Because of its strong geographic, historic, and now demographic links with Tunisia, France has regarded the recent events in that country as big news. One aspect of the journalistic coverage has puzzled me, however, much as the failure of the dog to bark in the night puzzled Sherlock Holmes in “Silver Blaze.” Before fleeing Tunisia, then-president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali promised to create 50,000 jobs rapidly for unemployed college graduates and then 300,000 more jobs. From the left wing of the French press to the right (not very far, actually), no comment was offered on these bizarre proposals. It was as if President Obama had promised to do away with unemployment by creating 10 million American jobs at the stroke of his pen—and then not been called to account by the news media.
The left-wing newspaper Libération, it is true, quoted a young Tunisian to the effect that Ben Ali’s offers had come too late—that no one now trusted the government. After all, if it could create 350,000 jobs now, why had it not done so before? A good question, French readers might think, but surely not the right one. Nobody in the press drew attention, not even in the more right-leaning Le Figaro, to the sheer economic absurdity of creating 350,000 jobs more or less overnight, by fiat, in a population of 10 million, or to the inevitable consequences of doing so: further general impoverishment and the likelihood that the jobs thus created would soon have to be suppressed during an economic crisis that they helped bring about, thus renewing and perhaps even worsening social tensions.
It is perfectly true, of course, that any number of jobs can be created at the stroke of a government’s pen. As the history of communism shows, everyone can be given a job. Unfortunately, prosperity is something else entirely.
Britons, meanwhile, might note ruefully that Ben Ali only offered to do in a short time, and in response to a crisis, what Gordon Brown did over a long time, and as a matter of policy. In the decade after 1997, during which Brown served as the United Kingdom’s chancellor of the exchequer, three-quarters of new employment in Britain was in the public sector—precisely at the time that the government increased the proportion of British youth attending universities. Now that there have been cuts in public expenditure in Britain, there have also been student riots, as in Tunisia.
Britain is thus the Tunisia of the North Sea; or perhaps Tunisia is the Britain of the Maghreb. The main difference is that Ben Ali was a police general before leading the government; Gordon Brown was a university lecturer.