Help me out here because I’m having trouble understanding the reasons behind the rioting that has convulsed several French cities these past two weeks.
On the one hand, the analysts and commentators argue that the civil disturbances demonstrate the failure of France’s policy of integration of immigrants; the failure of the French polity’s insistence that all its citizens, including the North African and Arab youths at the centre of the troubles, subscribe to a common code of ‘Frenchness’.
But then we hear from the rioters themselves that the reason for their angst and anger is that they do not feel sufficiently French. They feel cut off from the country of their birth which is usually France given they are overwhelmingly of the second generation.
They are — to use the corrupted language of sociologists — ‘alienated’. (I’ll go that far, but I simply can’t come at ‘othered’, whatever that linguistic perversion is supposed to mean.)
According to reports in The Guardian, and sundry other publications, the youths (overwhelmingly male), say they are the victims of racism and neglect. This I do not doubt. As The Economist points out this week, ‘For those whose name is Hasim or Omar … securing even an interim job is a struggle.’ Interestingly, the same report also indicates young immigrant women tend to have a far easier time getting work, suggesting the youths share a problem common to their cohort in dozens of other Western countries: a suspicion of poorly educated, teenage males.
But in protesting their exclusion from the job market, they also seem to be demanding to be part of the French mainstream. Well, isn’t that a desire for integration?
It seems to me that the policy of integration in a democracy — and it can only apply in democracy — makes only three, highly reasonable, demands on citizens: that they speak a common, unifying language; that they live according to the laws passed by a democratically constituted government; and that they contribute to their society with their taxes and, if necessary, their service. In return, integration policy requires that governments not discriminate against particular ethnic groups nor make any laws that favour one community over another.
Now, whatever one may think of the French Government’s ban on the headscarf in public schools, it is not racist, it is not ethnically discriminatory. In fact, it is not discriminatory at all, except that it favours absolute secularism over all religious manifestations in public institutions — also banning the Jewish yarmulke and conspicuous Christian crosses and crucifixes. It offers no privileged place to any creed except, perhaps, a kind of French statism.
Frankly, I always thought the notion of integration drew on the very best traditions of the progressive project. Isn’t the ‘melting pot’ — now a much derided symbol — about colour-blindness, about looking beyond ethnic differences? Aren’t we supposed to fall in love and marry across the colour line? As progressives, aren’t we supposed to encourage the unity of peoples based on shared values and not bloodlines? I certainly hope so.
As I made plain in a New Matilda column a few months ago, I don’t support multiculturalism, or at least the state-sponsored version of it. I don’t believe in government programs and benefits designed to favour individuals based on their ethnicity. It seems to me altogether counterproductive to the broad progressive project which is to assist people based on need, not creed.
Those liberals, and some conservatives, who are now criticising France for pursuing integration, must ask whether the multiculturalism they prefer would only exacerbate the problem. If the rioting youths of Paris and Lyon and Toulouse and Strasbourg are complaining of their exclusion, how much more left out will they be with a policy that, however subtly, urges the maintenance of a separate identity?
If there is racism in the wider French community — and it would be an extraordinarily virtuous and totally unique place if there were none — then emphasising difference is hardly going to change entrenched attitudes.
Of course, if some communities are determined to remain apart, it is possible to do so without government sanction or sponsorship. Throughout the United States, some ultra-orthodox Jewish communities live effectively separate from the wider society. Walk down Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, for example, and you will see a thriving community, supporting its own schools and businesses. Not an ideal situation to me, but they have determined to preserve their collective identity in a peaceful way that observes all the laws of America, if not its social codes.
The French riots appear to be rooted far more in economic problems, especially the 40 per cent unemployment that afflicts young men from Arab and North African backgrounds and the failing schools that leave them qualified for very little. Perhaps there is also heavy-handed policing in these neighbourhoods, although it is important for progressives to realise that lawlessness always affects poor citizens far more than the wealthy and middle class, who usually can afford to insulate themselves from strife.
The French, like so many developed nations, have also concentrated their economically deprived and welfare-dependent citizens into large ghetto-style housing, where, naturally, one social problem compounds another. Given that France, like much of Europe, has much higher levels of public and private institutional investment (such as banks and insurance companies) in housing than in the US or Australia, it is much easier for governments to implement more interventionist policies and scatter low income housing throughout the cities.
But one thing France should not do is give up on the integrationist ideal. To suggest that the only way to bring the disenfranchised into full citizenship is by recognising, and treating, them as a distinct minority, would only betray the most innate values of their republic.
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