Wednesday, December 07, 2005

After the riots in France: By Estelle Carrelet de Loisy

Estelle Carrelet de Loisy is Researcher at the Stability pact for South Eastern Europe in Brussels. She is also a Political Scientist and European Lawyer, working on Organised Crime fighting issues.

Abstract: No European should fear anything any more apart from the French government. The new generation of sons of the French suburbs is testing ways to express themselves publicly. Since teenagers burning cars in order to raise awareness about their overall poverty situation today seems not to lead to constructive governmental measures; perhaps tomorrow some young adults will organize themselves in lobbies, associations, political parties to represent their interest at the decision-making level. It is the voice of the street expressing its social integration’s malaise that needs to finally seriously be addressed now by the State.

The riots happening in the French suburbs of big cities late October and early November have raised worries that violence could spread throughout Europe. Even our transatlantic neighbors were alarmed about these “affected area”. If ones can understand these prudent foreign measures towards uncontrolled violence; however every French citizen had the feeling of a strong exaggerated perception from outside. Naturally, the state of emergency laws was voted in France for 12 days, allowing a period of stronger State’s and police control, specific powers to the government, however, implemented into repressive measures only. But any French citizens will also recognise that the riots were nothing new and nothing really surprising.

The last straw that broke the camel’s back

The situation is nothing new for France, just the explosion of a latent situation lasting since at least 20 years. No French government from the right or the left wing had had until now the courage to face this well-known upcoming and sensible issue of the insufficient integration and the daily discrimination of sons of immigrants and suburbs teenagers. There is clear discrimination and latent racism, by job searching, etc.

As Sophie mentioned in her article, France has at least chosen to try to assimilate its immigrated population, which is not the case of all other EU countries’ immigration policy. These unsuccessful efforts towards an assimilation policy were indeed the decision of a “marriage with the country” for the best and also for the worst. The actual French government is “paying the bill” of 20 years of absence of real immigrant’s integration policy at the French governmental level. And despite of its present official efforts and laud measures; it still tries to avoid balancing this bill.

“They are so blinded that they even could burn the car of their own uncle”

During the last two decades there were about 10 cars per month burned in the French suburbs; these last weeks they were about 500 per days in all different big cities’ suburbs together. The fact that this violence conjointly took place in different suburbs all over France is most probably because, these suburbs of big French cities do all have the same characteristics. Therefore, the rioters developed either a spontaneous solidarity or more probably a competition’s “game” in raising media attention by spectacular actions. These suburbs were quickly built in the 60's and 70's to face the lack of habitat for the migrating labor forces. These cheap skyscrapers’ quarters have become today grey concrete ghettos inhabited by people facing all the same economical, cultural, intellectual and human poverty’s problems in whatever city. The persons acting in the French suburbs these last weeks were mostly adolescents, at the age of their identity crisis, living and going to school in these ghettos only, without any garden to relax, sport place to expense energy and without space and noise isolation in the apartments to live in peace with their neighbor. Their parents either work hard and are not at home; or are jobless and have lost their authority. These teenagers listen neither to their teacher, nor to their parents, perhaps to their oldest brother. Hopefully is their older brother -and example in life- at university, but most probably he has already been in jail or is known from the next police office. But finally their request is towards the society and the State, because they are desperate. For the future, they are seeing no perspective of professional integration, neither in France nor in the country of origin of their parents or grandparents. They have the feeling to stay foreign everywhere. They are mostly from the second or third generation of immigrants now, but differ from the Italian, Spanish, Polish immigration waves since they most of the time coming from less developed countries, with very different cultural and social organization, and with a difficult “hate-love” historical link to France, since they come from former colonial territories. As Sophie mentioned, the nihilist destructive component of the riots is shocking and fundamental at the same time.

The “enemy” is not so easy to identify

At the difference of Raphaël’s article, I realistically keep focusing on the fact that the disadvantaged suburbs inhabitants mostly are kids of recent or old immigrants from former colonies of Muslim culture. The cultural aspect of the families plays a role for understanding these kids’ loss of values; especially in patriarchal family structure when the father has lost authority and honor, because of the humiliation of his treatment as a migrant in a not welcoming country a few decades ago and is jobless today. However, despite of the actual tendency trying to consider any random violence towards citizens as a conspiring Islamic terrorist act, no link should be made between the violent riots and the Muslim religion. Contrarily to those tempted by simplifying problems; complex issues need nuanced answers. In order to avoid any confusion, one should take into account that these events haven’t been declared as neither organized, nor have anything to deal with terrorism or Islamic waves. There has been so far nor recognized or identified political party behind these riots, nor NGO, or religious slogan. The French Government liaising regularly with the head of the French Council for the Muslim Religion has requested an official declaration, that he made, asking to all young Muslims living in France to keep quiet. Teenagers using modern means of communication, contact each other by mobile phone for spontaneous action in order to kill boredom.

Populist provocative slogans for an ambitious political man

The attitude of the ambitious Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy, French Minister of Interior, was too charged of political calculations to be good. He has to a certain extent a part of responsibility in the increase of the intensity and the length of the riots. His respectless public slogans addressed to the media on the issue could only further provoke the rioter’s anger and worsen the situation. He kept on with his slogan even when the situation was really “hot”, increasing the teenagers’ reactions. These slogan never ever had the aim to mean at least the 1958 critical French-Algerian slogan: “I have understood you”, or “I am listening to your distress”. Mr. Sarkozy’s public declarations were aimed to the right to extreme right French electorate that brought in 2002 the negationist, revisionist, and recognized racist French candidate, Mr. Le Pen at the second round of the last presidential elections. There is a dishonoring latent racism in France looking for a less stigmatized and more acceptable public figure to give it respectability. Mr. Sarkozy knows it and uses the opportunity of these riots to try to come up as “the” man having everything under control. But in what direction are the governmental actions now going? They all seem to go in a repressive ways in order to diminishing violence but no fundamental action to avoid future recidivism seems again to be taken by the actual government.

From the burning solidarity to the organized citizen voice

France is a country, since the 1789 Revolution, which has always expressed his discontentment with its people going on the street to protest. Its new generation of sons from the suburbs has finally adopted a similar way of expressing themselves. Should it be seen as a first step into integration towards the French system?! There are some similarities between today's riots and the 1871 Commune de Paris where the hand-workers stroked through the streets of the capitals and built barricades to ask for better rights so well described by Victor Hugo. However, in France, the momentary incapacity that the State had to take control over the situation and the lack of understanding towards a part of its population is the expression of a failed integration system. It is also an urban problem, specific to the crazy inflation of the housing market in the capital of the French centralistic State, where most of the economic activity is concentrated in big cities.

Sustainable reforms should prevent integration malaise

It seems that the French government is today still trying to fight immigration from outside, or sending back any illegal migrants, where the actual problem is much more the situation of the migrants, sons and grand-sons of migrants within the country. The aim is to prevent from outside but not from inside. However the government, trying to find problems from outside should recognize that the problems are inside. Not only repression but also prevention. The most sustainable way is to prevent from inside. The actual governmental measures such as throwing people out of the country, trying to strengthen the control of “white marriages”, forbidding some rap music are short-term measures with broad populist resonance. However, these punctual measures do not solve the much more fundamental problems such as the failed social and economical integration; as well as the urban lack of humanity of some quarters in France.

The government should take the issue of absence of perspective for its youth seriously and from the roots, not only superficially. Else there are risks of recuperation of this disoriented young people by other less recommendable acting organization. France, be aware, these are only short-term projects proposed now, no sustainable, long-term reforms and measures for solving the problems of the young people’s lack of perspective in the French suburbs. Some efforts are made towards more long-term efforts and long-term awareness raising: by the media, by some politicians too, and these are the ones that should be encouraged. If nothing sustainable is done, it will be again just a matter of time until the problem occurs again.


Renegade Eye said...

Of all I read of the fires in France, this post mirrored the smartest evaluations I found.

Believe it or not, Diana Johnstone wrote a good essay also on this subject.


Raphaël Paour said...

I agree with Renegade Eye on the fact that this is an excellent post. I disagree however on a few points.

Estelle says: "These teenagers listen neither to their teacher, nor to their parents, perhaps to their oldest brother. Hopefully is their older brother -and example in life- at university, but most probably he has already been in jail or is known from the next police office."

I wouldn't say that "most probably the older brother has already been in jail or is known from the next police office." To bring forward such a claim about the criminal background of a majority of the youth in the suburbs, one needs to show numbers. Intuitively I would tend to think that it is a gross exaggeration.

I agree that, in trying to understand these waves of violence, one should not ignore the cultural background of those involved. However people tend to think that it is an undisputed fact that the teenagers’ involved are sons or grandsons of immigrants from African and north African countries. Here again no numbers were ever produced by the media. As some suburbs are largely populated by families originating from these countries (but the number of people coming from Portugal or French Caribbean territories and others is also important) it is certain that a proportion of kids that participated in the riots have a Muslim background. But Estelle is wrong when she says "I realistically keep focusing on the fact that the disadvantaged suburbs inhabitants mostly are kids of recent or old immigrants from former colonies of Muslim culture." Many of the former French colonies in Africa from which came a large portion of the immigrants are not of Islamic but of Christian culture.

Finally, one the major explanations given by the media and the government for these events is the lack of parental authority. It may be true, and Estelle gives explanations for that, but here again it should not be taken as a given fact. It would not surprise me at all if in many cases the violence was tacitly cautioned by parental authority. As Estelle says, the immigrant workers (Muslims or not) that came to France in the 60' have suffered multiple humiliations and are rightly angry at mechanisms of exclusion, which the State allowed to take place. I think that in many instances parents let their kids express their own anger.