Move over for France’s next generation

Part II

This ‘Y’ generation, frequently called spoilt and idealistic by its supposedly realistic elders, has been displaying an unassuming heroism that has taken the government of François Hollande by surprise. I became aware of the particular quality of this heroism on the night of the attacks when Jack sent me a link to Reddit, the online bulletin board. One young survivor of the Bataclan siege described, with heart-wrenching simplicity, the horror of his ordeal. He ended with these words: “I’m not adding any essential info with this message, but writing it helps me. It’s frustrating to be at the heart of the event and be of no use, lying face down against the floor/a leg/an arm/ for two or three hours without helping.”

“Since that night, the number of young people seeking to join the French military has tripled,” says Pierre Servent, a colonel in the Army Reserve. His book Extension de domaine de la guerre (a play on the title of nihilist French author Michel Houellebecq’s first novel) goes to press as I write. A project he would have sold to his publishers as a prediction has, he said, become a survival manual for a “cancer which attacks the soft tissue of our world.” When we spoke, Servent had just been through his manuscript changing all the tenses. Two of his daughters, in the same age bracket as Jack and Ella, live in the area and, like my own children, escaped the attacks.

“I have confidence in this generation,” he said. “They don’t have the anti-militarist prejudices of the old French left… They’re hip, open, international, collaborative, but they’re not weighed down by the post-colonial guilt that has prevented such a large portion of my own generation from seeing the growing threat that is salafi-jihadism.”

Servent invoked the unexpected success, among the young, of Hollande’s idea of a National Guard of Reservists, which the President talked about in his speech to the Congress of Versailles three days after the attacks. “Designed,” he explained, “to cope with a natural catastrophe or a terrorist attack,” the National Guard—the anti-terrorist aspect of it, that is—is also dear to Marine Le Pen’s National Front, and as a result is unpopular with France’s left-leaning media. The day after the Versailles congress, Le Monde deplored the idea: “[Hollande’s] overzealous security-minded discourse has rather killed the spirit of Charlie Hebdo (l’esprit Charlie).”

Earlier this year, the same newspaper defined l’esprit Charlie as “a liberated tone, a satirical humour, an irreverence and pride built around solid left-wing values where the defence of secularism (laïcité) often comes first.” I’m pretty sure that this is not the definition my children’s generation would give of l’esprit Charlie. For them the whole point about the extraordinary show of national unity in the aftermath of the 7th January attacks, and the thing that made the million-strong marches across the country that followed so unique and uplifting, was their apolitical nature and the spirit of tolerance towards France’s religious minorities, a tolerance that had been absent from mainstream public discourse.

That someone like Servent is saying he has faith in France’s next generation should be cause for celebration. Until now, no one has been listening to them. France’s “Generation Y,” or  the “millennials” as they’re sometimes called, are far better equipped for the modern world than the generation that clings to the reins of power. Unlike their elders, these well-travelled young people —who have studied abroad on Erasmus programmes and have grown up watching HBO in the original English—are unafraid of globalisation. They embrace the digital culture and believe in progress. Sadly, however, they still have no voice in France.

Who does? Members of the ’68 generation such as France’s principal bird of ill omen, Alain Finkielkraut, a philosopher. Finkielkraut was interviewed in the wake of the attacks by the right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro, under the headline “We’re living the end of the end of History.” His harrowed face, gazing out at us from the pages of France’s biggest-selling broadsheet, said everything about the paralysing neophobia of the generation to which he belongs. “His rigorous words,” Le Figaro declared by way of solemn preamble, “find a deep echo in the collective unconscious. How he is listened to. How he is read.”

Not by the next generation he isn’t. For them, thinkers like Finkielkraut howl in the wilderness that is the past, still railing against an enemy that no longer has any teeth: the third-worldist leftists of the same generation. As Servent pointed out, Generation Y is not anti-militarist and does not suffer from post-colonial guilt. They’re a generation of pragmatic humanists who can see the world around them for what it is—multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multifarious—and they have a deep mistrust of grand ideas and highfalutin’ rhetoric. When the Dalai Lama suggested that the solution to the problems that led to the attacks on Paris lay in a lot more than just prayers, I noticed how often his quote was posted on the walls of my young French Facebook friends: “We need a systematic approach to foster humanistic values, of oneness and harmony. If we start doing it now, there is hope that this century will be different from the previous one. It is in everybody’s interest.”

It’s a measure of how keenly the ruling generation feels the millennials snapping at their heels that Hollande and Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, feel the need to muzzle Emmanuel Macron, their very pragmatic 37-year-old Economy Minister. Grudgingly accepted for his undeniable talent as an economist, he is constantly being slapped back into line by both his President and the rank and file of the Socialist Party (as he was when he suggested abolishing the 35-hour week or called into question the feasibility of jobs for life in the public sector). After the latest attacks, he went to Place de la République with Sigmar Gabriel, the German Economy Minister, and called for “concrete proposals” to tackle inequality, announcing, much to the outrage of people like Finkielkraut, that France is “in part responsible” for what happened on 13th November. “The soil on which the terrorists managed to nourish this violence, and recruit certain individuals, is that of defiance,” he said. “I believe that it’s the rigidities in our economy, in our society, the lost opportunities, the glass ceilings, the interest groups that have grown up and which both nourish frustration on an individual level and lead to inefficiency on an economic level.” Macron is in the Socialist Party simply because there’s no other place for him. His belief in new economic models does not make him the kind of conservative who might be at home with Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republicans. The measures he has taken to help digital start-ups have gone against the grain of French attitudes towards the internet.

Thirty-year-old Adrien Aumont is co-founder of KissKiss BankBank, a successful crowd-funding platform which he set up with two friends in 2009 and which has, since its creation, given more than €41m to projects ranging from films to music to bakeries and restaurants. Their tagline, “Libérons la créativité!” (“Let’s free creativity!”), expresses a very French belief in culture, but Aumont, who left school at 14 and is a fierce critic of the education system, is also highly critical of its ruling elite. “France is basically healthy,” he told me. “The only people who are not are its mainstream politicians and journalists.” Despite them, and thanks to people like Macron, there’s an extraordinary dynamism in his world. “There are so many structures in place now to help startup companies like mine, so much good will.”

You won’t hear Aumont and his friends in the mainstream press. Their forum is YouTube, where you’ll hear people like Elodie Vialle, another 30-something “digital native” who defines herself on Twitter as “journalist / teacher / media consultant.” She extols the virtues of “participatory” economics and refers to the “quête de sens” (quest for meaning) that lies behind successful French companies such as BlaBlaCar, a site that puts anyone with a car going from A to B in touch with those who don’t have transport and want to travel the same route. Her generation, which came of age during the worst financial crisis since the Depression, have at least as much a sense of social responsibility as their elders. The difference is that they’re pragmatists looking for feasible ways of paying for it. For Vialle, the “économie positive” that blossomed in France in the shadows of financial collapse was an attempt to link social responsibility and economic realism. These young people have travelled abroad and can see that the French social model is unsustainable. They’re looking for ways to replace it.

Is there something in this quest for meaning common to young people like Adrien, Elodie, Ella and Jack that is shared by the “dead souls” who murdered their friends? In an age in which, according to some, monotheism is in its death-throes, is the thirst for transcendence something that those who were attacked on 13th November might have in common with those who murdered them? If you look closely at videos of 28-year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian leader of the attacks, with his go-pro strapped to his chest, his endless selfies, his childish delight in the four-wheel drive he’s driving, can you not see, behind the monster he has become, an ugly parody of the millennial child? He, surely, is the uneducated version who found no traction in the culture in which he was raised, in whose “void of thought” evil fit so easily. I became convinced of this when I heard that the last words yelled out by 26-year-old Hasna Aït Boulahcen, the female member of the Paris commando, before she was shot dead by French special forces were not “Allahu Akbar,” but “He’s not my boyfriend!”

Perhaps one of the things the two sides of this millennial generation have in common is their radical divergence from the mindset and values of their parents. For how different could the handful of French Arabs who brought death and destruction to the streets of Paris have been from their gentle, submissive, browbeaten parents who struggled fruitlessly to fit in? What is certain is this: if there’s no political space in France to accommodate them, then its poor, ill-educated Muslims have not a chance in hell. As Ella put it after the attacks: “Islam has been attacked by Daesh, which is using it as a mask, so Islam must ask itself why. I, a privileged Parisian boho who has been attacked by my own generation, must also ask myself why.”

In 2004, French Muslims were told that they were not the target of the laws that banned the wearing of religious symbols in state schools, but few believed the denial. They knew that the vast majority of French people viewed the headscarf or hijab as a symbol of cultural backwardness and oppression, which had no place in French society. Needless to say, the ban has backfired. Having lived in Paris since before 1989, when the idea of the ban was first mooted, I have seen a very noticeable increase in the number of women wearing hijabs both in this city and its suburbs.

The millennials tend to feel uncomfortable with this kind of cultural hegemony. Take Léa Frédéval, the 25-year-old author of a controversial book entitled Les Affamés (“The Hungry”). Frédéval’s book was born, she says, out of a desire to explain herself and her generation to her parents. I first saw her interviewed on cable TV the week her book was published and was struck by the fact that she was speaking a completely different language to the smooth, Agnès B-suited baby-boomers who were interviewing her. They seemed genuinely shocked by her apparent lack of idealism and kept asking her to justify her pessimism. She said she preferred the word “realism” to “pessimism,” saying that she was fed up with hearing platitudes about “les jeunes” from people who had no insight into how she lived. When I went to see her after the attacks in her tiny flat in the 18th arrondissement, she was as indignant as ever about those making decisions on her behalf: “Our politicians need to start coming from civil society,” she said. “We need people of all ages, races, religions and sensibilities… They need to look at the country they’re living in, a country of blacks, Muslims, Jews, transsexuals and women with balls. How can you theorise about a country when you don’t even know what it looks like?”

A version of this post appeared in Prospect magazine in its January 2016 edition.

5 thoughts on “Move over for France’s next generation

  1. Hi Lucy, this is a great article, informative and so well written. May I reblog it with all the necessary links back to you of course? Henrie
    BTW if you need new author portraits, I’d be happy to do them for you without charge.

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