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France explodes the uniformity myth

Print edition : Dec 02, 2005 T+T-
French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.-AP

French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.-AP

The violence in France highlights the horrific exclusion and alienation among ethnic minorities bred by the smothering of ethnic-cultural diversity to promote national integration. It should open a global debate on citizenship and multiculturalism.

NOTHING has shaken France as badly and comprehensively since May 1968 as the wave of urban violence that broke the surface on October 27. The clashes between the police and underprivileged youth from the ethnic minorities inflicted enormous damage on social peace and cohesion and the economy. More crucially, they highlighted the grim political crisis that grips France today. The social and political convulsions will outlast the rioting, which seems to be abating as I write this shortly after my return to India from South America via Paris.

The French events should trigger reflection everywhere on a whole range of issues, including citizenship, national identity and ethnic and cultural diversity; entrenched social and economic disparities, and their aggravation under neo-liberal policies; the special relevance of affirmative action for the underprivileged minorities; and the significance of pluralism and multiculturalism for secularism and democracy. France brought all these issues into sharp, concentrated focus. We in India have much to gain from debating them.

The October 27 violence was sparked off by harsh police action and intensified identity and search operations which caused the death of two terrified North African youths who were accidentally electrocuted while hiding from the gendarmerie. The action itself was part of the "war without mercy" on "delinquency" in the suburbs, declared just eight days earlier by France's tough-talking, hardline Right-wing Home Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy's "war", with its distinctly anti-immigrant bias, is part of his effort to occupy the extreme-Right political space in his bid for the presidency in the elections of 2007. This space is defined by Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front.

At the root of the violence was economic deprivation, social exclusion, frustration and hopelessness prevalent among the minorities, in particular those from the Maghreb (North African countries such as Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia), who are derogatorily branded "beur". October 27 suddenly brought together an explosive mix of long-standing grievances and short-term provocations, rage against injustices and anger at an overbearing police force. The spontaneous, runaway spread of rioting and arson to 275 cities showed the pervasiveness of the grievances borne by North African youths.

The violence, or the revolt of the sans culottes, exploded the myth of social cohesion and equality of rights among French citizens. It also blew a hole through the "Republican model of integration", which holds that everyone is equal and indistinguishable in the eyes of the state. But here was a specific group being targeted by the state - an underprivileged minority living in the depressed, sad, grimy ghettos of HLMs (habitations a loyer modere or low-cost rented housing) that dot the suburbs of French cities, where unemployment runs at 40 per cent, much higher than the national joblessness rate of 11 per cent and even the youth unemployment rate of 21 per cent. This group is at the bottom of the skewed pyramid of income disparities, which has widened in France under neo-liberal policies.

The group has been repeatedly fed a myth: they must forget where they came from, they are not Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians or Turks; they are French first and last. All French citizens are identical in their Frenchness - irrespective of their origin, ethnicity, distinct culture, religious belief, or colour of skin. There is no place in France for their Muslim identity either. The French state does not recognise religion.

The myths seemed grotesquely risible after September 11, the ensuing spread of Islamophobia, and the rise of the National Front to a point where Le Pen became President Jacques Chirac's principal rival in the last presidential election run-off. But even before 2001, France was hardly known for a sympathetic understanding of and genuine tolerance towards the Arab minority, most of it Muslim. Even in the 1970s, when I spent time in France, the police was notoriously anti-Arab. North Africans would be routinely harassed - for instance, by being asked to show their identity documents minutes before boarding long-distance trains. (Many of my friends, including some Indians who look like North Africans, missed their trains.)

"The same process continues today," says Susan George, the analyst-activist noted for her How the Other Half Dies, The Lugano Report, and Another World is Possible If... , and my friend and Fellow-colleague at the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam. "The obsolete model of uniformity and integration persists".

Yet, the deprivation, poverty, misery, and discrimination that France's minorities suffer are no different from, and in some respects worse than, the iniquities that people of colour must endure in many Western societies. These translate into poor education, high unemployment, social alienation, anomie, gravitation towards crime and drugs (or recently, religion), and further exclusion from society - conditions to be found in Harlem or New Orleans, Birmingham or Berlin, Rome or Madrid. This is similar to the situation of the Blacks in the United States.

However, three differences characterise France. First, France prides itself in having "integrated" the subject peoples of its former colonies by liberally offering them citizenship - by virtue of these colonies being "French territories" or departments. (This was true of North Africa and Pondicherry, and remains true of New Caledonia, which continues to define as "part of France".) Frenchness, whether by birth or bestowed by colonial history, must subsume or override all other identities. This speaks of an obsessive, arrogant, paternalistic form of nationalism, with deep roots in colonialism.

Second, unlike many other societies, France does not even recognise diversity in ethnic origin, language, dialect, customs, dress or religion. It puts diversity beyond the state's purview. Indeed, it does not permit surveys to determine the differential educational, economic or job status of diverse groups or track increasing inequalities. All citizens are supposed to be the same - French, French-speaking, "integrated". Thus, there are no hyphenated or "mixed" identities in France like Indian-American, African-American, Asian Briton or Turkish German. They are all simply French.

The principle of uniformity of identity might seem lofty. But it is nothing of the sort. In reality, an Algerian in France is vastly underprivileged and faces serious discrimination. He/she is much more unlikely to have reasonable educational opportunity or find a White partner than his/her "true-blue" French counterpart. 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 the same qualifications, but with an Algerian name, will get just 14 calls. Whether in factories or schools, the "beur" faces prejudice and suspicion.

The "Republican model" imposes an artificial uniformity upon society. It tells the ethnic minorities that they do not exist as distinct groups when they do. This view of uniformity is shared by many progressive secularists too - as evidenced by their support for the recent ban on the wearing in schools of head-scarves or other symbols of religious belief. The ban was supposed to promote a secular identity and integration. It ended up creating strife and widening rifts.

Third, France has had no policy of affirmative action or positive discrimination in favour of the minorities. This stands in contrast to the U.S., an otherwise unequal society, with high economic and social disparities, which promotes affirmative action in both state and private institutions. In many other European countries, diversity is tolerated. Indeed, in some, it is seen as a virtue essential to a multicultural identity of which people should be proud. There may be something purely symbolic about the fact that British Ministers proudly name Chicken Tikka Masala Britain's "national dish" or that one sees and hears so many different faces (Asian, Caribbean or African) and accents on the BBC. In France, such symbols are largely absent.

A national hero like footballer Zinedine Zidane is a rare exception. As is Yazid Sabegi (the only Arab Frenchman to head a large French company), or Rachid Arhab, one of France's few well-known non-French-origin broadcast journalists. In contrast, stand the L.N. Mittals, G.M. Noons, and Lords Bagri, Meghand Desai and Bhikhu Parekh of Britain.

This is not to argue that the U.S. or Britain is a perfect model of multicultural integration. The U.S. is certainly not. Despite affirmative action, the condition of a majority of African-American remains unacceptably depressed. Anti-Black racism belies the claim that America is the quintessential "land of opportunity" where all can prosper. Nor is Britain a shining example of integration - as recent racist violence and police high-handedness against people of colour after July 7 showed. But after the race riots of the 1980s, Britain did take measures to promote racial equality and non-discrimination and encouraged multiculturalism.

Overt racism has been increasingly delegitimised in British public discourse. By contrast, in France, it invades public discourse at least of the Right, and not just the National Front. Even Chirac has said that it is "not racist" to hold that immigrants are a financial "burden" on France, are lazy, and make "noise and smell".

Another interesting contrast is provided by the new multiple-choice examination that recent migrants to Britain have to take - a controversial measure that was hotly debated, and is just being implemented. The Economist compares this with the U.S. test, which is "heavy on patriotism and constitutional principle. Seven [of the 100 questions in the sample list] are about the flag". The magazine says: "Britain's effort is hesitant by comparison. Would-be citizens are tested on three chapters of a booklet, `Life in the United Kingdom', which is so measured as to be almost apologetic. Two potential questions: how much less are women paid than men? And how many young people have taken illicit drugs? ... The section on politics describes the threat to civil servants' independence and explains the word `spin'. The closest thing to patriotism is an assertion that the nation `works reasonably well'." Such a test would be inconceivable in France.

France's emphasis on uniformity and homogeneity speaks of an insecure and tense form of patriotism and national self-identity. This is strange and sad for a culturally accomplished large country, with so many contributions to the world, with a population of 60 million (second largest in Western Europe), and which is home to the continent's largest number of Muslims (five million). A France that has a relaxed, mature and self-confident view of itself should admit of and encourage plural notions of Frenchness, rich in their diversity, inclusiveness and accommodation of difference of all kinds.

One can only hope that the wave of violence spurs some rethinking in French society and state so that France escapes the "trap" of what sociologist Alain Touraine calls its national self-identity, which leads to the "rejection and inferiorisation" of difference. But there are few signs that the French establishment is ready for this. Chirac in his first public address after October 27 said he would "share with you my reflections on the entirety of the problem" only after order is restored.

Meanwhile, his government has announced some measures like reducing the age of apprenticeship from 16 to 14 years, creation of an anti-discrimination public agency, allocation of 20,000 state-paid jobs to inhabitants of poor suburbs, an extra 100 million Euros for associations working there, and the creation of 15 new special economic zones.

But these are ad-hoc, one-off measures, not integrated into a coherent policy with a clear emphasis on affirmative action to empower the disadvantaged minority. Many commentators describe them as paltry. For instance, Xavier Raufer, a leading French criminologist, has been quoted as saying: "What is really frightening is that the people who run our country have no idea that the new measures they are proposing are miserable, absolutely hollow. If I were a young person living in a suburb I would laugh."

France seems headed for greater trouble. The ruling Centre-Right is discredited and fumbling. The rejection of the European Constitution in the recent referendum was a slap in its face and a strong repudiation of its policies. The Left too was rejected because it failed to deliver and pursued neo-liberal policies. Sarkozy will probably emerge stronger if he cynically turns the violence into a law-and-order and security issue and exploits anti-immigrant prejudice. That would spell serious retrogression in French politics and society.

There is a big lesson in all this for India. We must not permit our social agenda to be hijacked by those who wish to impose uniformity and homogeneity on this richly plural, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-religious society in the name of national integration. In a huge, plural, subcontinental country, integration is, and has to be, a gradual process. To succeed, it must involve dialogue, informed debate, empathy for pluralism, tolerance, and respect for other ways of life and systems of belief (or non-belief), as well as customs, attire, language and food habits - subject to basic constitutional rights and principles such as gender equality, human dignity and freedom of expression and association.

The greatest impulse for such homogenisation comes from Hindutva politics with its agenda for a Uniform Civil Code and its religious exclusivism and visceral opposition to pluralism. But an obsession with homogenisation is also evident in sections of our elite, including the judiciary - witness the recent judgments in favour of banning the slaughter of all progeny of cows, and exhortations to enacting a uniform code for marriage and inheritance.

There are no shortcuts to national integration through non-coercive consensus and shared social projects. Kemal Ataturk's harsh "secularism" sought to suppress all religion and traditional attire. It proved a disaster in Turkey. As did the Shah of Iran's forced modernisation. This produced a political-religious backlash, which has still not fully run its course. And now, the French "Republic model of integration" is visibly failing. We must not repeat the mistake of embracing uniformity and homogeneity by discrediting and suppressing diversity.