The outbreak of rioting in Paris in late October has brought into question some of the key underpinnings of the French Republic in a way that has embarrassed the French elite.The riots also underlined the hollowness of claims that France presents a model of integration that should be emulated across Europe. Interior minister and presidential hopeful Nicholas Sarkozy, himself had to admit that exclusion and discrimination had played their role in the outpouring of rage, stating in an interview that, “I challenge the idea that we all start life on the same line. Some people start further back because they have a handicap – colour, culture or the district they come from.We have to help them.”
Sarkozy considers that the current model needs adjustment to confront the underlying problems that led to the sustained disorder, such as positive discrimination to open opportunities for those suffering from the “handicaps” he mentions. Others insist, notably President Chirac, that the problem is that the model is not being applied rigorously enough, not that it is failing. According to many in the immigrant communities, both sides of the political spectrum are either unwilling or unable to bring about the kind of changes that are really needed.
Rioting first occurred in the Clichy-sous-Bois suburb of Paris in late October after news spread that two local youths, Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna had been electrocuted as they hid from police who had been chasing them to check their papers. After the first few nights of rioting, the situation was further exacerbated when a police tear gas canister was launched into one of the mosques in the suburb, affecting hundreds of the worshippers gathered there during Ramadhan. The police gave no explanation of why this incident occurred during a time of such tension. After sustained nights of rioting in the Paris suburbs, the disorder spread to towns and cities across France, as youths in other areas took the opportunity to destroy cars, shops and attack people, especially the hated police. In total, two people were killed by rioters, and more than 10000 vehicles were burned, as were 255 schools and 233 public buildings; the police arrested 4770 people.
Currently, all the leading political figures are keen to show that they are taking an active role in addressing the problems that have played a role in the outbreak of disorder. For the Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, and Interior Minister Sarkozy, both looking ahead to the Presidential elections in 2007, the next few months are crucial. They will strive to show that they are active in addressing the problems affecting the minorities. The key issue to achieve electoral success will be reassuring the worried majority that law and order will prevail and that the country is not in danger of another security breakdown.
As we have discussed in these pages previously, there has been a sea change in attitudes towards social relations in parts of Europe in the past few years, due to fears about terrorism and immigration, which have led to discussion about which social model will serve Europe best. France has been an advocate of the liberal, individual model which doesn’t recognise differing identities among the populace.The only status recognised by law is that of citizen of the Republic, and hence according to this approach consideration is not given to racial or religious distinctions.This is meant to guarantee the cohesiveness of the society, avoiding the emergence of civil strife or competition among different groups that will occur at the expense of the whole.
This outlook was established in the revolutionary era, when the new constitutional order was founded upon the idea that the law looked upon all citizens equally, regardless of their background. At that time, France made the transition from a monarchical to a constitutional system, which derived its power from the consent of the people, instead of the force of the king’s arms. Representatives of the different provinces of France, whose regions were previously the property of the king,now freely submitted to a united, legitimate order, discarding their regional and linguistic differences.This principle regarding French identity was thus enshrined in French culture and underpins its political life to this day.
One of the consequences of this view of French identity is that the state is prohibited from adopting policies or laws which treat citizens differently according to ethnic or religious distinctions. On this basis, the government is prohibited from collecting data on the racial or religious groups present in the Republic.Thus all of the figures quoted in the media about the size of the ethnic or religious minority populations in France are only estimates, as such questions could never be part of an official census (both figures vary between three and eight million according to different sources). This stance has great support in the French population as a whole,and most of the elite commend it as well, since in their view it has enabled France to avoid any policy stance or governmental bias that could lead to official discrimination in favour of or against groups. If the government is officially blind regarding any differences among its people, it will be unable to mistreat them due to these differences. On the other hand, opponents of this stance argue that this information void allows rampant discrimination. Since there is no official tracking of differences in areas such as employment opportunities or education between different groups, there is no impetus for officialdom to counteract the problems that affect France’s minorities.
Many European countries have looked to elements of the French approach as a way to address some of the tensions evolving between their host communities and immigrant groups, in most cases from Muslim countries. In Britain, the Netherlands and elsewhere, fears about excessive immigration, and the possible development of a fifth column in the Muslim community, have driven the debate to the top of the political agenda. Many commentators in these countries claimed that the multicultural model that guided social policy for decades had to be abandoned, as it had failed to secure the adoption of core values that would guarantee harmony in society.