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| Friday, November 11, 2005

John Vinocur: "Frenchness: One Size Doesn't Fit All"

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News Analysis: Frenchness: One size doesn't fit all

By John Vinocur International Herald Tribune


PARIS On one hand, there is French hubris, and its gratuitiously insulting embrace of France's immigrants as partners in the country's threadbare formulas of grandeur, equality and universality.

        On the other, there is the eternal French dependency on the state, the allegiance to the French model that has failed to provide the jobs, education, housing, or respect adequate to integrate Arab and African Muslims into a rich and resourceful country with real claims to special grace.

        These two elements run together, and it is at the point where they cross that French reality has imploded: the intersection of the fakery producing a one-size-fits-all Frenchness, and the ceaseless defense of a rigidly statist social model refusing to reform the economy, open up the labor market, or consider affirmative action.

        This unique French context makes the nearly two weeks of rioting at the edges of Paris and other big French cities, and now the declaration of a national state of emergency and curfew, something less than an absolute forewarning for the rest of Europe.

        The local context is the constant denigration by the political class of everything that works elsewhere, especially if it is in the United States or Britain.  It is the general immodesty, engrained both left and right, concerning a supposed French model for civilization for the world that cannot find substantiation at home.  And in the case of the current rioting, it is the boomerang effect of a particular kind of French romanticism that, over the years, legitimized intifadas, anti-globalist street fighters, and fire-bomb tossing with the subtext, we're with you, brothers.

        So the violence here arises not only from specially French circumstances including massive housing projects in enclaves for the poor, and a dismal colonial history in North and Black Africa.  It also comes, pre-rationalized, from the homegrown French who provided the conceits fashioning the rationale, however jumbled, of the rioters.

        An Arab kid in Clichy-sous-Bois may not articulate it, but what rage it must create to hear he lives in the greatest, smartest, most fair country in the world, revered as Islam's best-friend-in-the west from Algeria to Oman, and then have to deal with a French reality of racist scorn and rejection.

        Not to mention the French state which, clothed as the ideal republic, runs the school, the bus, the M├ętro, owns the housing project, operates the job center, and fails, in relation to immigrants, on all those levels.

        In the country of the 35-hour week, where the state is hardly the symbol of the work ethic, or civic sense in the land of the continuous public service strike, administrative and school buildings have become the choice targets of the rioters' Molotov cocktails.  The republic's social welfare payments are there, but accompanied by private sector job creation so enfeebled and hiring discrimination so real that they turn any young person taking up the state's offer to wield a broom or toilet brush into his neighborhood's collaborateur.

        Alain Touraine, the sociologist and perhaps the country's best known academic, has pointed to the falseness and the lies in French society's portrayal of itself for itself as the place where the most profound causes of the violence and disintegration are found.

        More self-defeating for France, the integration myth here, he said, was stronger than in places like Germany and Italy.

        In other countries in Europe, this kind of French-type self-aggrandizement would be embarrassing or plain absurd.  If places like the Netherlands or Denmark can have problems in defining the Dutch or Danish ethos they want their immigrants to comply with - although pressing foreigners to speak the language and work instead of living from welfare - they spare them anything as hollow as having to buy into a triumphant national myth.

        A large majority of the French, those who still live well through the system, in the meantime seem to have presumed their country was rich enough to buy off, geographically isolate, and police the difficult immigrants.

        Regardless of whether North Africans living in France jeered the Marseillaise at international soccer matches in Paris, this arrangement hardened into all the integration the country had to shell out for.

        The fact was that France paid no attention to an average of 60 cars (the figure is from the Interior Ministry) burned every night around the country in the months leading up to the riots.

        Or that in 2004, an internal security agency reported that there were 300 communities nationwide "in retreat," basically ones with a marked presence of Islamic fundamentalism, hatred of France and the West, anti-Semitism, and violence.

        Touraine avoids any mention of these realities in his analysis, published this week in Le Monde.

        But he acknowledges that there will have to be some change in the notion of a single, French identity, the French "me" he calls it, as the standard of universal value here.

        Change, more nuance, a more specifically diverse French model, or bluntly, minority hiring quotas, preferential school admission, and school busing to create palpable integration: These are not easy matters in a place where the national myth of the republic and its incantation of perfect equality provide a baseline of comfort and self-justification to politicians of all parties.

        Lionel Jospin, talking on the radio Wednesday morning, when asked about affirmative action as a solution, just dismissed it out of hand.  The former Socialist prime minister, whose failure to provide the French a strong enough notion of personal security led to his defeat in the first round of the 2002 presidential elections, said this kind of affirmative step "contradicts our republican tradition."  If France is to go forward, he insisted, "it's got to be within our model."

        Indeed, a day or two before the riots began, Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister, described affirmative action as "semantic debate" in a country known by one and all to be committed to equal opportunity.

        Now, Francois Bayrou, leader of the centrist group that with the neo-Gaullists, makes up Jacques Chirac's presidential majority, describes France as a "sick state, a state swollen into impotence" with "a democracy that doesn't work well."  This means, he said, that "reality never enters political discussions."

        But asked why the riots were happening here, since France's neighbors seemed to be escaping its misery, Bayrou offered a general response that, like the answers of the other politicians he condemned, hid from the specifics of both responsibilities and solution:

        "As long as French democracy doesn't change," Bayrou said, "these accidents are going to continue."  He left it there.
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