PARIS - It's a half-hour drive from Paris to the suburb of Belan and it's even quicker by high-speed train. But the suburb is far from the big city and its cosmopolitan atmosphere. Sometimes, the mental gap between the suburbs and Paris is even greater than the geographic one. But in Belan this week, there was a fascinating - and enviable - event. Le Pen did not get many voters there, but on Tuesday morning, when the pupils from Camille Claudel technological high school came back from their Easter vacation, they decided to strike their classes in protest. "We may be too young to vote," said Stefanie, a 17-year-old 12th grader, "but this is the least we can do against the scandalous, racist results of the elections."
Stefanie and her friends do not belong to any political movement, and nobody set them into motion. On their own initiative, they hung signs on the walls of the school and held discussion groups on the subject of the elections and their results. The teachers decided to join in, using the opportunity to talk about citizenship and a little history.
There are a number of aspects to this awakening of French youth, a day after the elections. There is the less serious aspect, which was the opportunity taken by some bored teenagers as they joined exciting demonstrations that went late into the night. Children barely in their teens took part in a somewhat violent demonstration in Paris and clearly regarded their taunting of the police as a game. Another aspect, much more serious, touches on the panic that struck vast segments of French society.
Like the kids with the candles in Rabin Square, the youth here gave authentic voice to the phenomenon. Some, particularly those from the middle and upper-middle classes (and their parents) feel as if someone "took the state away from them." Others, particularly the mostly immigrant youths from the suburbs, feel that perhaps there finally will be some recognition of their despair and frustration. Their parents and older siblings suffered the discrimination and police violence of the 1980s and are still dealing with housing problems, poor schooling, and unemployment. The cultural rejection also hurts and alienates them.
On Tuesday night, outside the Bastille, there wasn't a demonstration but nearly until dawn, singers stood in the plaza and played mournful songs in memory of the victims of the Armenian Holocaust. "Look, look," said a women from the neighborhood to her husband, "now they're cooking over fires. That's something I've never seen here." The young people at the plaza listening to the songs in Armenian, Arabic and other languages, were not necessarily Armenian. Unlike the angry neighbor, they are open to other cultures.
And that, apparently, is one of the significant things that happened this week. French society, led by the decision makers - politicians, intellectuals, and journalists - were shocked by the results of the first round of the presidential elections, just like their Israeli counterparts were shocked by Benjamin Netanyahu's election in 1996. Like those elections, which because of a twisted electoral system reflected all the real fractures and gaps in Israeli society but distorted them into unbalanced, inflated parochial representation in the Knesset, so the first round of the elections suddenly opened a Pandora's box that most French people did not want to look at, or were incapable of doing so.
All the underlying social fears of losing what they have (particularly the economic security of the middle classes), all the fearful nostalgia for the warm bosom of an old France, before the EU and threatening globalization - a France it is not even clear ever existed outside the chansons and the sweet pastoral colors of Amelie Poulain - all that suddenly won a dramatically over-represented voice.
Is this what the voters really wanted? The polls showed that half of France wanted Lionel Jospin and the other half wanted Jacques Chirac. But now, the man half of France wanted, Jospin, isn't even there and has been replaced by a candidate whose extremist views aren't even accepted by a large number of those who voted for him. They're afraid? Yes, and rightly so. The Republican system may wipe out most of Le Pen's achievement in the second round, but the hatred and fear will continue to play an important and damaging role in the upcoming elections for parliament.
Nonetheless, while careful not to paint the youth rebellion in too romantic a palette, it's possible to regard it as a sign of healthy recovery and hope. Don't cry for France (and in Israel, one must add, don't gloat. At times like this it is best to look in the mirror): The strong spirit of democracy still has some important words to say.
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