Thursday, 10 November 2005

Flames in France

A couple of friends have emailed me to ask for my opinion on the current events in France, so I thought I would share my tuppunce worth with the expecting world as well.

One of the cités outside Dijon - May 04After more than 5 years in the UK, I must say I feel rather disconnected with my country of origin. Not only do I sometimes find it difficult to express myself in French, I have very much lost touch with what is happening there. However, I have to say that I am not altogether surprised by what is happening at the moment. There had been (much smaller) outbursts in the past and I think it was only a question of time before a full blown crisis happened. As I am writing, this has been going on for fourteen nights and the State of Emergency has been declared in several cities (including the one where I was born and lived for several year while at Uni: Dijon). Things are finally calming down a little.

To be perfectly honest, I haven't been following the events very closely. I got an email from my mother yesterday, listing places and things which routinely get burned (schools, cars and so on) and saying it was all quite frightening. I am not sure the tiny village where she lives is about to make it to the headlines just yet though. The media in the UK have been reporting on the events though and I have caught a couple of things on Radio 4.

It seems everybody is trying to find reasons for what is going on. Some blame it on the apparently increasing antisemitism to be found in the country (saying that the crisis is now Europe wide), others on a terrorist plot. I am not really convinced by either theory. Although a journalist on From Our Own Correspondent reported that this time round the rioters have included islamist rationales to their discourse, I do not think religion is much of an issue in this case.

Others again blame it on the French social model. While I do not think there is one single easy and neat answer to the problem, I thing we are getting warmer with this hypothesis.

Contrary to the UK's multicultural approach, where ethnic and cultural minorities are allowed to live next to each other and retain their identity, the French model expects people to adhere to the French ways and become French themselves. This is an attitude I find myself reproducing naturally; not hanging out with other French people here in London and trying to conform as much as possible to the local ways of doing things. The idea is fine in theory but not really happening in practice. The problem with this is that it should be going both ways. The minorities should make an effort to integrate but the majority needs to be willing to accept them. Radio4 again had a report on the total lack of minority representation in the media and it is notoriously difficult for someone with a non-French name to get a job. Although I don't think there is much overt racism (even though the far right came second at the last presidential elections), people seem to be quite averse to change and difference and xenophobia expresses itself in a more covert but, probably for that very reason, much more effective way. The result is that ethnic minorities (and especially second and third generation immigrants) find themselves ostracised, sitting on the fence between their discarded identity and a society they are refused access to.

Because of this and huge financial difficulties (in a country where unemployment is at 10%, the figures rise to 40% in those "cités"), they end up cooped up together in ghetto like "cités" ("council estates" or "projects") in the suburb of the cities. These places are famously horrible places. The police and firemen, because they have been attacked there so often, refuse to go there; shops have closed down; and violence, drug dealing and idle youths own the place.

When there is no hope and nothing to, when the "rule of law" has disappeared, when you have been used to see violence since you are a child, what do you do when you get a chance? You riot...

For years the government has done nothing about all this. It is only in the few years since I have left that proper anti-discrimination laws have been passed. As I said there have been incident before but nothing on such a scale. This is a wake up call. Let's hope the government hears it.

My response to a comment left on this post can be read here.

Further reading:
* C’est l’économie, stupide – the real reason why the cars of Paris burn - Times (08/11/05) [Basically my position although I am slightly surprised by the Schadenfreude in the article]
* The Riots
* More Notes on the Rioting in France
* Why is France Burning?

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  1. Zefrog,
    I enjoyed your article, but it seems to me that there may be an additional problem here,open borders, that is shared by many other countries as well.
    Perhaps there are many Frenchmen who do not want "Cheap" labor flooding the country and vying for the same jobs they themselves need. When you add to this the tendency of many of these people to not want to assimilate it creates resentment.In addition,because of the high birth rate of many of these immigrants, and the lower birth rate of the French, it is estimated that France will lose it's national identity in forty years. Personally, I feel if a person does not want to become "French", but instead retain his own ethnic identity, perhaps he should remain in his own country and work to make it better rather than immigrate to another mans country and expect them to accommodate his customs.

  2. Zefrog's comments are universaal for any country. Of great importance for all EU countries. In most countries the integration and immigration questions are tossed around. But it seems to me that politics in general, efforts to be politically correct and fears make it difficult to have frank and honest debates on this subject. Yet, we are in desperate need of being able to handle immigration and people flows better. Because wether we want it or not - people flows will keep increasing and we need to be able to build mixed societies everywhere.


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