Briefing: France – A Story of a Society Falling Down
With the worst rioting in France since the infamous student demonstrations of May 1968 and the authorisation of a range of emergency powers, under which local authorities can impose curfews and restrict people’s movements to tackle the unrest; IHRC examines the origins and future of the Republic’s tumultuous relationship with its restive suburbs.
Since the end of World War II, the suburbs of French cities have been a dumping ground for cheap labour. The cités were initially built in the 1960s as stop-gap high-rise buildings for the great influx of immigrant workers post-war. However, despite government initiatives over the subsequent decades; ineffectual and fragmented housing programmes, marginalization and institutional racism have all prevented several generations of French citizens from fully participating and interacting in society.
On the 27th October 2005 two teenagers, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore, were electrocuted after climbing into an electrical sub-station in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, in an attempt to hide from police. Denied by the police, news of their deaths triggered riots in the area which is home to large African and Arab communities. City destruction commenced in the worst scenes of lawlessness seen in the French mainland for 40 years. The germ of the riots may have begun in Clichy-sous-Bois, but the problems of marginalization and social segregation in suburban life is far more embedded and historically rooted than in just this seemingly isolated incident.
The police have become a face to the oppression that suburban youth can identify to hate and distrust. The real resentment and disaffection is aimed at everyone, from their families, their own suburbs to the Republic in general.
Freedom, be it individual, or collectively in the form of civil liberties, have both been under attack for people of French ethnic minority origin. Stigmatised for having the wrong postcode and disaffected from Republican values which do not recognise their cultural heritage, the youth of the banlieues search for a means to empower themselves in a society which refuses to recognise them. In a spiral of socio-economic deprivation where bread-winners faced unemployment from closing manufacturing bases, generation after generation faced a hopeless struggle for validation. The statistics speak for themselves. Unemployment among people of French origin is 9.2%. Among those of foreign origin, the figure is 14% – even after adjusting for educational qualifications. 5% overall unemployment for university graduates, 26.5% unemployment for “North African” university graduates(i). The effects of this are that many ‘parallel economies’ develop in the parallel society of the ghettos. This creates an exchange of value for anything that can be bought, sold or stolen. Even the police make deals with the chief gang leaders rendering them virtually untouchable whereas innocent young people are those who frequently become the victims of identity control. Hierarchies of authority are established in a lawless community where police are seen as prejudiced enemies leading the gangs with the dealers working for them.
The policies engendered by the French republican model have been excluding and marginalizing indigenous minority and stateless nations within the French territories since 1794. Then only 15% of what is today’s French territory spoke French, the rest speaking Breton, Occitan, Corsican, Alsatian, Catalan, Basque and Flemish.
Since then, France has all but eradicated these languages and cultures, all in the name of égalité. It is an égalité which means that you only have rights as a person if you are a French speaker. French authorities say it is “discriminatory” to use Breton officially yet, contrary to European law, they actively discriminate against Breton. The disaffected youth are experiencing what the Bretons, Corsicans and Basques have known all along, either renounce your language and culture and assimilate – or face exclusion and marginalization(ii).
Furthermore, in the name of égalité married to secularism, French youth of ethnic minority background have also had their religious and cultural identity stripped off them in an attempt to impose a superficial semblance of égalité. However, what the model fails to acknowledge is that the reality cannot be masked by homogenous notions of Republican ideals.
The Republican identity in France seems irrationally strong, to the point where independent thought has been compromised, as is their bespoke uniformity of French culture. Although this has been challenged by the idea of métissage, any notions of ‘multiculturalism’ still have very negative connotations in France today.
The suburbs are a far cry from egalitarian values; disproportionate unemployment, delinquency, dire sanitary conditions, drug trafficking and theft are all the underbelly of these neglected quarters of every French city. How can the youth in these areas aspire to fulfil civic responsibilities when they are not even accorded the basic amenities?
Clichy-sous-Bois, the impoverished and segregated north-eastern suburb of Paris is an area where half its inhabitants are under 20, unemployment is above 40% and identity checks and police harassment are a daily experience.
A simple gesture of regret could go a long way towards defusing the tensions. It might not seem much, but in today’s France it would require a deep political transformation and the recognition of these eternal “immigrants” as full and equal citizens of the republic(iii).
President Jacques Chirac’s judgment is that we are going through a “crisis of identity, of direction.” France’s Le Nouvel Observateur magazine defends the French approach to society and politics, but calls on the French to recognize how the country has changed. “People say that the ‘French model’ has failed”, it says.
“This is wrong. When it has been properly applied, it has worked perfectly. While it may have been mockingly described as republican, centralizing or secular, it nevertheless remains the case that it produced a wonderfully efficient machine to manufacture French people. France has changed, and it must take a good look at its new multicultural face.”
The disconcerting image of French citizens as manufactured products of a republican machine is testament to the notion that if citizens do not conform and assimilate then they are nothing more than defective products, corrupted by some foreign source.
At the end of the day, the people of the suburbs are part of the solution and must propose alternatives from within the dynamics and the fabrics of their own societies.
Perpetuating fear to win votes is easier than presenting courageous policies. Little will change until the residents of the suburbs are not merely seen as problems but are respected as full French citizens, listened to and allowed to be involved in devising solutions(iv).
- Education as a tool of empowering members to represent themselves. School curriculums have little or nothing to say about the history and traditions of many in society. The contribution of ‘immigrants’ in French society on the whole tends to be completely erased from the collective memory which only frustrates and demeans the children of that very generation. To make matters worse, France recently passed a law calling for the “positive effects” of colonialism to be promoted in schools, while in Britain prominent figures such as Gordon Brown have argued for similar policies.
Meanwhile, state schools are compounding inequality. Anxiety over religious schools, affecting a tiny minority is blown up in a bread-and-circus sensationalist manner to avoid the more pressing issues of educational reform. To counteract this, the social workers associations recently proposed the anonymisation of the ‘Curriculum Vitae’ of people applying for jobs but this was rejected by the government and the political elite.
- Human rights and legal campaigns are imperative: against illegal enforcement of some laws and illegal expulsions, against the expeditious and unjust judgments against the young and “never-charged-before” rioters. The smooth functioning of any society will not mesh until there is trust between authority and citizens. The police have a long-standing reputation for prejudicial treatment and heavy-handedness in the suburbs. Until this issue of community trust can be established – which includes the police admitting their own mistakes – progress will be futile.
- We need a clear political discourse on racism, socio-economic discriminations. French citizens in position of responsibility must take the lead in preventing ‘negative discrimination’ even before the policy of ‘positive discrimination’ is considered. This is far more a matter of changing the mentality of the social fabric more than anything else, in which actions speak louder than words.
This priority is the fight against unemployment and discrimination in the labour market. Unemployment rates among citizens of “immigrant origin” are far higher than among “native-born” citizens. It is of the highest importance to provide equal access to the labour market. Governments should act to establish equitable employment standards and penalise racial discrimination.
France is also characterised by a high degree of social protection and many labour-market rigidities. This helps those already in work but prevents the creation of low-skill, entry-level jobs. The result is 25% unemployment among the young – and zero job prospects for the poorly-educated youths of the ghettos (v).
- Another area of concern is housing and urban policy. Local authorities rarely dare to challenge attitudes to minority ethnic communities, but the objective of greater social intermingling can only be attained through a firm political commitment to confront discrimination head on. Such policies will be unpopular. Political parties are reluctant to promote them. National movements that crystallise grassroots initiatives promoting civic education, cultural diversity and mutual understanding need to be launched which represent its real participants, rather than a token recognition of movements such a SOS Racisme or Ni Putes Ni Soumises (vi) which have self-serving underlying agendas of their own.
France needs determined and brave politicians who can look the fears and racism spreading across the country in the face. Energetic politicians who refuse to continue to pervert and falsify debates by “Islamising” social questions. Politicians who respect the equal dignity of all citizens and refuse to speak of “French people of immigrant origin” four generations after their ancestors arrived here. Politicians who know that if France is to restore social peace in the suburbs, it must do something about the injustices that undermine that peace (vii).
Fear of the ‘other’ needs to be understood for what it is. Community centres in the suburbs which represent and reflect the reality on the ground in a culturally and religiously sensitive framework are a means for the government to implement proposals. However, in order to realise this, accusations and scaremongering of ‘radicalism’ and ‘extremism’ need to be allayed. Community leaders need to be trusted and promises need to be fulfilled.
The disparity of living conditions and facilities need to be addressed as a priority as well as understanding the specific needs of a suffocated community. The fact that these ‘immigrants’ are French and a part of the society is a milestone that French society needs to work towards. Until the government recognises, acknowledges and celebrates this aspect of the demographic, then the subtle questions of Islam as a French religion in a secular democracy can begin to be tackled, opening the doors of understanding of a long-standing affair that the French establishment have been loathe and reluctant to admit.
- Source: Insee
- Dr Davyth Hicks, Editor-in-chief, Eurolang News, Brussels
- Naima Bouteldja, Transnational Institute
- Tariq Ramadan, ‘Fear will only fuel the riots’, Tuesday 15 November 2005
- Henri Astier – BBC News website
- SOS Racisme was founded in December 1984 as a pressure group in direct response to the rise of the National Front in France. Although SOS-Racisme was alledgedly apolitical and separate from any single party, its leaders, however, were close to important politicians of the Parti Socialiste. SOS-Racisme was initially the idea of Julien Dray, a député for the Parti Socialiste. In July 1992, Jack Lang\’s culture ministry gave it a grant of 1,800,000 francs (£200,000). SOS Racisme’s popularity was short-lived as the republican model of integration gained currency over the discourse of multiculturalism that SOS Racisme advocated.
Ni Putes Ni Soumises is a grassroots organisation which seeks the emancipation of women living in the Cites through integration in a secular republic. Active in getting women their rights in economically and socially dire straits; they are primarily founded on a participatory democratic model couched in a revival of feminist idealism.
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