familiar language in the news

A report in the Times today about the riots in France said this:

Magid Tabouri, 29, leader of a group of youth workers at Bondy, next to Aulnay, said he was suprised that the eruption had taken so long. “It has been simmering with all the exclusion, mistreatment and social misery and collapsed education,” he said. “These families have been forced to the margins and are being kept there. It’s a gangrene that has grown for years. We will soon be seeing urban guerrilla war.”

M Tabouri reserved his harshest words for M Sarkozy and his campaign against the “scum” of the estates. He also deplored the failure of left-wing governments to confront the rejection of the immigrant generations. He suggested a small start: the police should be barred from using the informal and disrespectful tu that they routinely apply to young residents of the estates.

That reminded me of a story from Australia a few months ago (the Guardian). A senior civil servant made a rule that security staff at the parliament in Canberra should address visitors as ‘sir’ rather than ‘mate’. Naturally, there was a national outcry, protesting that this struck at the very heart of Australian identity. If a bloke’s not free to address another bloke as ‘mate’, why did all those men die at Gallipolli? And so on. Former PM Bob Hawke came out with this gloriously punchy soundbite: “In a sense we’re living in an age where the concept of mateship has been damaged to a fairly large extent by a lot of the approaches of this government.”

Obviously the situations aren’t comparable in all sorts of ways, not least that the power relationship between a gendarme and a young man in the banlieues is rather different than that between a security person and an MP. But I still have some sympathy with that Aussie civil servant, and for basically the same reason that I have sympathy with M Taboury. Someone who is asking you to let them search your bag, empty your pockets and walk through a metal detector is impinging on your privacy and being a nuisance. That’s a good reason why they should make a special effort to be respectful when they do it. They can still be friendly and chatty; “G’Day, Sir” strikes me as a perfectly reasonable compromise. The fact that they’re just ordinary blokes doing their job seems to be beside the point; their job is intrusive and I think a little bit of extra politeness serves as an acknowledgement of the fact.

But, on the other hand, I’m not Australian. When in Rome, horses for courses.

The French tu/vous thing is interesting, but I’m not going to comment because I can’t speak the language.

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