An Emperor with No Clothes?
Published on: Nov 28, 2005

Alec G. Hargreaves is Director of the Winthrop-King Institute for Contemporary French and Francophone Studies at Florida State University. He has published widely on post-colonial minorities in France. A new edition of his study of Immigration, ‘Race’ and Ethnicity in Contemporary France (London/New York: Routledge, 1995) is due out in 2007.

1. Causes

While unprecedented in scale, the disturbances which rocked France in the fall of 2005 were not in any significant respect new. At a lower level of intensity, there have been similar disorders in disadvantaged urban areas containing dense concentrations of minority ethnic populations (neighborhoods generally referred to as the banlieues) since the late 1970s. Periodic flare-ups have been highlighted by the media in Lyon, for example, in 1983 and 1990, and in Strasbourg, where, for the last several years, hundreds of automobiles have been burnt every New Year’s Eve. Nationally, some 28,000 automobiles were torched in France in 2005 alone—and that was before the 9,000 burnt during the disorders which began in late October. When, on November 17, the National Police Directorate declared that the situation was back to “normal”, it did so on the grounds that “only” 98 cars had been torched the previous night - the routine daily average day throughout the year. These ritualized attacks on automobiles, symbols of the social mobility denied to inhabitants of the banlieues, and on police forces seen as representatives of an exclusionary social order are symptoms of deep-seated problems which have been festering for decades, above all poverty, unemployment and widespread ethnic discrimination. These problems have been staring French politicians in the face for the past twenty years. Their failure to successfully address them has bred the despair, resentment and anger among residents of the banlieues which fueled this year’s disturbances.

In the past, many politicians blamed the failure of French “integration” policies on the alleged unwillingness of minority ethnic groups to be integrated into French society. Islam has most typically been branded as the culprit. France’s Muslims, it has been repeatedly alleged, are incapable of integrating because they owe allegiance to a religion which is fundamentally incompatible with the principles of the Republic. Variants of this view, a favorite argument of extreme right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, have resurfaced in some quarters during the last few weeks. At a conference at Columbia University’s Maison Française, the literary theorist and essayist Tzvetan Todorov said the riots were caused by the dysfunctional sexuality of Muslim youths obsessed with behaving in a “macho” way. Skeptical members of the audience observed that non-Muslim CRS police officers and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy seemed equally macho in their behavior and asked Todorov to provide evidence in support of his assertion that there was something specifically Islamic causing rioters to take to the streets. By way of a reply, Todorov simply smiled and refused to elaborate further. The following week Hélène Carrère d’Encausse told the media in Russia that the riots were caused by the polygamous marital practices of Muslim immigrants from West Africa. Carrère d’Encausse, a French expert on Russian and Soviet history with no research credentials on the sociology of the French banlieues, offered as little empirical evidence for her claims as Todorov. French Employment Minister Gérard Larcher nevertheless concurred with Carrère d’Encausse, telling the British media that it was no surprise if young men from polygamous (and therefore supposedly dysfunctional) families found it difficult to find jobs. That Larcher, the government minister with direct responsibility for addressing France’s chronic unemployment problems, should blame the victims he is supposed to be helping by smearing them in this way is deeply troubling.

Contrary to these claims, a massive amount of research data has been produced during the last fifteen years by sociologists, political scientists and others showing that the second and third generations of minority ethnic groups—from whose ranks the rioters have come—have overwhelmingly assimilated to the cultural norms dominant in France (see, for instance Michèle Tribalat, De l’immigration à l’assimilation: enquête sur les populations d’origine immigrée, Paris: La Découverte/INED, 1996). In this respect, the French model of integration has been highly successful. Its failures have been in social and economic policy. While respectful towards the Muslim heritage of their immigrant parents or grandparents, second- and third-generation minority ethnic youths fundamentally share the same aspirations as their majority ethnic peers but are being denied equal opportunities to participate in French society. It is this exclusion which has generated the resentment and anger seen at work in the banlieues.

Unlike some of the nation’s intellectual theorists, senior officials have on this occasion paid closer attention to what is actually happening on the streets of the banlieues. The public prosecutor in Paris, Yves Bot, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and most sections of the French media including right-of-center newspapers such as Le Figaro, have all stated firmly that Islamic organizations played no role in provoking the riots. On the contrary, it has been widely reported that where Muslim organizations have taken a stance, they have done so by calling for an end to the violence. Leading researchers on Islam, such as Olivier Roy, concur on its irrelevance to the riots ( While Chirac was slightly less unequivocal, describing the riots as evidence of an “identity crisis”, which could be understood to include an Islamic component though he did not explicitly say this, like the Prime Minister he acknowledged that unrest in the banlieues will not be ended until socio-economic inequalities and ethnic discrimination have been properly addressed. On this occasion, therefore, there has been a much greater degree of consensus among politicians and journalists (though less so among intellectuals) that the key problems to which the nation must find solutions are those of unemployment, socio-economic inequality and ethnic discrimination.

2. Solutions

There are no easy solutions to any of these problems. Successive governments of all political complexions have been struggling with little success for the past quarter of a century to curb unemployment, which after peaking at over 13 percent is still running at around 10 percent, more than twice the U.S. or U.K. rate. During that same quarter of a century there has been an endless stream of plans to reduce poverty in the banlieues. These too have met with little success. If progress is to be achieved on either of those fronts—and it is far from clear that any party has the policies to make this possible—it will take years, not months, for this to take effect. Faster progress could in principle be made in tackling discrimination, which has pushed unemployment levels among minority ethnic youths up to 40 percent or more, but here too the signs are not especially encouraging.

In his statement to the National Assembly on November 8, de Villepin presented a long list of measures designed to improve job and other opportunities for residents of the banlieues. Many of these measures were described as “accelerated” forms of actions already planned. It was unclear how much genuinely new money would be channeled into these initiatives. De Villepin also announced the creation of a new umbrella agency to assist city mayors in tackling poverty and discrimination. This appeared to be nothing more than an additional administrative tier covering existing institutions such as the Haute Autorité de Lutte Contre les Discriminations et pour l’Egalité (HALDE), established earlier in 2005 to assist victims of discrimination. De Villepin stated that more than a thousand complaints had been received by the HALDE in the last three months, of which “plusieurs” (several) were being followed up. These figures hardly sounded like making major inroads into discriminatory patterns of behavior which researchers, voluntary associations and government agencies have all shown to be endemic in the everyday lives of minority ethnic citizens. De Villepin told Parliament the HALDE would henceforth be authorized to directly sanction perpetrators of discriminatory acts, instead of having to obtain court orders, but the breadth of this new authority was unclear. The President of the HALDE, Louis Schweitzer, reiterated as recently as October 13 that he is implacably opposed to ethnic monitoring, a measure which many experts believe to be critically important if institutional racism is to be detected and eradicated. Neither the Prime Minister nor the President shows any sign of supporting the introduction of ethnic monitoring.

The only new measure announced by Chirac in his televised address to the nation on November 14 was the creation of a new type of national voluntary service open to youths from the banlieues. The notion that the despair felt by such youths may be assuaged by having them serve in a voluntary capacity the nation which has so signally failed to deliver real jobs to them suggests that the President has yet to fully grasp the gravity of the situation. In the absence of significant improvements in job and other opportunities and firmer action against discrimination, it is difficult to see why further flare-ups will not occur in the banlieues.

The long and tortuous route through which anti-discrimination policy has gradually developed illustrates all too clearly the weaknesses of the French discourse of integration. For years, many politicians on both the left and the right denied that discrimination was a serious problem in French society. To the extent that this was recognized as an issue, it was commonly asserted that as discrimination was forbidden by both the Constitution of 1958 and a law of 1972, the problem had been dealt with (see Erik Bleich, Race Politics in Britain and France: Ideas and Policymaking since the 1960s, Cambridge University Press, 2003). Anti-racist institutions such as Britain’s Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) were deemed to be both unnecessary and harmful since they gave formal recognition to racial and ethnic differences, the acknowledgement of which was supposedly incompatible with French republican principles. While those principles soared at a lofty altitude in the discourses of politicians and intellectuals, everyday racism was allowed to go unchecked and became endemic in numerous parts of the Republic, with minority ethnic citizens routinely denied jobs, apartments and access to recreational facilities because of their swarthy skins or Arabic names.

Since 1997, the Republic has been engaged in a complex and ambiguous strip-tease act in the course of which some of the more abstract and arrogant variants of republican discourse have been shed in favor of a more realistic assessment of the problems facing the nation and the lessons that can be learned from previously demonized “Anglo-Saxon” countries such as the U.K. First, discrimination was recognized as a serious social problem needing to be tackled through public policy. Then a number of civil servants and politicians began to talk openly about borrowing from the British model of anti-racism, as seen notably in the CRE. More recently, a senior government minister called for a policy of “positive discrimination” while a growing number of social activists have been calling for the introduction of ethnic monitoring. Until ten years ago, all of these measures were regarded as so taboo that they could not even be seriously discussed in circles that prided themselves on France’s supposedly uniquely successful “republican” model of integration.

Simmering unrest in the banlieues was a key factor in persuading the Socialist-led administration of Lionel Jospin, elected in 1997, to begin to seriously address the issue of discrimination. As I argued at the time, while well intentioned, the measures taken by Social Affairs Minister Martine Aubry and Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement were half-hearted (Alec G. Hargreaves, “Half-Measures: Anti-Discrimination Policy in France”, in French Politics, Culture and Society, vol. 18, no. 3, Fall 2000, pp. 83-101). While some politicians on the right were beginning to openly praise British anti-discrimination policies, neither Aubry nor Chevènement was willing to set up a powerful independent agency comparable to Britain’s CRE. Instead, Aubry created the Groupe d’Etudes et de Lutte contre les Discriminations (GELD) and Chevènement set up Commissions Départmentales d’Accès à la Citoyenneté (CODACs) which, under the direction of local prefects (representatives of the central state) were supposed to assist victims of discrimination. In practice, when a free telephone number was set up to take complaints from victims of discrimination, most calls went unanswered and prosecutions against perpetrators of ethnic discrimination remained tiny in number. Some calls were even used by local police forces (among the state agencies represented on the CODACs) as evidence with which to prosecute callers for bringing allegedly false complaints of discrimination against the police (Commission Nationale Consultative des Droits de l’Homme, 2002: La Lutte contre le racisme et la xénophobie, Paris: La Documentation Française, 2003). Not surprisingly, therefore, the CODACs did little to increase confidence in the banlieues in the Republic’s commitment to combating discrimination. To the contrary, there was a growing danger that, in its dance of the seven veils, the Republic would be perceived to be an Emperor with no clothes, unable or unwilling to redress discriminatory practices which sometimes emanated from agents of the Republic itself.

Under the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997, all European Union member-states were required to set up independent anti-racist agencies similar to Britain’s CRE. After sidestepping the issue during Jospin’s administration, France eventually complied by establishing the HALDE in 2005. While the HALDE’s apparent independence from the state sheds a further veil in the strip-tease act of republican discourse, anti-racism in France still lacks the teeth that come with ethnic monitoring, which remains one of the last great taboos of that discourse.

A related taboo was apparently broken in 2003 when Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy called for a policy of “positive discrimination”, the phrase customarily used in France to denote what in the U.S. is known as “affirmative action”. Since then, a vigorous debate has raged over a policy option which was previously deemed to be inconceivable in France. Yet in a speech on October 26, 2005 (ironically, the day before the banlieues erupted), Sarkozy gave a very limp account of what he understood by “positive discrimination”, which seemed to be little more than the kinds of measures already introduced by institutions such as the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris to facilitate access from socially disadvantaged neighborhoods, with no clear recognition of the specific problems faced by minority ethnic groups. De Villepin, Sarkozy’s arch-rival in the run-up to the 2007 presidential elections, has consistently opposed “positive discrimination”. In the aftermath of the riots, he claimed there was no real discord between him and Sarkozy on this issue: “Equal opportunities or positive discrimination: that’s just an argument over words. We are in agreement in refusing special treatment to people on the grounds of race or religion while according such treatment only on the grounds of residentially defined spaces” (Le Monde, 19 November 2005). If, as appears possible, de Villepin is right in claiming that Sarkozy’s vision of “positive discrimination” is more in line with existing policies in France than with U.S.-style affirmative action based on racial and ethnic criteria, this part of the strip-tease act, like others before it, may turn out to be more apparent than real.

Fifteen years ago, “integration” was the watchword around which French politicians on virtually all sides of the political spectrum (except for the extreme right) rallied. Today, the new buzz-word is “égalité des chances” (equal opportunities). The promotion of this term owes much to the sociologist Azouz Begag, in whose eyes the discourse of “integration”, often understood to imply that minorities were making insufficient efforts to integrate, needed to be cast aside in favor of a new discourse giving a positive spin (“equal opportunities”) to the struggle against discriminatory practices preventing minorities from participating fully in French society. When de Villepin became Prime Minister in June 2005, he appointed Begag as Minister for Equal Opportunities, making him France’s first ever cabinet minister of North African immigrant descent. After taking office, Begag began to develop an experimental program of ethnic monitoring in collaboration with a number of major corporations. It remains to be seen what will become of this experiment, which could potentially be of great importance in paving the way for more effective action against ethnic discrimination.

If there is still a long way to go in finding effective solutions, after years of denial and scapegoating, at least there appears to be a greater understanding of where the root problems lie. Sadly, those long years of denial and neglect among French political elites have generated deeply entrenched levels of distrust among the disadvantaged populations of the banlieues, which it will now be much harder to overcome than if determined action had been taken at an earlier stage. As Begag put it in a radio interview at the height of the recent disorders, the time for “blah blah blah” is past. If the social compact is to be restored in France, the injustices which gave rise to those disturbances must be urgently addressed.