“It was hot, so hot,” Mady tells me, staring into the distance. “Everywhere, stuff was burning – cars, vans, buildings. That’s what I think of when I think of the riots. I think of the heat”.
Mady Traoré is 24. Born in France, of Malian parents, he lives in Clichy-sous-Bois. About 15 miles north of Paris, Clichy is probably the most notorious of the French banlieues – the often rundown estates on the outskirts of the country’s big cities, inhabited largely by second- and third-generation immigrants from North and West African former colonies.
“I wouldn’t hold French shares,” said Nigel Farage with a wink, belying his previous life as a stockbroker. “The country is in real trouble,” the Ukip leader told me at an investment conference in London last week. “As someone who loves France, it gives me no pleasure to say that”.
While Farage casually dishes out advice to sell French stocks, he knows only too well that, for all his admiration of Gallic gastronomy and tabacs, the singular weakness of the French economy, and related political fall-out, is playing into his hands.
“There are lots more kids on the street these days”, says Mohammed Trabelsi, trying not to gulp his coffee. “They don’t write that in the newspapers but it’s true. When my parents came here, France had lots of work. Now it has lots of fascists”.
Trabelsi is 23 years old. Born in Paris, to Tunisian immigrant parents, he holds a French passport and speaks good French. He is polite and articulate yet despite “searching every day”, he can’t find work. Having fallen through various social safety nets, and now deeply dejected, Trabelsi lives on the streets.
“I want a job but when the economy is down, there’s nothing for people like me,” he says, as we sit in a café in the French capital. “Some friends started dealing drugs and now they are dead. I have dreams and want to get on but the politicians do nothing. I still believe in myself, but some days it’s hard”.
So that’s it, then. The veil has slipped. The only surprising aspect of the French sovereign debt downgrade is that it took so long. The eurozone’s second-largest economy has lost its AAA rating. Eight other single currency members were also downgraded. Given that Paris is bank-rolling no less than a fifth of the purported “big bazooka” bail-out fund – the so-called European Financial Stability Facility – monetary union is now on very thin ice.
That’s because, in the wake of S&P’s exocet, the EFSF also could be downgraded. So the fund, too would pay more to borrow, just as credit becomes more expensive for the newly-downgraded countries it might need to bail-out. The likelihood the EFSF can do its job will fall, then, as the chances it will be needed rise. The question of whether the fund can “lever-up” from its existing €440bn (public money pledged, not delivered) to the €1,000bn-plus that may be needed if Europe’s banks endure “another Lehman”, is now under serious scrutiny.