Agnès Poirier: Les misérables Anglais

Unhappy, ignorant, violent, disrespectful and obsessed with celebrity and money - that's how this French writer and London resident sees us

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I grew up in the late 1970s and 1980s in one of Paris's quietest and most unfashionable eastern quarters, the kind of place where nothing happens. My parents rented their flat (they still do); my school was a 10-minute walk away, and I knew all the shopkeepers in the area. There were - and still are - no franchises where sales assistants come and go every week. I knew all the people in the area but, more importantly, they knew me.

The postman, for example, scolded me harshly the day I stole a letter from a neighbour, but he didn't tell my parents. I was so grateful, and still am whenever I bump into him. The baker's wife kept me with her behind the counter one afternoon after I had been followed by a louche figure all the way from school. She waited until my mum returned home to make sure I would not be alone.

The school I attended was a state school. Therefore, it was the best one around. Only dunces with rich parents paid for education. My school was strict, and was open to everyone. There was no bullying. I had no idea what that meant until I came to Britain in my early 20s.

As a teenager, I started going out with friends further away from my familiar environment, yet reactions from anonymous grown-ups were the same. We were asked, most often told, to shut up whenever we were too loud. We were even shouted at or chased in the streets by old concierges. In effect, we were always put back on to the tracks by an anonymous army of adults. Back on to the tracks, but not in the least subdued. We would take to the streets with our elders whenever the occasion rose. We could behave and yet dissent. And we were happy.

All this, you may think, has nothing to do with you in Britain, today. I, though, believe it offers clues to the current state of your country. And, as an outsider living here, I hope you will bear with my temerity as I suggest my own experiences offer a signpost to a better way forward.

For this is hardly the best of times for Britain: the nation is regularly denounced in international reports, and the facts tell their own story - such as London teenagers killed in their own homes. The reason why one was executed gang-style recently? He had cussed another youth by text message.

A Unicef report ("An overview of child well-being in rich countries") this month placed British children at the bottom of the league of the 21 most developed nations, branding them the least well looked-after, the worst behaved, and the least happy. The Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, was appalled and blamed the breakdown of families and called - a little naively perhaps - for absent fathers to be compelled to stay with their partner and play their role in their children's education. Speaking on the Today programme, Cameron sounded like a man possessed, making the questions and firing the arguments, all at once. Britain is sitting on the edge of a precipice. What it needs is a family man who really cares, he said.

Thank you, David, for the metaphor. On Friday, a photograph of him with, in the background, a hooded teenager performing a pulling-the-trigger gesture common to gangs, was over all British papers. That's what he meant all along, Cameron argued: social breakdown is like a gun aimed at Britain. If we don't do something soon, the whole community will take the bullet.

On the same day that Cameron was pictured visiting a community centre in Manchester, Tony Blair was holding a gun crime summit in Downing Street. Again, a crackdown on guns and tougher sentences were proposed. But, more importantly, associations and community leaders advocated greater social and family cohesion.

"Social and family cohesion" are words on everybody's lips, not only in Britain but in the whole of Europe. For while Britain may lurch behind in all the reports about children's well-being, from the Unicef survey to substantial studies from the Institute of Public Policy Research, Save the Children and the Nuffield Foundation, all Europeans are concerned about the slow decay of family values - and the impact on society.

What is happening to British youth may soon affect Dutch teenagers, even though today the latter come out best in the Unicef report. Europeans often see Britain as a weathervane of what awaits them and facts, sadly, have often proved them right. If social and family breakdown, at the levels observed in Britain, has yet to hit Scandinavian and Latin countries, some say it is only a question of time. What has so far helped them to keep a relative social and family cohesion is their culture.

What culture? Well, it is one which still declines to put money, performance, competition and consumerism at the heart of society. I have already outlined some aspects of my own upbringing, but what was key to it all was family.

There were always reunions and anniversaries, and there were always occasions to be merry, and especially to eat and drink for hours, while seated at the table. This didn't mean universal brotherly love. It often became a tempestuous mêlée about politics. Brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, parents and children would often part, cross and angry; that is, until the next celebration. Conflicts and tensions were played out aloud, theatrically, thus almost instantly defused.

At school and at home, we were not taught to outdo each other. Money was not an aim to aspire to in life. We were told everything was possible. It was only a question of will and effort. You could be what you wanted to be, a street sweeper or a cosmonaut; both were useful to society. Education was never presented as an investment in potential earning and spending power, but as personal fulfilment.

You may argue, of course, that in the past 20 years, things have changed everywhere in Europe, and not for the better. Yes, things have changed because Europe more and more embraces the culture prevailing in Britain. Why is that so? For a mixture of reasons, including fascination and blindness. The Blair years have indeed mesmerised Europeans, especially at a time when their economies seemed to stall. British arts, for very good reasons, became the toast of Europe. All things British were suddenly fashionable: Blairism, Burberry and bling.

European youth started flocking to London. But the majority of the young Europeans who went on to stay and live in Britain came only for the dosh, not forShakespeare. They can be found working where solidarity and humanity are dirty words: the City.

While wealth and celebrity were glorified, in the rest of Britain the cost of living simply rose; the gap between rich and poor stretched beyond reason; the meaning of life was filled by shopping; schools became obsessed with league tables.

Britain has become richer, but is it happier? If what I describe seems obvious, it is striking to me as a Frenchwoman living here that no British politician wants either to identify the culprit or take the necessary measures, as this would entail a revolutionary overhaul. To say that ultra-liberalism, deregulation and capitalism are the core of the matter would be considered political suicide in Britain. It is, however, common sense: a culture based on celebrity and money, as Britain is today, can bring only social havoc. To undo it requires political will. Principled policies can, in turn, breed a new culture.

Education is, of course, at the heart of public policy. It must be excellent, free and open to all. Financed by all through the taxation system, it must act as a neutral, secular place, where children of all backgrounds mix.

Gordon Brown's idea of creating a children's minister at cabinet level may be a step in the right direction. However, if British politicians persist with US-style taxation and refuse to embrace Europe as the future of Britain,news of children killing each other will continue to bombard us. It is nothing less than a choice of civilisation.

Agnès Poirier is a journalist and author of 'Touché', a French woman's take on the English (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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