Apartheid à la Française
Paris suburbs are on fire again.
Once or twice a year, the same scenario repeats itself on television: Suburban thugs, most in their teens and of Arab or African origin, burn hundreds of cars, destroy businesses that dared settle near projects-called « cités »-and the French police fight back.
The traditional French, living outside these cités, watch on TV as if those next-door riots unfolded on the other side of the moon. Then the president appears, promises to be tough on the thugs and to increase public funding to improve suburban quality of life.
In the sequel to this choreographed show, the party leaders accuse one another in Parliament of not investing enough money in order to help these destitute youngsters-or of not repressing them enough. Journalists and public intellectuals take turns commenting on late-night TV programs. And so it goes until the next riots.
The repetition of this scenario indicates that the reasons behind suburban violence lie in French society. This is not to excuse the thugs as victims, but to say that their behavior reflects the apartheid-like characteristics of France.
The French would be shocked to be compared with South Africa of the past, but our suburbs bear more social resemblance to Soweto than Paris. We live in a discriminatory society where an invisible line separates the insiders from the outsiders. The insiders happen to be French, with a French family history extending back many generations. They are well educated, and reasonably well-off.
The outsiders happen to be from Africa-first, second or third generation, poorly educated, jobless and from a non-mainstream culture or religion. According to the French republican ideology, they all are French with the same rights. But the reality differs. Our economic policy has created a strong public sector and job market protected by high walls of restrictive regulation. If you’re educated enough, you pass a civil servant exam and get a plum job for life. If you have the right connections and talent, the private sector treats you as a quasi civil servant. Firing an employee is nearly impossible. The outsiders without the right connections and education remain outside: All the regulations play against them.
The majority of insiders don’t want job-market flexibility, perceiving it as a brutal American way of mistreating workers. Even President Nicolas Sarkozy needs to be very cautious, as his conservative majority belongs to the insider camp.
The French housing policy is also discriminatory. For implicit ideological reasons dating back to the 1940s when the Gaullists and the Communists were allies, French governments favored renting over owning. The state gives subsidies to the poorest people so that they can rent, but not buy. Cheap subsidized projects tend to be clustered in the suburbs. Ethnic ghettos are a byproduct of this construction policy and avoidance of ownership. Poor immigrant families naturally regroup in those projects. The ethnic concentration, plus the absence of jobs, generates a local subculture that is neither African nor French, but in between. Rap music is the artistic expression of this subculture and the bourgeois insiders tend to love this exoticism, sanitized on CDs and TV shows.
The only way to escape the poverty and violence of the ghettos is to leave the ghetto, which is accomplished by more girls than boys. Outsider girls tend to be school achievers and express more willingness to escape the patriarchal tyranny of their fathers and older brothers.
Education could be the key out of the ghetto but is seldom the case. Not only do ghetto schools not attract the best teachers, the very content of education is discriminatory. The history of colonization is taught as if it were a glorious feature of French history. In Senegal, on his first official visit to Africa, Mr. Sarkozy regretted the violence of colonization but insisted on the good intentions of the French colonizers, out there to bring civilization to « the African man who has no sense of history. »
This discourse, reflected in school books and the insiders’ general attitude, aggravates the hatred among outsiders whose family memories tell a different story. Overall the French tend to ignore how much their national culture implicitly rejects diversity. The dominant so-called republican ideology requires immigrants to conform: Mr. Sarkozy, for the first time in our political history, had the guts to appoint Arab women in key government positions. Rachida Dati, our new Justice minister, is thus promoted as a role model for all French Arabs: but she is « integrated, » doesn’t go to the mosque, wears haute couture and not an Islamic veil.
Socialist and conservative leaders alike are not ready to acknowledge that their « goodwill » policy-more subsidies-just leads to more apartheid. They should wonder why, after 30 years of more of the same state interventions, suburbs tend to shift further away from the mainstream, self-satisfied insiders.
An alternative policy would require a major rethinking of the French fundamentals. To open the labor market to outsiders means a severe makeover of the welfare state as we know it. To erase the ghettos requires a shift from home renting to home owning. A less discriminatory school needs cancel « scholar map » and curriculum demands a revision of our national history. This has been done regarding the World War II Vichy regime, but not yet with the history of colonization. Eventually, the insiders have to acknowledge the fact that France actually is diverse.
Such a massive effort would be based on a political consensus between the right and left. It would require patience and resilience, but in the long run may be the only way to restore peace in the French suburbs. It would also be useful as a way to keep young French Muslims from joining the ranks of the radical Islamist cells which, today, are not entirely dormant.
Who will resist this ideological shift? The most entrenched insiders within the public sector will protect their interests in the name of the Republican tradition. Market opening and diversity smack of America, after all. Not being like the U.S. is the ultimate excuse for not bringing France into the real world.
Mr. Sarkozy, who is free-market oriented, pro-private ownership and from an immigrant family, seemed to offer hope for a new vision. But so far, he has acted as a remarkable tactician, able to confuse his enemies and defuse tensions. His overall strategy remains unclear, and the facts somewhat contradict his rhetoric. The French state budget for 2008 looks similar to the 2007 Chirac budget. Soweto still lies next door.
04 décembre 2007 à 08:44 | Lien permanent