Why is France Burning?

The urban disturbances in France have been called the most severe since the riots by students and workers in 1968. The analogy is misleading. While the 1968 protests challenged the French Republican model to live up to its finest aspirations, today’s crisis challenges the French Revolution’s model of citizenship and integration itself.

The French Republican model asserts that all French citizens have the same cultural identity. Indeed, this is the only acceptable identity. To achieve this shared identity, all citizens have to speak the one official language and be educated according to a common curriculum. But they also enjoy equal rights, and have the same duties, in the public arena.

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All this is not only fostered by the state, but also requires the kind of uniformity that only a centralized state can impose. Indeed, the French Revolution’s ideological commitment to unity was so strong that during parts of the nineteenth century, advocating federalism was a capital offense.

Three components of this model incited today’s crisis and make it difficult for the French Republic to address it effectively.

The first component is the classic French Republican prohibition on gathering data in the official census – or by government agencies or public or private enterprises – on ethnicity, religion, and even social class. Collecting these data would, it is argued, violate the Republican tenet that France is “one and indivisible.”

But the absence of a secondary breakdown of such data, like the UK-style, four-fold class analysis (plus examination of patterns of unemployment by ethnicity or religion), makes it hard for social workers, public heath officials, and economic planners to diagnose new problems. Without the necessary data for analysis, public health policies, for example, cannot be directed toward groups that are especially disadvantaged or otherwise at risk.

The second factor is the classic French Republican rejection of, and legal norms against, any form of “affirmative action,” or positive discrimination, even of the most inoffensive kind. Like the prohibition of fine-tuned data – without which positive discrimination is in any case impossible – affirmative action is seen as damaging to the Republican model because it is based on recognition of ethnic differences.

The third component is the post-welfare state, which is now part of the French model of citizenship and guarantees all full-time employees one of the highest minimum wages in the world and high employer-paid benefits. This makes it extremely difficult to let workers go, which makes employers reluctant to hire new people in the first place.

Many of the social-democratic countries of Europe, like Sweden, Holland, and Denmark, created similar norms in their full-employment eras. Unlike France, however, they also used census data to identify pockets of new unemployment, and to invest socially and politically, not only in excellent job-training programs, but in job creation, and, just as importantly, in job-placement schemes.

France is now very bad at creating new jobs. It has few training programs, but high benefits for the unemployed and strong restrictions against firing workers. Put all of this together, and it is like slamming a door in the face of young minority men looking for work.

This is the primary cause of the 30-50% unemployment rates among minorities aged 16-24 in many French “urban zones of sensitivity.” Thus, the riots that France is now seeing emerge from French policies, not from instigations by Islamists.

France has simply failed to incorporate minority citizens – many of them third-generation immigrants who have been educated for twenty years in assimilationist public schools. But few political leaders accept that the crisis has anything to do with the French model of citizenship. Indeed, they confidently wait for assimilation to kick in. But in today’s high unemployment, low job-creation, and now multicultural France, assimilation will not occur without big changes.

France is only now beginning to come to grips with the crisis of its Republican model of equal citizenship. A newly created Minister of Social Cohesion has begun to commission studies documenting discrimination. One study showed that for similarly qualified job applicants, those with an Islamic-sounding name, and an address in an ethnically segmented suburb, had only one-fifth the chance of even getting an interview as people with a French-sounding name and a “safe” address.

Two hundred and fifty of the largest private and public enterprises have created an organization aimed at working with the government to allow them, for the first time ever, to document, and then redress, their discriminatory employment practices.

Fortunately, organized Muslim leaders so far have not aggravated the rioting. Of course, the government’s reduction of community policing in favor of paramilitary forces stationed in quasi-military barracks, and the Minister of Interior’s description of the young rioters as “scum” who should be washed away with an industrial power hose, has not helped.

The French Republican model enshrines the laudable abstract principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. However, so long as second- and third-generation minority citizens are taught that the only acceptable cultural identity is French, but are not in fact accepted as French – indeed, are blocked from enjoying the full rights of French citizenship – the Republican model will fuel alienation rather than democratic integration.