By Peter Fysh
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France: Roots of a Revolt

This article is over 16 years, 1 months old
Peter Fysh argues the French riots had both political and economic causes.
Issue 302

The recent urban unrest in France has exposed the way in which social and economic marginalisation is overlaid by both an ethnic and a geopolitical dimension. Unemployed immigrant-origin youths have been engaged in an unwinnable but constantly reigniting war with the police since at least the early 1980s. After 11 September 2001 their situation worsened as the state colluded with employers in flushing Muslim workers out of their jobs at key employment centres like Charles de Gaulle airport in the Paris suburb of Roissy.

Stubborn belief

The overlapping of ethnic and social exclusion is far from unique to France. The recent explosions have highlighted once again the obvious fact that these tensions are present in all kinds of political systems, including the one inspired by the Republican principles enshrined in the landmark revolution of 1789 – universal suffrage, human rights and equality before the law. What is unique to France, however, is the way in which the stubborn belief in the state’s role as guardian of abstract political rights has generated a kind of myopia about ethnic difference, and about the nature and dimensions of racism, which is present in both right and left political discourses. Thus it was that the justice minister, Jean Foyer, told the National Assembly in 1963 that France had ‘reason to congratulate itself for the absence of acts of racial discrimination or segregation on its territory’, less than two years after the 17 October 1961 police assault on unarmed Algerian demonstrators which cost the lives of upwards of 200 men, women and children, while the then prime minister, Jacques Chaban Delmas, told a Jewish newspaper in 1971, ‘We are without doubt one of the least racist countries in the world… it would be counterproductive to campaign against what doesn’t exist.’

Indisputably, French society has displayed a unique record in the assimilation of foreigners during the 150 years since industrialisation outran the local labour supply. The right likes to pretend that this was because of the nature of the immigrants themselves. In the 1980s, when North African origin youth began to stand up for themselves visibly and vocally for the first time, the extreme right and their sympathisers responded by pretending they had no problem with European immigration, because the Italians, Spanish and Belgians who had crossed the frontier in their hundreds of thousands were largely Catholic and shared the same peasant origins as the French, while post-war immigration from ‘an Islamic world in the throes of a demographic, political and religious revival,’ was condemned as ‘inassimilable’.

The truth is that between the wars those very same European minorities, including the Jewish refugees from occupied Europe, were subjected to the same vitriolic abuse – identifying them as spongers, criminals and carriers of dirt and disease – by an extremist press which was every bit as vindictively racist as is that of today’s Front National.

Nor did the French political system, despite its illustrious origins, offer immigrant workers a framework of social or political rights which was in any way better than that enjoyed by those in, for example, the US. Workers were routinely given work permits which restricted them to a particular industry and a particular region. They were not allowed to form independent associations. Although they could join trade unions, they were not allowed to stand for office until 1968 and in the 1930s thousands of Polish miners and their families were deported when they struck to defend working conditions. The French state was more generous than, say, the German, in granting citizenship at the age of majority to those born in France of foreign parents. But this was less generous than in the US, where you are American from birth, and was introduced in the mid-19th century essentially for military reasons – the Republic was concerned about the size of its army in relation to the burgeoning German Empire.

In fact both the Third and Fourth Republics, which ran from 1870 to 1958, interrupted only by the Nazi occupation and the Vichy regime, had never given full legislative form to the principles set out by their 18th century predecessors, living uneasily with a distinction between ‘citizens’ and ‘subjects’. The Algerian statute of 1947 granted the three Algerian departments 30 seats in the National Assembly, to be chosen by two electoral colleges, in which one ‘European’ voter weighed the same as eight Algerians. And this was at a time when Algeria was regarded as being not a colony but an integral part of French territory. Only the war of liberation changed that.

High density housing

Today, thanks to the nationality laws, France has a very large population of young people with full citizenship rights who are the descendants of non-European primo-migrants. Their social exclusion is produced by the industrial and residential location processes inherent in all capitalist societies unless interventionist policies are put in place which remedy them. To give just one example, when high density housing was first developed in the 1960s and 1970s to cope with the urban explosion that accompanied the long post-war boom, it very soon produced record levels of divorce and nervous breakdowns, due to the uncomfortable isolation felt by the first (indigenous) residents who had moved from their homely but slummy city centre quartiers. ‘White flight’ occurred as those who could save up a deposit for their own house decamped to areas with a decent social infrastructure of bars, shops and schools. The estates then filled up disproportionately with poorer North African and Portuguese families. From the beginning of the 1980s they became trapped as the smokestack industries which provided their jobs in the urban periphery progressively folded. These are not ‘ghettoes’ in a proper sense, since there is no legal compulsion on anyone to live in them as was the case for the Jews in pre-war Europe. They have become the sites of the current outbursts of violence by individuals and groups from concentrated pools of young unemployed who see that they have in common their joblessness and their minority ethnic origins, even though within their groups their origins may be very diverse. It’s for this reason that the explosions must be seen as socially produced, not examples of ethnic mobilisation.

Much of this pattern is familiar in Britain, but with a crucial difference. In Britain palliative measures developed early, with the Commission for Racial Equality, a battery of techniques such as ethnic monitoring, codes of practice for equal opportunities, and anti-racist training. Despite widespread cynicism about ‘political correctness’, the truth is that these policies have been relatively successful. In areas where key large-scale local employers developed equality policies, the ‘ethnic’ deficit in employment was reduced (although this is not to say that long-term issues such as the ethnic dimension in the distribution of higher-grade jobs has yet been resolved). On the other hand, when the Home Office carried out an investigation into factors which fuelled the riots in Oldham a few years ago, it was discovered that the local council and the local health authority, both in the grip of ‘Old Labour’ complacency, had an abysmal record both on equality training and ethnic employment, with the result that the local youth of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin could find no way out of their socially constructed ghetto.

In France, until relatively recently, ethnic monitoring and positive action were either unknown or, where they were known about, were decried as a dangerous ‘Anglo-Saxon’ invention which had obviously failed, given the existence of ‘ghettoes’ in Britain and the US. The rationale for these attitudes is directly linked to the Republican heritage. Having seized power in Paris and facing monarchist-inspired rebellion in the regions, the revolutionaries, and Napoleon after them, systematically constructed a model of state-society relations which left no room for intermediary organisations in which Catholics or monarchists might gain support (the loi Le Chapelier, banning trade union organisations, dates from this time). On the one side was the state, represented by the prefects who ran the specially constructed departments. On the other was an undifferentiated mass of citizens, all equally protected by the egalitarians laws of the Republic. It is to this tradition which contemporary politicians and intellectuals look when they decry what they call ‘communautarisme’-the tendency for the British and American states to recognise ethnic mobilisation and to assign intermediary roles to ‘community leaders’. Hence the French census carries no questions about ethnic origin, depriving the state of the means of developing any social policies which might be needed to address ethnic disadvantage.

Added to that is the special place of the French school system in the Republican tradition. Until the second half of the 19th century primary schooling was entirely in the hands of Catholic teaching orders or the village priest. When the Third Republic was set up in 1870, the Republican leaders sought to shore up their victory by displacing the religious orders (and in some cases banning them) with an ambitious programme of universal, free and compulsory education paid for by the state and staffed by graduates of specially designed teacher-training colleges, the écoles normales. The teachers were strictly enjoined to exclude any reference to Catholic teaching and inculcate the civic virtues of democracy, equality and uniformity. Neither staff nor students were permitted to show any sign of their religious affiliation. It was this principle of laïcité that intellectuals of the left seized upon when they launched an attack in 1989, in no less a place than the Nouvel Observateur, beacon of the liberal left-on Muslim schoolgirls wearing a headscarf to cover their hair. In doing so they blithely ignored a political context in which the Front National had polled a record 14 percent in a presidential election the year before.

For the last quarter of a century, therefore, ethnic minorities have been on the receiving end of two assimilationist discourses. On the one hand the Front National say only those who are culturally like the French can be permitted to settle in France. On the other hand, the militants of laïcité say that the state should not permit any signs of ethnic difference because this is corrosive of social cohesion based on Republican principles.

The first signs of a change in this depressing picture occurred only after 1997 when the so called ‘plural left’ coalition of Socialists, Communists and Greens won a surprise election victory. First, the state’s own High Commission for Integration, charged with making suggestions to help the social integration of the marginalised, issued a report recommending its own replacement by a body more like the British CRE, which would have wider powers to conduct investigations into employment patterns, and issue equal opportunity guidelines and compliance orders. Second, the minister for social affairs publicly stigmatised ‘racial discrimination’, words which had never before formed part of political discourse, and launched some modest initiatives on anti-racist training in branches of the administration like the ANPE, which runs the equivalent of job centres. Other ministers openly called for a more ethnically balanced pattern of recruitment in areas like the police and the national railways. The measure which had the biggest public impact was the launch of a special anonymous telephone line via which those affected by racism, for example in the refusal of a job, a flat or a service, could denounce the perpetrators. These cases were supposed to be investigated by special Commissions for Access to Citizenship. Sadly they were understaffed, swamped by the number of calls they received, and the initiative misfired – raising expectations but failing to deliver on them.

The urban revolt of November 2005 is an expression of the frustration felt by those in the most impoverished areas of France, whose expectations have been dashed by a state which offers very few pathways out of lives distorted by poverty and discrimination. The government’s response to the rioting, based on repression and half-measures, will do nothing to quell that frustration. Until practical political alternatives are developed which respond in a meaningful way to the anger and defiance shown by the youth of France’s suburbs, their fight against racism and for equality will continue to take a variety of forms, rioting being the most visible.

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