By James Shields, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: James Shields is Professor of French Politics and Modern History at Aston University in England.He is the first winner of the American Political Science Association’s Stanley Hoffmann Award for his writing on French politics. The views expressed here are his own.
There’s a distinct feel of déjà vu about the rioting that erupted last week in the northern French cathedral city of Amiens. Not that urban riots are a particularly French phenomenon, of course; but the disturbances in Amiens do ring loud bells of recognition in France. In the worst scenes of civil unrest for some time, youths from deprived estates fought with riot police, cars and public buildings were set ablaze, firearms were discharged against the police and tear gas against the rioters, and 16 police officers were reported among the casualties. The estimated bill for damage: between 4 and 6 million euros (as much as $7 million) according to the city hall.
Located in the department of the Somme in the northern Picardy region of France, Amiens is a classic mid-sized city (population 140,000) struggling to adjust to post-industrial decline and the challenges of globalization. Many of the manufacturing plants that once drove the economy of the region have long rusted over, and a national unemployment rate of 10 percent finds subnational spikes of over 40 percent in estates such as those involved in these disturbances. Some northern suburbs of Amiens were recently classified among the 15 most troubled neighborhoods in France, so-called “priority security zones” where the new Socialist government has determined to clamp down on endemic crime and delinquency with greater police resources.
So it’s no surprise to recall that we have been here before in Amiens, as in other towns in France. In November 2005, riots in rundown, largely immigrant-populated suburbs of many French towns and cities (including Amiens) were so serious as to prompt a national state of emergency. Involving mainly youths of North African immigrant origin, those riots were sparked by the deaths in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois of two young men who took refuge from the police in an electricity substation. But they became the medium for a much wider revolt against the failure of the French Republic to honor its contract of “liberty, equality and fraternity” with France’s ghettoized immigrant communities and urban underclass.
The same potent combination of alienation and perceived police provocation appears to have sparked the recent rioting in Amiens. The catalyst here: a police check on a car driver near a gathering to commemorate a local youth killed in a motorcycle accident. One petty aggravation too far in the fraught relations between a community and a police force more popularly associated with persecution than with protection. Like the riots of November 2005, these disturbances had no political message beyond a violent outpouring of anger; but again like those earlier riots, they deliver a damning indictment of the so-called “Republican model of integration” in France.
Alongside their impoverished white neighbors, many North African immigrants of the first, second and now third generation live in rundown estates thrown up around the ring roads of French towns during the boom years of the 1960s, when immigrants were brought en masse from the Maghreb mainly to provide manual labor in industry. With the onset of industrial recession, the 1970s saw a move away from labor immigration to family immigration without the necessary infrastructural planning or investment. The reality behind the Republican myth of assimilation today is so many urban no-go zones of graffiti-covered tower blocks where crime rules and where the police and emergency services venture at their peril.
Those who inhabit these bleak banlieues have few prospects and few role models beyond rap musicians and the ethnically diverse French national football team. Ethnic minorities remain chronically under-represented on French television, as in the upper echelons of business, the civil service and the professions; and there’s barely a dark face among the 555 deputies representing metropolitan France in the National Assembly.
Yet no European country has been so resolute in refusing the “Anglo-Saxon model” of multiculturalism and banishing expressions of difference from its schools and public sector. It’s a principle deriving from the Revolutionary ideals of 1789 that all French citizens are indistinguishably French; ethnic minorities effectively don’t exist, and no statistics exist to reflect their presence in the workplace, schools, hospitals or prisons. The “one and indivisible Republic” brooks no compromise on identity – even if racial discrimination is widely reported in the French labor market as in housing, education, policing and other aspects of French life.
The “Republican model of integration” worked well for previous generations of Spanish, Italian or Polish immigrants, easily absorbed within the national culture of Catholic France; but it has manifestly failed those from North and sub-Saharan Africa. In the name of a secular and theoretically color-blind state, French official statistics refuse even to acknowledge the presence of an immigrant Muslim community estimated to be perhaps as strong as 6 million, close to 10 percent of the population.
When elected president in 1995, Jacques Chirac saw that the banlieues were a tinderbox. He won election on the promise to heal France’s “social fracture” by creating jobs, reducing inequalities and fostering a more cohesive national community. By exposing the deep fissures underlying the “indivisible Republic,” the 2005 riots demonstrated how acute the social fracture remained a decade on from Chirac’s first garden party as host at the Elysée Palace.
Chirac’s successor in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy, offered less understanding and more repression, threatening to take an “industrial power hose” to the “scum” in some suburbs. This helped him win election on a strong law-and-order ticket, but his emphasis on tough policing over socio-economic regeneration merely widened the gulf between the banlieues and mainstream French society.
Now we are 100 days into François Hollande’s presidency and surveying the evidence of how little has changed. In this first test of his presidential mettle, Hollande has pledged that the full force of the state will be brought to bear in preserving public order, with immediate reinforcement of policing in Amiens. As the far-right National Front makes political capital of this latest civil disorder, we are back where we have so often been under governments of right and left when faced with the intractable social problems that have for the past thirty years found periodic expression in these violent urban revolts.
It need hardly be said that law and order must be preserved and rioters severely dealt with. But police reinforcements alone can’t be the solution. Those who do not learn from the errors of the past are condemned to repeat them. If the new Socialist president doesn’t see this finally as a wake-up call to ensure substantially better structural investment, more genuine opportunity, improved police-community relations, and new ways of making the residents of these marginalized enclaves feel they have a stake in French society, then the banlieues will erupt again. And again. And again.