'm unemployed. I used to have my own flat but since then I've gone back home to live with my parents.

I wouldn't call myself a member of the extreme right because they have many ideas which I don't share. I'm a sort of anarchist of the right - but the word has quite a different meaning in France. It means to admire the rights of the individual.

I'm not at all racist. I don't think I'm superior because of the colour of my skin. I'm a nationalist and in favour of the protection of the nation and above all, the family. When I go abroad I have no problem at all with foreigners. I respect their differences and their rules. But not all foreigners here respect our rules. It's a problem of integration. There should be special places for them to live - ghettos in the city which will offer everything so people can live in a community with others who speak their own language. Today we have the problem of the second generation of immigrants, from non-assimilated parents. They are neither fully French and integrated nor properly share their parents' culture.

Nowadays if you sing the Marseillaise you are cursed as an odious Fascist. Frankly, for me, the problem comes from perverting the spirit of France by trying to make us integrate the newcomers at no matter what cost - people who are without any respect for the country that has accepted and welcomed them.

Jeannot Balde

65, is the owner of a traditonal village shop, cafe and petrol pump in Mangiennes in northeast France. Next door is the village cafe, which M Balde also owns, as did his wife's father and grandfather before him. His daughter lectures in economics; his son is a market gardener. He is about to retire, having sold the shop to a Dutch couple who spotted it when holidaying in the area

I don't know a lot about politics - I've never been all that interested - but to be honest, France is too generous to other countries. I'm not racist, but some of those people - they wouldn't dare to behave in their own countries as they do here. We've pulled out of Algeria - their problems are not our problems any more.

I don't think the immigrants are bad for France - we've always needed people like them - it's just that today, I think it's gone a bit too far. A Dutch woman bought a holiday home near here several years ago; then some friends came and found the village agreeable and they bought and restored an old house. Now there are five Dutch families who use houses here as holiday homes. Other than them, we have no immigrants in this village, but the Dutch are very sympa, very well-integrated. They learn to speak quite good French.

The shop has been like this since 1920 but now I've got to the age of retirement and found a successor, I'm taking advantage of that to sell up. My wife's grandparents took on the business. He had been a prisoner of war in Germany and when he came back after the First World War he bought it and the petrol pumps outside. At that time there were other shops in the village too, but for the past ten years we've been the only one. We're the heart of village life. Everybody depends on us. If someone runs out of petrol or has a crash, even in the middle of the night, they ring up and they know I'll go out with a jerry can to get them home. Lots of old people used to shop here and we would deliver to them, just as a service, because we were nearby.

Now people either use the travelling provision vans that pass through, or, if they have cars, go to the big supermarkets. It's been the death of small local shops. Today you'll find very few cafes in the country, partly because of the new laws designed to repress alcoholism, but also because people no longer seem to want to use the places in their immediate neighbourhood.

I used to be open six-and-a-half days a week and I knew everyone. Before 1940 there were 700 inhabitants of this village; now it's down to 350 - half. The old have dispersed; the young want to go and work elsewhere - all the local factories have closed down. Ten years ago there were ten buses coming round to collect people from the village and bus them to and from their workplace. Now there are none. People looking for work have to go a long way for it.

The big supermarkets forced the small country shops to lower their prices and they also sell petrol at prohibitive prices. We just can't be competitive. For us, cheese only lasts eight days; then we have to throw it away. People used to be able to delay paying me by up to 14 days - there was a reciprocal trust between us and our customers: I could leave the door of the shop open and the key in the till and if people wanted something they'd come and help themselves and put in the right money. Nobody would ever steal. The mentality today is different, or perhaps it's people's needs.

Rene and Marie-Louise Latouche

52 and 50, live on their dairyfarm. They have 126 cows - mostly Charollais - and 90 hectares of good grazing land with a further 60 hectares of forest. Marie-Louise is Mayor of Mangiennes, near Verdun in northeastern France.

Rene: I'm for conservation of one's patrimony. I'll have nothing to do with the left. We agricultural people are more inclined to the right in politics . We're not for Chirac. It's my conviction that [Edouard] Balladur would have made a better president than Chirac. We're all very attached to our land, and though Chirac says he is too, he means la France - the image of France. So we have to have a strong franc even if costs the French dear. The price for my farmed veal fell from 18 francs per kilo last year to 14 francs this year.

I was born 30 miles from here. My father was a butcher and I became the biggest pig producer in the Meuse, but I stopped in 1981 because I couldn't compete with Dutch and Belgian pork. I had always kept some cows as well and I turned over entirely to raising dairy calves. I was lucky in that when I started my working life, the Credit Agricole was a bank solely for farmers. Interest rates were two-and-a-half to four per cent and the bank manager was a friend. Often he wouldn't let me pay interest. Nowadays farmers have to play at being bankers - and t hey pay 12 per cent interest. Credit Agricole has become the biggest bank in France and no longer just deals with small farmers - whom it understood - and we have taxes and rates to pay as well.

We have benefited from EU subsidies, but that's because you put up a building and they'll give you 62 per cent of the cost but there are constant checks on you, perhaps by an English person or a German. I personally have been checked three times in one year. They check your pregnant cows, check the injections, check that you've got the right identification. Ten years ago, there were 12 farmers in this area; now there are just three. Nowadays you have to work for the love of it, financially, it doesn't pay. If it were for the money alone, no one would do it.

Things were better under Pompidou when he was Minister of Agriculture. He was pro-French. Since the end of Pompidou, life has been more difficult for us. Pompidou valued us and made factory and agricultural workers equal. We paid fewer rates and taxes then.

I was in Algeria in '62. I was young, I wanted to see the world, visit a foreign country. The Arabs (he nods) - now there's a problem. I saw the first generation arriving in France. There's no work for them. What are they supposed to do?

In 1973, when the oil price went up, a 680 tractor, 60 horse power, cost 38,000 francs, the cost of nine cows. Today, it's three times the price, so it costs me 27 cows. Working tools are much more modern and sophisticated nowadays, but much more expensive.

They want to do everything with industrial machinery, but farming isn't an industry. The expectations of today's young are different yet for me, the only right methods are the traditional methods.

Mme Latouche: I am unpaid and call myself someone without a profession - yet nobody else could do for my husband what I do. I could never work in an office. I love my metier. We have no constraints - we live a simple, natural life with simple pleasures like watching the dogs take a piss in the mornings."

Will they ever retire?

M Latouche: Soon, I hope! The farm is sold. They saw by satellite that the land was ideal to bury the rubbish from Paris because it has no wells or water. It was perfect. It shocked me. I've been here since 1952. It used to be the case that you'd never let your land - le terrain - go. People used to buy little by little, parcels of land, all through their lives. Now they'd rather have two foreign holidays a year.

A man turned up one day and offered to buy me out, and my son negotiated the price. They turned my plans upside down. It would never have happened under Pompidou.

Mme Dinah Taieb

55, is a housewife married to a doctor. She worked for 15 years as a nurse and physiotherapist when her children were small, but when her husband suggested she stop work she did so thankfully. They live in Sceaux, a suburb to the south of Paris. Mme Taieb makes stained glass as a hobby, reads a great deal, and enjoys holidays abroad with her husband. Both her children are grown up and live away from home.

Undoubtedly there is a great feeling of illness and unease in France right now. After an election, there's a six-month period of grace during which the new President can pass whatever laws, bring in whatever measures he likes. Chirac hasn't taken advantage of that. He's done nothing. Alain Juppe is very intelligent but he's not a Prime Minister. Chirac was an excellent mayor but as President he's exceeded his competence. Things have definitely deteriorated.

I couldn't have voted for Chirac. I voted for Jospin. I'm a leftist - when Mitterrand came in it was a joyful day for me! But he couldn't earn the respect of the French people.

The kind of people I meet in the queue at the butcher or the post office have less and less money these days. Watch them buying a newspaper: they read the headlines and immediately insult the Government. Or in the bank - which is an extraordinary place to watch people, from the very rich to those for whom 15 francs (pounds 2) is a lot of money. Inflation is only two-and-a-half per cent, which is amazing compared to the ten per cent we had under Giscard, but the poverty is because of unemployment. You might have a family of five workers, of whom only one is earning. It's like a chronic illness which goes on and on - people blame the Government, sure, but also the young Arab and Filipinos, whom they accuse of taking work from them even though it's obvious that the Arabs themselves can't get jobs.

The attraction of the Front Nationale (FN) is based on the belief that everybody not like you is dangerous. There are many people with no security at all to whom all outsiders are dangerous. This is a very hard time in which to live and even when people do have a job they're terrified of losing it. They are afraid. I can understand how unemployed people might turn to the FN. You know that many Arabs voted for the FN? Because they were out of work, and it's the party that promises jobs. I am Jewish and so I'm viscerally opposed to the politics of the extreme right. I was educated in a religion of tolerance. I could never admit that the differences between people should make me reject them.

The mentality needs to change. How do you convince an unemployed man that sweeping the streets or cleaning out lavatories is not degrading? Children are told at school, "If you don't work hard at your lessons you'll only be plumber or a builder". They can't get work because small companies would rather hire someone for a few weeks or months and then get rid of them, than pay their national insurance. It takes a lot of courage to be a 20-year old kid these days.

Ten per cent of the population holds 65 per cent of the wealth in France. Those who do earn enough money to live well have more money than they can use. They've got a second home, they can afford long foreign holidays in China or Mexico - they've got all the privileges. All the advantages in this society go to the professions and these advantages are practically impossible to eliminate: yet there must be some redistribution of wealth and privilege. A very few people live the good life and for the rest, it's a pernicious dream.

Round here where I live, people's morale is unchanged and the lessons they inculcate into their children are the same as ever: politeness, diligence, respect. But people with perpetual money problems take their morality from the television. There's an advertisement at the moment which really shocks me, a good-looking young man on a yacht with a beautiful girl; he gives her a present and it's a jewel from Cartier. It's all very luxe, calme et volupte... now that's not a constructive advertisement to beam at people who'll never achieve it.