The message in France’s explosion

Patrice de Beer
14 November 2005

It seems that the third week of November may bring a levelling down of the explosion in France’s banlieues (deprived suburbs). After eighteen nights of riots – involving the burning of thousands of cars, more than a thousand arrests, and the torching of schools, public utilities and police stations in suburban areas across France – a conjunction of increased repression and sheer weariness is having its effect; there were “only” 374 cars burned and 212 arrests on the night of Saturday 12 November.

But even if relative calm returns, the deeper problems revealed by the insurrection of France’s disaffected urban youth won’t go away. The anger and grievances pouring out of the banlieues will persist until French society, and those who represent it, take the measure of the crisis and become ready for imaginative solutions that go much further than the familiar combination of law-and-order plus financial palliatives.

A paradox of these frenzied nights is that French public opinion has come to realise the scale of their country’s crisis through its portrayal in global media: French citizens, used to CNN’s emblematic war reporter Christiane Amanpour reporting from battlefields all over the world, have been shocked to see her standing in front of burned cars in the banlieues (conveniently located, for many news organisations, near Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport).

But shock is one thing, understanding another: despite an intense national debate involving sociologists, journalists, philosophers and specialists of political Islam (Michel Wieviorka, Olivier Roy, Alain Touraine, Patrick Simon) no one has proposed fresh, persuasive proposals that seem to have a good chance of turning the tide. Three decades of ghettoisation, pauperisation, and expensive policies (like the “localisation” effort, the politique de la ville) that only postponed the current explosion will not be reversed overnight.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde. His most recent articles for openDemocracy include :

“France’s post-referendum trauma” (May 2005)

“France’s incendiary crisis” (September 2005)

”The Schröder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine” (October 2005)

“Paris in flames: the limits of repression” (October 2005)

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The politics of les événements are equally confusing. In the absence of innovative solutions, some leaders have accepted uncritically the curfew imposed by the government in some cities under a 1955 (Algerian war-era) law – now set to be extended today, 14 November, for a further three months. The opposition Socialist party is preoccupied with the vote at its congress this week that will confirm its first secretary, François Hollande’s, authority in advance of the 2007 presidential elections.

The president, Jacques Chirac – a populist who used to sneer at the “smells” pouring out of immigrant housing estates, and who then promised on election in 1995 to bridge the “social fracture” – addressed the nation on 14 November after being amazingly silent for long periods during the crisis; he spoke of a French “identity crisis”, a “profound malaise” that must be addressed with “firmness and justice”. His prime minister and interior minister, Dominique de Villepin and Nicolas Sarkozy, have been too entangled in rivalry for the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP’s) presidential candidacy to undertake the bold initiatives – such as a new agency for social integration and equality of opportunity – that are clearly needed.

Sarkozy’s demagogic zero-tolerance policy – this son of Hungarian immigrants has (deliberately?) provoked the banlieues by calling them racaille (rabble) that must be “cleaned out”, and threatened to expel non-French young people sentenced to jail for rioting – will reinforce the problems rather than open the way to solutions. Police sources indicate that only 6%-8% of rioters are foreign; the core of the violence comes from second-, third- or fourth-generation youngsters – frustrated, jobless, card-carrying French citizens (and more black African than Arab beurs) who can’t be expelled. Meanwhile, it is all too easy for politicians to play on another symbolic indicator of “foreignness” – the fear of Islamic extremism – even if (as the Islamic thinker Tariq Ramadan points out) the protests have far less to do with religion than with social grievances expressed with an anarchist rage against a society that has no place for them.

Such rabble-rousing could provoke an upsurge of xenophobic sentiment from a traumatised population ready to listen to the siren voices of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s extreme right Front National. If everybody wants violence to stop, cars and schools protected, social peace restored, the primary need is to douse the flames not pour petrol on them.

The 1968 precedent

Some commentators have resisted the comparison between the 2005 riots and the student-worker rebellion of May 1968. But even if it was the educated urban youth who first took to the streets thirty-seven years ago, the comparison makes sense, for three reasons:

  • then, as now, the protestors’ main grievance was that “power” did not listen to them
  • without reform and with a continuation of irresponsible agitation, 2005 could shake French society as deeply as did 1968
  • just as May 1968 was the avant-garde of a massive youth revolt throughout Europe, America and Japan, these racial riots could be a final warning to other complacent western democracies confronted with similar social and migration problems.

France has no choice but to accept profound changes to her way of life. But what makes a solution more difficult to find is that its social problems have long been obscured by an ideological framework of “integration” of foreign immigrants in the mould of republican egalitarianism. This model, inherited from the 1789 revolution, worked with previous waves of immigrants (Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Poles) – despite periodic xenophobic riots – but it doesn’t anymore. A conjunction of massive immigration from France’s former colonies in Africa and the Arab world and large-scale unemployment since the 1990s has made it unworkable, obsolete, even harmful – for it blinds the society to a reality that no longer fits the state’s founding principles. In this “integrated” society, “others” have to conform; the law bans statistics collected according to ethnic or religious indices.

Even a massive financial investment into public schemes is no substitute for the political, cultural or social will to carry this “integration” policy to its final consequences. France’s social-integration model has disintegrated in housing, employment and education. Housing estates in the banlieues have become ghettoes, schools in so-called priority education zones are places where kids who have grown up with unemployed parents wait to turn 16 then enter a job market closed to those whose names and addresses mark them as immigrants. Their entire situation is one of “exclusion” – not just from the job market but from national society as a whole. As the sociologist Alain Touraine wrote in Le Monde (a centre-left newspaper with few black, beur, or Asian journalists): “our republicanism, which identifies itself to universalism, rejects differences”.

If France’s political, bureaucratic or business elite still clings to the old model and repeats the tired mantra of equality – and perhaps implements new measures that only increase the system’s bureaucratic complexity – it will remain far apart from French citizens of immigrant origin who, despite a small minority of violent teenagers, drug dealers and petty thieves, only want to work and live like their fellows in other areas.

Some initiatives – like Sciences Po’s (the University of Paris school of political science) recruitment of young students from the banlieues to a crash course induction to degree-level study – have produced spectacular results. But far more is needed: French society has to become colour-blind, to stop talking of “we” and “them”, and to accept the reality of ghettoisation. This change of mentality represents a life-insurance policy for a country with a 10% unemployment rate where work is the solvent for so much: providing income and consumers, boosting production, increasing state resources through taxation, and reducing social expenditure. It is time for France to relearn the sound economic principles that led Bill Clinton’s first campaign to declare: “It’s the economy, stupid”!

France too has to (re)discover social engineering and to look favourably – as “Sarko” started to do before the latest crisis erupted – at positive discrimination. A clear, well-communicated long-term strategy, independent from political electioneering, is required. The obtuseness of earlier governments – the cuts in subsidies to voluntary organisations working in the banlieues by Jean-Pierre Raffarin, Villepin’s Gaullist predecessor as prime minister; the disbandment of neighbourhood police by Sarkozy in 2002 – has been cruelly exposed. A massive budget must be provided for a sort of Marshall Plan for the banlieues – even at a time when France is breaching the European Union’s 3% budget deficit conditions – with a relentless focus on employment for young people from the banlieues.

The minister for promoting equality of opportunity, Azouz Begag – himself a beur from the banlieues – has just said: “young people need a social escalator that works rather than a police van”. France has heard the words; it waits for the politicians of courage, imagination and consensus who can transform them into action.

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