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Is France Due for Riots?


In my last post, I offered several reasons why the urban riot has gone out of style in the U.S.

However, France will not be spared the sword. I predict that the world will watch French cities light up in youth unrest in 2009, 2010 at the latest … 2011 for sure.

I have been traveling to the suburbs outside of Paris trying to understand the parallels between French marginality and U.S. urban poverty. (The “suburbs” or banlieues in France carry the opposite connotation as the U.S.: namely, predominantly nonwhite, poor, excluded from the general life of the wider society.)

I am struck at the resonances between the voices of young people in contemporary France and the cries of those who rebelled in U.S. inner cities in the 1960’s — arguably the last time we had nationwide un-civil unrest. French youth in the suburbs are mostly North African in origin — or from other parts of Francophone Africa. They are also mad as hell. Decades of poverty and social exclusion have created a growing cohort of teenagers and 20-somethings who feel no investment in their nation.

The indifference of the French government toward such frustration is truly remarkable. The state of national denial is best exemplified by the refusal of the French government to allow either private or government bodies to gather statistics based on race or ethnicity. The French tell us that in their “republic,” everyone must be content to be (simply) a “citizen”; acknowledging attributes like race or ethnicity — or religion — would affirm differences, foster inequality, and thereby lead to threats against the national ideal of a brotherhood of Frenchmen.

All fine and good. Except that in practice, people in France experience their daily lives in terms of race, gender, social class, religion, etc. (like most modern people). Though estimates vary considerably, anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent of inhabitants of France are ethnic immigrants — the majority from North Africa. Yet they only have one member in the French National Assembly, they are absent from business and higher education, and they tend to live in isolated enclaves where Arabic and indigenous tongues are more common than French. (Yes, I acknowledge that the U.S. Senate now does not have an African-American member.)

It may be time for the French to shift their attitudes and acknowledge that there are multiple cultures in France. But French citizens repeatedly point to the U.S. as the primary reason why they don’t collect such statistics: they love to cite U.S. “multiculturalism” as a joke, i.e., an ideology serving to reinforce social inequality. But they love Obama. Go figure.

Now, an organized challenge to this view, by political leaders as well as immigrants, is gaining strength. There is a social movement that supports the need to legitimize collection of statistics based on ethnicity. Only by doing so, the proponents argue, can the French government begin to integrate excluded ethnic groups — a practice the French call “positive discrimination,” as opposed to our principle of “affirmative action.” Action presupposes knowledge, they argue (a central tenet of a U.S. school of philosophy: pragmatism).

Some French institutions are already moving forward on this front. The elite training school for French politicians and civil servants — Sciences Po — is at the vanguard. The university’s courageous president, Richard Descoings, has been actively recruiting French minority students; to get around racial profiling, he has creatively used “neighborhood” as a proxy.

I say “courageous” because he has been met with a popular rebuke that would make the religious right in this country look like cultural relativists/peaceniks by comparison. But he has persisted, and independent evaluations suggest Sciences Po will soon be viewed as a national leader.

The situation in the suburbs is grave, however, and the French may want to take notice before the fires erupt. Perhaps most distressing is that young people don’t see themselves as “French.” Every time I ask them “what would help you feel included: Jobs? Education?” the reply is straightforward: “I want respect; I want to be viewed as French.”

The French busily throw out a few jobs, while the young people want their dual identities — as ethnic as well as French — to be acknowledged. This is not dissimilar to the great black American social theorist W.E.B. Dubois, who argued that U.S. blacks are both “black” and “American” — even if they become president.

So, in sum, I think the French youth will riot because:

1. The rest of the country believes they are happy as kittens. (No, I’m serious.)

2. Guns, guns, guns. For the first time, I’ve heard young people in France say that guns are becoming more prevalent in their communities. Fait attention! Les gendarmes.

3. The French economy is in tatters, and the government has no money; the welfare programs in place that usually dampen working-class unrest will be scaled back precipitously in the next few years. Combine this with number one above, and feelings of abandonment by youth will be intensified by pangs of hunger. Recall that the French started a national bank (Le Caisse des Depots) to ensure that citizens had bread on their tables when the emperor grew stingy. Sometimes it may be wise to repeat history.

4. Prescription drugs: The French are mad about Prozac. I argued that self-medication will decrease the likelihood of riots in the U.S. In France, it simply amplifies the state of national denial.

5. The press. The French media love the riot. It is the only time they give black youth any attention. Young people know this.

Will gathering statistics on race/ethnicity/national origin actually help the French to prevent youth rioting? Probably not. But no one thought text messaging would be one of the keys to electing an African-American president of the United States. Wake up, France.