Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A Few (of Other People's) Thoughts on France

I must admit that I don't know much about the current riots in France, and therefore don't have anything to say about them other than generic expressions of horror. But here are a few things that other people have said which strike me as sensible.

To understand what is going on in France requires keeping two or more contradictory thoughts in one’s head at the same time. The rioters are not freedom fighters, revolutionaries, or community activists. The chief instigators are the hoodlum elements that have long plagued these poor suburbs, making the lives of their own neighbors insecure and miserable. On the weekends, they plague public transportation, sometimes attacking passengers and otherwise making a nuisance of themselves. On the other hand, there are no hoodlum gangs in the wealthy districts of western Paris. When a young man has no job and no money, being a hoodlum and/or a drug dealer is pretty much all that is left as a vocation. So while the torching of cars, schools, and businesses is unacceptable and inexcusable, it is easily understandable.

The French youth who are burning automobiles are as French as Jennifer Lopez and Christopher Walken are American... The US brings 10 million immigrants every decade and one in 10 Americans is now foreign-born. Their children, born and bred here, have never known another home. All US citizens are Americans, including the present governor of California. "The immigrant" is always a political category.... A lot of the persons living in the urban outer cities (a better translation of cite than "suburb") are from subsaharan Africa. And there are lots of Eastern European immigrants. The riots were sparked by the deaths of African youths, not Muslims. Singling out the persons of Muslim heritage is just a form of bigotry. Moreover, French youth of European heritage rioted quite extensively in 1968. As they had in 1789. Rioting in the streets is not a foreign custom. It has a French genealogy and context. The young people from North African societies such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are mostly only nominal Muslims. They frequently do not speak much Arabic, and don't have "proper" French, either. They frequently do not know much about Islam and most of them certainly don't practice it.... Beur culture can be compared a bit to hip-hop as a form of urban expression of marginality and self-assertion in a racist society. It is mostly secular.... The kind of riots we are seeing in France also have occurred in US cities (they sent Detroit into a tailspin from 1967). They are always produced by racial segregation, racist discrimination, spectacular unemployment, and lack of access to the mainstream economy.... The French do not have Jim Crow laws, but de facto residential segregation is a widespread and intractable problem.... The problem is economic and having to do with economic and residential exclusionism, not with an "unassimilable" "immigrant" minority.... On the other hand, would it be possible for the French Muslim youth to be pushed toward religious extremism if the French government does not address the underlying problems.... The solution? Recognizing that "Frenchness" is not monochrome, that France is a tapestry of cultures and always has been, and that sometimes some threads of the tapestry need some extra attention if it is not to fray and come apart.

France's approach to multiculturalism and race is essentially that of Ward Connerly you simply make it officially not exist. A couple years back Connerly pushed for a ballot measure in California which would've made it illegal for the state government, in most cases, to make any racial classifications by race. While I'm not entirely unsymapthetic to the notion that such classification systems are problematic for various reasons, the alternative is simply having no information at all about race. This is France's system. This is the conservative approach to race and society. This is what they've spent the last week mocking.

Don’t believe Fox News. France is not on the verge of a civil war, and what is happening in my country is not a jihad. The riots in the French “banlieues” are nevertheless very serious: they are one of the most serious social crises of the last 60 years. And they signal the death of our century-old “integration model,” one of the pillars of the modern French Republic.... The French have always cherished their model of integration, considered as an idealistic and almost mystical process. Its aim was generous: any immigrant, once he or she acquires French citizenship, becomes a citizen absolutely equal to any other. The “République Française” would proudly integrate her immigrants without any problems, thanks to her secular schools, her national institutions, her universal values... But during the riots of the past 13 days, Frenchmen have been confronted with the failures of this model, have watched it go up in flames... Most [rioters] are not immigrants themselves: they are French citizens, born in France, sometimes even born to parents who were born in France themselves. But they have not been integrated at all. Living in grim ghettos, without jobs, coping daily with discrimination and racism, they feel like they were abandoned by their country.... A national debate is now beginning. I’m pretty sure that “affirmative action” will soon be at the core of this debate... But my fear is that this debate will not go very far because of the deep conservatism of the French political elite.... I’m afraid that there will be only one beneficiary of the sad events of November 2005 : the sinister extreme right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Yes, indeed, the Republic faces a moment of truth.

I have not been surprised by this tsunami of inchoate youth rebellion that is engulfing France. It is the result of thirty years of government neglect: of the failure of the French political classes -- of both right and left -- to make any serious effort to integrate its Muslim and black populations into the larger French economy and culture; and of the deep-seated, searing, soul-destroying racism that the unemployed and profoundly alienated young of the ghettos face every day of their lives, both from the police, and when trying to find a job or decent housing... France's other immigrant workers were warehoused in huge, high-rise low-income housing ghettos -- known as "cités" (Americans would say "the projects") -- specially built for them, and deliberately placed out of sight in the suburbs around most of France's major urban agglomerations, so that their darker-skinned inhabitants wouldn't pollute the center cities of Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Lille, Nice and the others of white France's urban centers, today encircled by flame... these high-rise human warehouses in the isolated suburbs are today run-down, dilapidated, sinister places, with broken elevators that remain unrepaired, heating systems left dysfunctional in winter, dirt and dog-shit in the hallways, broken windows, and few commercial amenities -- shopping for basic necessities is often quite limited and difficult, while entertainment and recreational facilities for youth are truncated and totally inadequate when they're not non-existent. Both apartments and schools are over-crowded... the current rebellion has little to do with Islamic fundamentalism. It is the anguished scream of a lost generation in search of an identity, children caught between two cultures and belonging to neither -- a rebellion of kids who, born in France and often speaking little Arabic, don't know the country where their parents were born, but who feel excuded, marginalized and invisible in the country in which they live.... "Sarko" made headlines with his declarations that he would "karcherise" the ghettos of "la racaille"-- words the U.S. press, with glaring inadequaxcy, has translated to mean "clean" the ghettos of "scum." But these two words have an infinitely harsher and insulting flavor in French... To apply this term to young human beings and proffer it as a strategy is a verbally fascist insult and, as a policy proposed by an Interior Minister, is about as close as one can get to hollering "ethnic cleansing" without actually saying so. It implies raw police power and force used very aggressively, with little regard for human rights.... And a majority of the country, empoisoned even more by racism after the violence of the last ten days, seems willing to accept more and more repression: a poll released last night on France 2 public TV shows that 57% of the French support Nicolas Sarkozy's hard-line approach to the ghetto youths' rebellion, now spreading right across France... the barely-concealed racism of Sarko's demagogy may be working with the white electorate -- but it won't stop the violence, it will only increase it. And the violence will only further increase the racism among the French whose skins are white. So it is inevitable that what the French refer to as the "social fracture" will only get worse.

The prevailing opinion appears to be that the problem with the young French North Africans rioting in towns like Clichy-sur-Bois is that "they have not integrated into French society", or possibly that "French society has not been able to integrate them", depending on which cote of the rue you're looking from. What utter rot. These young men have got a political grievance, and they're expressing it by setting fire to things and smashing them up. What could be more stereotypically, characteristically French than that? Presumably they're setting fire to cars because they don't have any sheep and the nearest McDonalds is miles away. "French society is threatened by anarchy and lawlessness". I mean really. Everyone would do well to remember that this is France we're talking about, not Sweden or perhaps Canada. In forthcoming weeks, I shall be applying similar analytical techniques to topics like "root and branch corruption is threatening the essence of Italian democracy" and "Muslim immigrants cannot fit into British society because they are insular, bigoted and sexually repressed".

So we're still looking at a society with no affirmative action, where taboos on quotas and tokenism is much stronger than in America. This is, simply put, a recipe for having your social institutions regarded as illegitimate. Talk about inequality and economic deprivation obviously explains some of what's going on, but only a little. America is way more inegalitarian (and yes, Virginia, offers less social mobility) than France, and French poor people are better provided-for than are our poor people. People have complaints everywhere, but they usually don't turn violent unless they regard the institutions they're supposed to listen to as illegitimate, which is exactly what happens when you see such a large minority population so rigorously underrepresented in the ranks of the elite. The American military made this point pretty explicitly in the latest round of affirmative action litigation. Their enlisted soldiers are disproportionately black (whites are represented about evenly, Asians and people who didn't specify a race seem to be underrepresented) and the Army feels -- probably correctly -- that this means they need a healthy proportion of African-American officers to make things run smoothly.

I've edited each of these down (only a bit with Atrios); read the linked entries for their full views. Let's hope the violence ends soon -- and that (contrary to the pessimism of several of the above) solutions to the underlying problems are found.

Update: Quotes added.

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