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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.

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.