Why integration can't work

THE first thing that strikes even the fleeting visitor to post-October 27 France (and I happened to be there this week), is the profundity of the political crisis there. The French state faces the greatest challenge to its authority since May 1968, and that too under a wobbly, discredited leadership.

By Praful Bidwai

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Published: Sun 13 Nov 2005, 9:29 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 6:51 PM

The ethnic violence has added one more dimension to this: a crisis of national identity and the French model of integration of diverse groups.

The government has failed to rise to the challenge. Its principal response was the declaration of a state of emergency and curfews in 31 cities. Ironically, the curfews are being imposed under a 1955 law proclaimed to quell resistance during the Algerian struggle for independence.

Mercifully, the violence has also triggered serious reflection on national identity and cultural diversity. What started as a "local problem" in Paris has acquired continental dimensions. Not only has the rioting spread to Berlin, Brussels and Rome; but similar, if less intense, disaffection exists all over Western Europe.

The immediate cause of the rioting in Clichy-sous-Bois, a Paris suburb, was the "war without mercy" on suburban violence declared on October 19 by France's hard right interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Following this, the police tightened identity checks. In Clichy-sous-Bois, two terrified North African youths, who thought they were being chased by the police, hid in an electrical sub-station and got electrocuted. Angry protests followed, especially after Sarkozy called the protesters "scum", who must be crushed. At the root of the violence is exclusion, frustration and hopelessness among the minorities, in particular those from the Maghreb - North African countries like Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. They have long been targets of overt violence and covert discrimination.

Over the past decade, says sociologist Alain Touraine, the minorities' isolation has worsened and produced ghettoisation. Since September 11, they face even greater suspicion, discrimination and abuse. Joblessness among them often runs at 40 per cent, much higher than the national rate of 11 per cent. A North African name often invites rejection on the job market. A study found last year that a man with a typical French name applying for 100 jobs will get 75 interview calls. A man with an Algerian name, but with the same qualifications, will get just 14. This exclusion has been called the collapse of the "social escalator". It's compounded by the terribly fraught state of low-cost housing estates called HLM, in which the minorities typically live, which are ghettos full of frustrated young men with no future. In France, exclusion is further aggravated by a centralised police, which typically excludes the non-ethnic French. There's no community-based "friendly" policing either - unlike, say, in Germany or Britain. There's an adversarial relationship between the police and underprivileged communities.

"All this is a recipe for frustration and desperation," argues Susan George, the eminent writer-activist, and my colleague at the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam. "The fact that there's little recognition of the importance of ethnic diversity and multiculturalism makes things worse".

HLMs are sites of poverty, frustration, denied opportunities, injustices - and crime. Today, more than half the French prison population comprises immigrants. The criminal justice system, based on the institution of the investigating magistrate with police powers, magnifies the anti-minority social bias. Last week, scores of people were sentenced to 10 months' imprisonment on scanty evidence presented in just 15 minutes to magistrates.

Going by numerous reports, many French South Asian migrants have taken sides against the North Africans. This expresses their racist bias and the Right's success in dividing the immigrant community along regional and ethnic lines. France presents a picture of political strife, economic stagnation and severe cutbacks in social spending. But France's worst problem lies in its "Republican model of integration" which holds that everyone is indistinguishable in the eyes of the state. All citizens are identical in their Frenchness - irrespective of ethnic identity, religious belief, or colour of skin.

This might sound like a lofty principle. But it's not. It suppresses cultural differences and recognises only one notion of Frenchness. France, with its 60 million people, 5 million of whom are Muslim, ought to welcome different, multiple notions of identity and Frenchness - in language, custom, dress, cuisine and religion. It should be relaxed and multicultural.

Here lies France's greatest failure, according to leading sociologists like Touraine. Refusal to recognise ethnic-cultural diversity imposes an artificial uniformity upon society. It tells the ethnic minorities that they don't exist-when they face discrimination on that very count.

France recently banned the wearing in schools of head-scarves or any other symbols of religious belief. This drew protests from Muslims, Sikhs and other minorities, and created strife in place of accord. In other countries like the UK, Canada or the US, such differences are tolerated and seen essential to a proud multicultural identity. That's why one sees so many Asian and Caribbean faces on, say, BBC World.

France's second great failure is its rejection of affirmative action for the underprivileged - something that societies as diverse as India and the US practise. This means the disadvantaged in France don't enjoy equal opportunity.

President Chirac took 11 days before reacting to the violence. Rivalry between Sarkozy and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin muddied the official response. The French government has belatedly announced measures like reducing the age of apprenticeship from 16 to 14 years, creation of an anti-discrimination agency, 20,000 state-paid jobs in poor suburbs, 100 million Euros for associations working there, and the establishment of 15 new special economic zones. Such measures are welcome. Yet, they shouldn't be ad hoc, but part of a well-considered, institutionalised policy.

At stake here is not just the fate of Western Europe's minorities, including 12 million Muslims, but the future of pluralist societies everywhere, which are based on multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious identities. Today's world is based upon greater interaction between different ethnic groups, with respect for diversity and its intrinsic value. This must be reflected in official policy and mainstream values.

European societies must integrate immigrants by transforming themselves and evolving a pluralist self-identity. This is the larger agenda of developing healthy models of integration, and overcoming ill-informed and parochial attitudes towards "others".

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator currently visiting France. He can be reached at bidwai@bol.net.in

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