by Luukas Ilves
In the aftermath of the French riots, which saw the torching of thousands of cars and near-anarchic unrest through many of Paris’ poorer suburbs, laïcité – French secularism and egalitarianism – is dead. Or so the litany of critical voices that has emerged from the ashes would have us believe. Yet the hurdles that France must overcome to prevent a repetition of November’s events have far more in common with the challenges America’s ghettos pose than with the war on terrorism.
Far from articulating some vague ‘Muslim threat’ to Europe’s liberalism and freedom, the riots in Paris’ banlieux demonstrate the success of laïcité and integration. Nary an ounce of religious incitement was to be seen. The rioters wore not religious clothing but the hooded sweatshirts, t-shirts and jeans of their young peers throughout the world. The rioters formed small bands of familiars from their subdivisions who were as preoccupied with fighting other bands and maintaining their turf as with actions against the police. They did not attempt leaving their neighborhoods to wreak havoc on Paris proper, and they did not join together in one massive group riot. Their violence restricted itself to relatively safe (for them and others) vandalism. Their actions against the police constituted potshots, not a concerted effort to inflict harm: they threw bricks not bombs. And though the rioters were Muslim, they were not Muslims qua Muslims. Muslim religious leaders, immigrants outside of the affected banlieux, even (or particularly) older neighbors who watched the carnage – all joined Jacques Chirac, Nicholas Sarkozy and the entire French polity in unequivocally reprobating their acts. Yet this condemnation must not come out of a reaction to perceived opposition to France herself. When the youths chanted not the slogans of Intifada but the words of the French rap group Tandem, “J’baiserai la France jusqu’à c’qu’elle m’aime” – I will kiss France until she loves me – they expressed their disappointment at France’s unwillingness to take them in, but a disappointment nonetheless firmly rooted in this very desire to join, not oppose, the French polity. Commentators seem to be coming to a consensus that the French protests are profoundly secular, having far more in common with the Los Angeles riots of 1992 or French student riots in 1968 than with the London and Madrid bombings or the brutal execution of Theo van Gogh.
The riots’ origin in very firm grievances against the French state rules out certain responses and courses of action as wholly inappropriate. The concurrence of these events with bombings in Europe and ongoing turmoil in predominantly Muslim countries around the world makes us itch to ask again what has become la question qui tue – the most biting question: “how does a liberal society accommodate those of its members who refuse to accept that very liberalism?” Yet this question, predicated on Muslim illiberalism, can only lead to unnecessary crackdowns that themselves undermine liberalism. France, setting an example for the rest of Europe, has been quite effective at policing its Muslim preachers and ensuring that they do not incite hatred or violence. But France cannot now overstep the boundary between necessary restrictions and undue burdens. The ban on headscarves in French schools was already discriminatory – further such restrictions would verge on persecution. Nor would restrictions on immigration help deal with agitated French citizens who were born in France, live in France, and speak French as their first language.
Rather, France needs to treat its disaffected population as a social problem. Residents of these poor suburbs need access to better schooling. The American experience has taught us that high-rise public housing fails – and that the housing projects of France’s suburbs must be replaced by private, moderate housing. The list of such urban reforms goes on, but is in no way remarkable or original.
Still, calls to artificially increase the Muslim population’s representation in the workplace, schools etc… - affirmative action – should be resisted. If France is to stay true not only to laïcité, but also egalité and liberté, change may not come at the expense of undermining those very ideals.
Faced with violent conflict that seems to stem from a fundamental ideological clash, it is tempting to over-dramatize the situation or offer polar solutions. Yet France’s solution lies in eschewing culture clash for moderation, reaffirming secularism and egalitarianism, and directly addressing its social problems.
The Stanford Review