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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 January 2006, 07:48 GMT
French 'haven of politeness' changing
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC correspondent in Paris

While Tony Blair tackles what is perceived in the UK as a problem of lack of respect in society, France is fighting its own battles.

The French government had a simple solution for any lack of respect among the young - send in the riot police.

French riot police
The Paris riots have been held as a symptom of the gulf in French society

Or at least that was the ambitious French Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy's solution.

Back in October last year, he announced plans to deploy hundreds of riot police in difficult neighbourhoods to crack down on crime, and offer reassurance to householders.

"Do you want us to get rid of this trash?" he asked a housewife as he toured the tower blocks of the Paris suburbs, referring to youths who had been causing trouble in the area.

"Some thugs act as though they own the neighbourhood. We must change our methods," Mr Sarkozy told the newspapers, saying that around 9,000 police cars had been hit with stones last year alone.

Disrespectful underclass

That was late October.

By the first week of November, France's riot police had more than enough work to do in the deprived suburbs of the French cities, as youths burned cars and threw not just stones but Molotov cocktails in a dramatic demonstration of discontent among French youth.

The unrest carried on for several weeks, yet the riots were confined to very specific areas - only occasionally straying into city centres.

Most of the destruction was limited to the suburbs which were already run-down, and could least afford the damage, especially among the high rise blocks which are home to many of France's ethnic minorities.

Enter a bakery or a shop or restaurant of any kind, anywhere in France without a courteous 'bonjour madame' or 'bonjour monsieur' to the person at the till or counter, and your reception will be a frosty one.

The riots did lead to a growing fear in France that this country is increasingly splitting into two separate nations: the "respectful" children of the middle classes, and a growing underclass, including - though not confined to - the children and grandchildren of France's Arab and north African immigrants.

There is a feeling that there is rather less "respect" for authority than there used to be - even though some of the middle classes and French authority figures watching the riots may have been taken back to their own stone-throwing youth as members of the 1968 generation.

And yet - to this British observer - France by and large remains a positive haven of politeness and respect.

The French may be nostalgic for a mythical time when everyone knew their place, yet even these days some middle-class Parisian children still call their parents by the formal address for you - "vous".

That may be rarer now, but politeness and good manners remain essential to the French way of life, whether in the big cities or the countryside.

Enter a bakery or a shop or restaurant of any kind, anywhere in France without a courteous 'bonjour madame' or 'bonjour monsieur' to the person at the till or counter, and your reception will be a frosty one.

But try a "comment-allez vous?" and a "bonne journee" or "je vous en prie" and the service becomes much friendlier.

And in most schools, French pupils still sit obediently in class and teachers continue to have a certain level of authority.

Respectful society

That again, though, is less the case in France's deprived suburbs, where there is a problem with gang violence, including occasional shootings and stabbings - often caused by territorial rows between gangs.

A recent "steaming" incident on a New Year's Day train between Nice and Lyon has caused much soul-searching here, after a gang of up to 40 teenagers ran amok on the train, robbing and assaulting other passengers.

Another incident on an RER Paris-suburban train over the weekend - in which another gang of teenagers stole mobile phones and wallets - has led to further questions about whether France has become a more violent society, despite figures suggesting that violent incidents on public transport are actually down 11% year on year.

Wine bottle being poured
France's refined cafe culture has been cited as an example to follow for the UK

In 2002, the French education ministry launched a programme called "le Respect!" to encourage teenagers to report violence or bullying, and the ministry also issued tips to pupils on how to treat each other with increased respect.

This year, President Chirac is also looking into measures which would help young people in the deprived suburbs, while calling at the same time for increased respect for law and order.

Despite these exceptions, France remains overall a more courteous and respectful society - one which puts family and family values at the very heart of society.

That includes rituals such as eating a family meal together at the table, with no "grazing" or watching TV in between, and parent-child relationships that would seem rather formal to many British families, but which perhaps instil in French children a greater awareness of the boundaries of acceptable public behaviour.

It also makes French society perhaps a more traditional one, and that may be a part of its appeal to the 250,000 Brits who have bought properties in France.

Even in the biggest cities, there is no spectacle of Friday or Saturday night binge-drinking.

It is still considered shameful for men or women to be so drunk they cannot stand up, or have to vomit profusely in public places.

But slowly, it seems, France may be changing - and the French are not convinced they like the way their country is going.


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