Sunday, November 05, 2006

Are British Youth The Worst?... Yes, for now

That's the title from today's Observer. I could subtitle it, Why I Want to Marry Agnes Poirier, who wrote one of the best articles of the year so far.

Is British youth the worst? Yes... for now

French youngsters may be rude, but they're only 10 years away from matching Britain's teens

Agnes Poirier
Sunday November 5, 2006
The Observer

The latest think-tank report on British teenagers behaving badly, so badly they top the league of worst behaving youth in the Western world, makes irresistible reading for the French chauvinist. Irresistible because, by contrast, French teenagers reveal themselves as the best behaved (alongside Italians and Portuguese).

In short, French 15-year-olds fight less (38 per cent compared with 44 per cent of British 15-year-olds), binge-drink far less (3 per cent to 27 per cent), seem less sexually promiscuous (22 per cent to 38 per cent) and when they are, they use condoms more (82 per cent to 70 per cent). They eat more with their parents (89 per cent to 64 per cent) and hardly hang out with friends on weekday evenings (17 per cent to 45 per cent).

Having said that, I never thought that French teenagers were particularly well-behaved. On the whole, they still seem today the way we were 15 years ago: moody, awkward and serious, with little social flair. Our expression skills varied from a shrug to a puff to raised eyebrows, to all kinds of body gestures accompanied by sounds of one to two syllables, such as bof, mouais, putain, super

Though not particularly articulate, we were, however, craving the attention of adults. In our book, adulthood was super-cool. We couldn't wait to be older and do what adults did: talk for hours, argue theatrically over politics, make up over a good meal, smoke, wear glasses, stay up all night over the issue of lost love, take to the streets, call riot police names and go to cafes.

As early as 13, we would mimic adults by falling desperately in love, pretending to embrace lost causes, battling over abstractions to which we understood rien de rien, practising to say the word non with conviction in front of our mirror, ingurgitating espresso by the bucket and puffing on our cigarette-holders without inhaling.

Why were we fighting in the streets, while wearing our best polo-neck for which we had saved for months? Why were we drinking, when we needed a clear head to write love letters? Why were we having sex, when we knew we should make suitors wait and drool? Why were we having a takeaway (it hardly existed then) with friends, when Dad's pot-au-feu was à se damner (worth selling your soul to the Devil for)?

We were serious Parisian poseurs. When I say 'we', don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about a little clique: it was a time when social segregation hadn't overwhelmed us. It was a homogenous 'we' from all creeds and social origins. We represented a democracy of mildly rude French adolescent tosseurs

Today, however, a different portrait of youth in the west is emerging and if, according to the report from the Institute for Public Policy Research, 'Freedom's Orphans: Raising Youth in a Changing World', teenagers from Latin European countries still behave differently, they are closely following in their British friends' steps. Soon, in France, too, social class will be the most powerful indicator of behaviour. The riots in France a year ago seem to have heralded this new age in which children's personal and social development depends entirely on their parents' profession or, worse, on the state of their bank accounts.

British society can appear extreme. Seated at a cafe in London, I remember hearing the voice of a 10-year-old boy: 'Papa, would you be so kind as to pass the salt?' I turned my head, bewildered. The little Lord Fauntleroy caricature went on complementing the waitress for her cup-juggling skills in the most sweet and charming way, but with that unbearable classist touch.

A few days later, I had to fend off a 'you fucking cunt, innit' breed of teenager on a night bus. If a child could absorb frighteningly elaborate social skills, he could also be reduced to insulting people as a way of interacting with them, with school, it seems, unable to correct either bias. Hooligans or clever clogs: we have started experiencing a similarly increasing social divide in France.

But who are the culprits? All of us who refuse to grow up and take responsibility. The parents, who, in a time of cosmetic surgery hysteria and national binge-drinking, refuse to act like adults, let alone look their age. All of us who refuse to be serious, who dress like teenagers and adopt their jargon. Why would children look up to silly behaving adults? Why should children respect adults whose motto seems to have become: go shopping and be happy?

The frantic consumerism of British society has turned children into clients, not citizens. Now brands, on which they rely more and more to get a sense of identity, provide their set of values. Tell me what you bought yesterday and I'll tell you who you are and what you believe in.

As with most things, France is 10 years behind Britain. Let's savour the little time we have left during which young and old continue to share views, meals and take to the streets together to defend ideals, rather than the right to shop.

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