Tough questions facing France

Peter Ford

As the nationwide violence that has racked France for two weeks begins to abate, the country’s leaders and citizens find themselves facing tough questions about the fundamental values that define the French dream: Liberty, equality and fraternity. In the face of dramatic evidence that so many of France’s ethnic minority citizens and recent immigrants feel that their society has betrayed its promises, one of the pillars supporting France’s vision of itself is shaking. This will take a revolution in French thinking about integration, but there are signs that the recent violence has begun to persuade some policymakers that they’ll have to overhaul their colour-blind ideals of citizenship.

French politicians may not find it easy to acknowledge how far the country has fallen short of its goals, some immigration experts predict, though PM Dominique de Villepin acknowledged last week to parliament that, “the effectiveness of our integration model is in question.” Paris remained relatively quiet over the weekend, with authorities implementing a state-of-emergency ban on meetings. Lyon and other cities were ensconced in the ongoing rioting widely seen to be protesting inequalities suffered by France’s immigrant population.

Even before the recent trouble erupted in the country’s poorest and most heavily immigrant suburbs, business leaders, government advisory boards, and intellectuals who dominate the policy debate in France had been inching toward new ways of thinking about immigrant integration.

Their moves could

provide the foundations for future reform, optimists say. For example, 40 of France’s top companies last year signed a Diversity Charter that commits them, among other things, to “seek to reflect the diversity of French society” in their hiring policies. Acknowledging ethnic differences and measuring them, runs the official view, would lead to ethnic separatism

and weaken the unitary state. That supposedly colour-blind treatment has not led to equal outcomes is clear from the suburbs where violence exploded two weeks ago: The poorest districts of French cities are overwhelmingly inhabited by North African and black African immigrants and their descendants who complain about discrimination.

Forbidden by their mindset from targeting social programmes at ethnic groups, the French authorities have instead directed their money and efforts geographically, targeting the most deprived districts. Since that is where a lot of North African and black African families live, they say, those are the people who will benefit. Though this approach has not worked, French politicians have stuck to their guns. Some critics say the problem is not cultural integration but straightforward discrimination in a society that has not allowed the arrival of millions of immigrants from different countries to change its view of itself.

An advisory board led by former Education Minister Luc Ferry, in a September report to the government, recommended ethnic monitoring, as carried out in Britain and the US, on a voluntary basis. Other moves are afoot, including the nomination of Begag, a sociologist born in a Lyon slum, to a cabinet job. Still, no members of parliament are of immigrant descent.