Who’s fanning the flames?

It is not that assimilation has failed, but that France only pays lip service to assimilation.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

Nearly two weeks of nightly rioting in the suburbs of Paris has left hundreds of cars burnt out, and 800 people arrested. Despite talking tough, president Jacques Chirac’s ministers have been left looking impotent and divided in the face of an incoherent rabble.

Paris’s banlieues, or suburbs, are sociologically the model that the rest of the world followed. The Parisians were the first to invert the typical relationship of middle-class suburbia and deprived inner cities when the wealthy recolonised the city centre and drove out the poor. Smug British and American commentaries on the alienation of the banlieues have only failed to notice that the same thing is happening to their suburbs.

Race and religion are the prisms through which everyone wants to understand the riots. There are large populations of Arab immigrants in the banlieues. To British commentators the riots are a demonstration that the French policy of assimilation – that immigrants should become citizens, without competing allegiances – has failed. Preferable, they think, is the British system of multiculturalism, where different cultures live side-by-side.

But interior minister Nicholas Sarkozy who has been blamed for provoking the riots is much more of a multiculturalist than a supporter of France’s assimilationist tradition. Offending the received wisdom that migrants should be citizens before enjoying rights, he favours the extension of the vote to non-citizens (albeit only in local elections). And it was Sarkozy who created the Council of Imams, a state-sponsored body of Muslim leaders whose affiliation is to France rather than Algeria or Tunisia. Loyally, the council has issued a fatwa against the rioters.

The British-style recruitment of community leaders has had little effect on the rioters, though. They are mostly of Muslim origin, but it is a quaint belief that they are moved by the Islamic faith, any more than young white French people are militant Christians. The Washington Post reported that one young rioter ‘resented the French government’s efforts to thrust Muslim leaders into the role of mediators between the police and the violent demonstrators’.

For the most part, the rioters are French citizens, being second-generation immigrants, but too old to get caught by Charles Pasqua’s 1993 law depriving citizenship to migrants born in France. It is just that in their treatment by the police and in the eyes of some of their fellow citizens, they are not French.

Aggressive policing is the other side of Sarkozy’s multiculturalism, which does not prevent him from calling the rioters scum. Under his guidance, the riot police have tried to crack down – but failed to secure respect.

It is not that assimilation has failed, but that France only pays lip service to assimilation, while practically refusing it to the descendants of North African migrants. That much is painfully obvious from the way that the more traditionally minded Gaullists in Chirac’s government, prime minister Dominique de Villepin and President Chirac himself have not sought to champion equal rights, but appear to have used the riots to embarrass Sarkozy, their rival for leadership of the ruling Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP).

France’s ethnic minorities feel precious little affiliation to their political class. Half a century ago they were organised by the Communist Party (PCF) – though it insisted on keeping them in migrant organisations like L’Etoile Du Nord, and cleaving to a fiercely patriotic line that did not balk at organising indigenous attacks on migrant workers. With the PCF out of the picture, though, only patrician actions on behalf of migrants have taken off, like SOS Racisme in the 1980s, or the church occupations of the late 1990s.

But then, much of France feels alienated from the political class, as was strikingly demonstrated by the electorate’s refusal to support the new European Constitution, despite overwhelming endorsement from political parties. Pointedly, that has hurt the Socialist Party more than Chirac, who have been wallowing in the polls ever since, and are unable to make any positive intervention into the current crisis.

Sarkozy’s critics within the government have been seen to put faction above a solution, and problematically for them, his violent language against the rioters has seen him rise in the polls. But political manoeuvring in the elite has done little to address the rioting.

James Heartfield is a writer based in London. Visit his website here.

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Topics Politics


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