Monday, November 14, 2005

Tell me where you live, I’ll tell you who you are

Sophie Germont, a friend of the blog, and an eminent French lawyer and opinionist agreed to post on the recent French events; here's her text:

The question was raised in your blog whether recent riots in French suburbs showed the failure of the French “assimilation” model. For those who are not familiar with the concept, it seems useful to recall that France chose to integrate its immigrant population on the basis of equal treatment with French citizens. This means that, in comparison with other countries, such as Germany and the UK, people working in France are promptly granted citizenship and access to welfare. In counterpart, they are denied any specific right (minority rights); the specificities of this population are thus deliberately ignored.

Although such position might seem hard to defend today, I belong to those who believe that this system is less bad than the German “minority friendly” model. I grew up in a genuine melting pot (for those who doubt the existence of any such thing, I would advise to read Daniel Pennac’s hilarious novels) and I reckon that salad bowls are not good enough. However, Paris is burning and the failure of the French integration policy seems impossible to deny. According to me, this does not put into question the appropriateness of the “assimilation” model but it is rather the consequence of successive governments’ departure from this principle. Indeed, the latter was implemented de jure but not de facto.

Immigrant workers and their families were granted similar rights as Frenchmen, access to the same health protection and schools but one mistake flawed the whole system. Around, the 60s, it was decided to build proper accommodation for poor people. Several “villes nouvelles” flourished in the country, outside the main cities. This was nicely meant but no one took into account the sociological impact of regrouping the poorest in such ghost-cities. For all the immigrants living there, “Assimilation” could just not take place anymore: schools and public facilities were stigmatized as ghetto-places. Unemployed, disillusioned, adults surround children growing up there and it is only natural that some of them refuse the values of a society that denies them any hope. I have been to school with such children and could not believe how far their despise for any authority went. Many were clever, witty, but absolutely nihilist. Current riots confirm this impression: despite their clear exclusion as an underclass, it would never occur to them to attack upper classes. They kill their neighbors, attack babies, rape girls in their street or rob their own bakery, etc. Instead of uniting, they keep shooting on people sharing their misfortune. This has nothing to do with rebellions experienced in American ghettoes: they were demonstrating in favor of something but here; we are facing absolutely nihilist destruction.

Racism is far from being the only reason for these people’s exclusion. In the French context, the fate of second-generation immigrants mainly depends on where they grew up. Those who live out of these ghettoes really get the chance to integrate irrespective of their skin color. Residual racism exists but it is far from being as significant as in other European countries. So why are these guys burning cars all night?

I believe that they are the victims of the de-socialization process at work in the “banlieues”. Geographical exclusion slowly gave way to the elaboration of a parallel society with different values, language, dressing codes, music tastes, etc (for those who did not yet, you have to see Mathieu Kassovitz’s film on this phenomenon: “La Haine”). This would all be ok if people would be able to work in this bubble but jobs are in the outside world. Working implies accepting the rules of a society that initially rejected them. Close to my hometown, in Les Ulis, many jobs for unqualified workers remain unfilled although the city has 30% unemployment. Employers desperately seeking workforce obviously offered jobs to the guys irrespective of their skin color but it often clashes because of divergent values. I am very pessimistic about the future of the rioters but now; it is our duty to care for the re-socialization of the next generations.

Two solutions can be envisaged in this perspective. The first one is the progressive dismantlement of our ghettoes. The State would help the poorest to pay their rents in the private sector and destroy all these shabby Council flats. This would be the only way to start a proper implementation of the “assimilation” model but the obvious inconvenience would be the high costs of such measures. The other alternative would consist in renouncing to “assimilation” in order to adopt the American model. Ghettoes would remain but positive discrimination in favor of minorities should be introduced.

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