French Riots: A Failure of the Elite, Not the Republic

JURIST Guest Columnist Dr. Laurent Pech, a native of Aix-en-Provence, France, and Jean Monnet Lecturer in European Union Law at the National University of Ireland, Galway, says that the recent rioting by French immigrant youths has complex roots and represents a political as much as a social failure...

Sadly but unavoidably, the French Government earlier this month officially proclaimed a state of emergency, invoking a 1955 law to quell widespread urban riots through the use of curfews and other extraordinary police powers. The 1955 law had only been implemented once before since the end of the war in Algeria (1954-1962), and that was in 1984 in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia, to restore public order after a wave of politically inspired assassinations. Parliament has now agreed to prolong the state of emergency for a period of three more months. The irony of the situation has not been lost on observers: the 1955 law was aimed fifty years ago at the grandparents of some of the current rioters.

Before challenging the argument that France is now paying the price of its allegedly authoritarian model of integration, let me insert a preliminary (and long) caveat. In too many cases, foreign commentators and media have tended to label the rioters as "Muslims." Examples of this thoughtless and implicitly xenophobic tendency could easily be multiplied (see e.g. Fox News). It must therefore be strongly emphasized that in no way do we know the religious beliefs or practices of the young persons involved in the recent unrest.


 Topic: France | Text: French state of emergency laws

In any case, it does not matter. The riots have absolutely nothing to do with religious freedom or about the place of Islam in French society. Just as foolish is the temptation to present the rioters as some sort of revolutionary guard. The teenagers and young adults burning the properties of their neighbors are not guided by any apparent political agenda. They rather represent the nihilist elements of a generation of unemployed and discriminated-against young men of foreign descent. And they are no angels themselves, as demonstrated by their burning of synagogues only two to three years ago. In most cases, if the backgrounds of those so far arrested are representative, we are talking about French citizens of Arab or African descent with an already-extensive criminal records.

In reality, most people living in those poor suburban neighborhoods generically called "banlieues" do not identify with the troubled young men, but are having to deal with the consequences of their actions thanks to a deficient criminal system where sentences are far from being always enforced. This is not to say that a lack of repression is the reason behind the current unrest or that repression is the answer. Yet, before offering a diagnosis, one should understand how France got to this point

First of all, it has to be said that there is nothing surprising about the eruption of violence. Anyone familiar with the then-controversial movie La Haine (released in 1995 and directed by Matthieu Kassovitz) would tell you that what is most surprising is that the riots did not erupt earlier. In a way, on a smaller scale, disturbances have been a typical occurrence in the banlieues since the eighties. For instance, Strasbourg has now the sad privilege of being well known for its "New Year's Eve" tradition, that tradition consisting of burning more cars than the year before to draw media attention for a few minutes.

The latest unrest was apparently initiated by the accidental death of two teenagers, one of Mauritanian origin, the other of Tunisian origin. They ran away from a police identity check and, fatally, sought refuge in an electrical substation. This led to rioting, which in turn led Nicholas Sarkozy, the infamous French Interior Minister, to use the word "scum" to describe the rioters. According to even the most well-intentioned commentators, this was outrageous and enough of an excuse to incite more violence. Yet, this very word is used daily by people living in the poor neighborhoods to describe the criminal youth. This is not to imply that the utterance was a smart and dignified move, but to accuse the Minister of racism is singularly misplaced as he has constantly advocated the cause of immigrants, most recently by defending affirmative action and by arguing in favor of granting immigrants the right to vote at the local level.

Irrespective of the facts at the root of the riots, a now common diagnosis propagated by foreign journalists is that they represent the failure of the French republican model of integration (see e.g. The Guardian, Leader, "Integration has to be voluntary", November 6, 2005; The New York Times, Editorial, "While Paris Burns", November 8, 2005). This diagnosis is wrong.

Article 1 of the French Constitution illustrates the substance of the so-called French model: "France shall be an indivisible, secular … Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion…" Accordingly, from a formal and legal perspective, there are no "minorities" in France. Indeed, since 1789 the Republic has always envisioned the unity of its citizens as "without distinction of origin, race or religion." Consequently, the legislature has always refused to recognize rights for groups that are formed on the basis of a community of common origin, belief, culture, and language. In France, there is but one abstract community, that of its citizens.

This conception has decisive practical consequences as, legally speaking, it forbids any policy of affirmative action as long as it is based on a criterion prohibited by the Constitution. It similarly excludes any data collection stressing the origin, race or religion of individuals. As a matter of principle, this author is profoundly attached to the premises upon which the French integrationist model is based. Understandably, the rigid features of the French approach often astonish foreign observers. One should concede that in practice, it has important shortcomings. It does not perfectly allow French society to understand the specific problems faced by immigrants or the generation of people born in France of foreign parents. Yet, I would argue that the fundamental problem is not the French model per se but rather the striking dissonance that French citizens of Arab or African descent experience between abstract principles officially proclaimed and what they endure in their daily lives. The huge body of anti-discrimination law too often appears toothless or not rigidly enforced. This is the crux of the matter and this is not the first time France has been faced with its own contradictions. During the days of our colonial empire, we used to teach the people that we subjugated by force the merits of the Declaration of Human Rights of 1789, while denying their humanity. a perfect recipe for bringing upon ourselves "wars of liberation".

The French integrationist approach may not be the most relevant issue, however. On the contrary, I think these riots should be interpreted as manifest evidence that most of the frustrated young men feel French and that they simply want to be accepted by the Nation and to be, more prosaically, part of our consumerist society. Their frustration and anger is comprehensible when faced with the unfulfilled promises of social and economic integration. Let us repeat this important point: it is because most French of Arab or African origin have believed in the idea of integration or assimilation that some are now tempted by nihilist attitudes. Therefore, and contrary to what many "multiculturalists" have argued, most rioters do not express their hatred of France or demand "cultural" rights for their "communities"; rather, their frustration is huge because they felt efforts they may have made have not been answered.

In any case, the United States and American media are in no position to lecture. More than 1 per cent of the US population is apparently behind bars, in comparison to approximately about 0.1 per cent of the French population. Washington is not burning because the American nation has been ready, morally and financially, to lock up a huge number of its criminals (blacks or of foreign origin) while at the same time creating a huge number of low-paid jobs, which do not exist in France for a certain number of structural and principled reasons. Hurricane Katrina has shown that both societies and many others have an important "lumpenproletariat". But rather than locking them up, France has tried to buy peace by extensively subsidizing the poor neighborhoods. That policy worked until now or more exactly, it successfully kept the poor out of sight. The next and key question is therefore what to do next.

The obvious long-term solution apart from "multiculturalism" would certainly be to create more jobs and to face the failures of our anti-discrimination policies. Even though this author cherishes the Republican model based on individual merit and abstract equality, more pragmatism and less ideology is needed today. More ambitious corrective measures should be taken in order to improve access to education and access to the civil service for those living in the banlieues. Another balance has also to be struck between prevention and repression. Police intervention has to be redefined and the harassing of youth through ID checks ought to be stopped. Yet, it is also critical that police forces do not see their work annihilated by a deficient criminal system, freeing the same juvenile delinquents over and over. Irrespective of their age, it is simply intolerable to see young men with more than ten criminal sentences on their résumé walking about freely while harassing their underprivileged neighbors. Political correctness and rigid republican ideology are still obstacles to a genuine debate on discrimination and/or criminality. Unfortunately, it is the extreme-right that has always benefited from the unwillingness of our unprincipled leaders and "embedded" journalists to address poverty and racism in French society as well as the overrepresentation of individuals of foreign origin in crime statistics.

At the end it is important to reposition the riots in the larger context of a deeply frustrated and demoralized Nation, frustrated by the inability of our elites to successfully manage the economy and fearful of its destiny in our globalized world. In a famous study, La société bloquée (1970) complemented with another powerful book, La crise de l'intelligence (1995), Michel Crozier offered what is still the best analysis of a country unable to reform itself. At whose door should we lay the blame? For all intents and purposes, the responsibility of our self-reproductive elite is tremendous. French society in its cultural and social diversity is simply not represented by Parliament. Worse, at the level of either the higher civil service or in the media, the only chance to make it in the country has more to do with your genes than your merits. The upper class has simply used the Republican model as a protective shield to preserve its "privileges" through hidden networks of power and influence. The unfortunate aspect of the most recent riots, however, is that rather than bringing closer the people suffering from dramatic socio-economic conditions, it incites sickening politicians to play a category of unemployed poor against another. What is ultimately needed is for the elite to accept to the necessity of abdicating a significant part of the "privileges" they have accumulated to the detriment of the public good. We should rediscover the spirit of 1789. If not, some may want to rediscover the letter of it, complete with bloody consequences.

Also by Laurent Pech:

Laurent Pech is Jean Monnet Lecturer in European Union Law at the National University of Ireland, Galway

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