Territories of Identities in France
Published on: Jun 11, 2006

Riva Kastoryano (sociology and political science) is a senior research fellow at the CNRS and is affiliated with the Center for International Research at Sciences–Po. She is the author of Negotiating Identities: States and Immigrants in France and Germany, Princeton University Press, 2002.

Nothing is new with the last riots in France, they just lasted longer. This time the “youth of the banlieues” wanted stubbornly to be heard, to be seen and to be accepted. Ever since the 1980s, the press has been reporting the increasingly numerous riots in the French banlieues: among the most famous, Minguettes in 1981 and 1983, and Vaux-en-Velin (both suburbs of Lyon) in 1991. These reports went along with pictures of burned-out cars, looted display windows, riot police, and young people throwing stones. Editorials began with “youths from the suburbs or young descendants of North African immigrants.” Yet, French public opinion was used to attributing such scenes to black ghettos of big American cities, because of the discriminatory and segregationist policies attributed to the “American model”. According to the permanent official rhetoric on France as being a universalistic, republican and egalitarian society and polity, such a situation was not conceivable, or at least would not be a structural characteristic of French society.

Social and spatial immobility

Although for more than twenty years the social questions raised by immigration—by the settlement of immigrants of the 1960s—have been crystallized in banlieues, these urban settings have become spaces where tension and violence prevail as modes of collective expression. These places where otherness and poverty go together, where unemployment among youth is far above the national average, are presented as conflict zones between civil society and the forces of order (the police), between generations and cultures, and between national, local, and community institutions. In these areas affiliations are juxtaposed, fragmented, and united to resist one another, to mark off territories isolated from one another within the housing projects which are themselves isolated from the larger society.

Identities began to be juxtaposed in the banlieues in the 1960s, when families of all regional and national backgrounds were “saved” from shantytowns and “rehoused” in low-income housing (HLM), those impersonal complexes—which were modern at least at the time when they were built—on the outskirts of big metropolitan areas. In the 1970s, many working families, both French and foreign, particularly Portuguese, thus proved their access to modernity by moving to the suburban housing projects. They saw themselves as members of the working class and then embarked on upward mobility by moving into houses (pavillons) and making room for newcomers, families from North Africa, Turkey, Africa, newly reassembled in France.

The long-term ethnic grouping of these families in banlieues is no longer an individual choice. It is linked to poverty and reflects the failure of their project of upward mobility. The term “social void” expresses the hopelessness of people younger than 20, who represent 40% of the population from Val-Fourré to Mantes-la-Jolie. In those “zones”, foreigners or the foreign-born or children of foreign born parents, as they are categorized in official censuses today, constitute 49% and 55%, respectively, of the total population, and unemployment reaches a high from 20% to 30% and obviously affects mainly young people, Maghrebian youth especially. Unemployment, poverty, and dependence on the state are the life-styles of these ghetto residents, those who remained behind after upwardly-mobile families left to engage in other work, in other places, reminding us of William Wilson’s analysis of what he called the “underclass” in American ghettos. Already in October 1990, the riots of Vaux-en-Velin reminded people of those areas abandoned by some, inhabited by others, and taken over by those who were born or grew up there and were labeled “excluded.” Thus, one characteristic of the suburb is the permanence of settlements that have become the mainstays of non-integration.

Rage has settled in those spaces. It is expressed through violence. Verbal violence, political violence, and physical violence guide interpersonal relations in public; it has its own rules and is part of the “street code”, in the words of Elijah Anderson, with a specific language and accent. Violence gives the neighborhood a territorial and ethnic collective expression, a means of ruling by provocation. Acts are localized. Solidarities are made, unmade, and remade. The combination produces a fragile and incidental structure that appears mainly as a challenge to the law. The new generation is at the same stage as the former one. Their spatial immobility reflects their social immobility.

In Germany, a country considered an “ethnic model” because of the “cult of ancestry” reflected in its citizenship laws until the year 2000, in opposition to the French model represented as “voluntaristic”, social mobility did not seem to be a reason to leave the ghetto. Particularly in Berlin, upward mobility is noticeable through the creation of businesses in other areas of the city, but not by migrants leaving their residential area, mainly Kreutzberg. This neighborhood at the edge of the Berlin Wall until 1989, called Kleine Istanbul, was an extreme example of concentration, where Turks represented 16.8% of the total population of that quarter in 1973, 19.3% in 1983, and 20% in 1992. Kreuzberg was not drained of its Turkish population when the area started to be gentrified and became the center after the unification of the city. Indeed, its improvement reinforced their identification with that space they have appropriated. Gentrification meant an increase in the price of rents, in the standard of living, and in upward mobility. Precisely because of the renovation, Turkish families thought they could finally “get rid” of the squatters, the punks, those neighbors “who make the area look bad”.

The comparison suggests different interpretations of integration—into the political community in France, in the economy and the civil society in Germany. It reflects therefore different expectations reproduced by the official rhetoric: to become French or to remain a minority. The real question is not integration but of exclusion, from the polity or from the society...The balance seems difficult to establish!

Republicanism—idea and fact

With the riots, France—the media, political class, intellectuals—has questioned publicly the “French model” based supposedly on republican individualism, on the assimilation of individuals who have made a political choice to become citizens, thus French. Articles have focused on the “Anglo-Saxon model” and not so much on Germany. The first interpretation of the riots emphasized their communitarian character. The examples were drawn from Great Britain, which embraced multiculturalism like the “American model”, both represented as countries that recognize communities expressing their cultural particularities in public life, leading to the fragmentation of society into several separate communities, ruining the unity of the nation. The French media were triumphant when the Dutch, after the assassination of Theo Van Gogh, and the British, after the 7/11 terrorist attack in London, were questioning the effect of multiculturalist policies in their society on their territory.

Such models constructed out of contrasts or similarities led to ideal scenarios, although the social reality is more complex, and the models in question are in reality interchangeable, contradicting the discourse with political decisions. Precisely this contradiction is what characterizes France: a contradiction between the rhetoric and the politics, between ideology and facts, between discourse and reality. Such a contradiction brings a “paradoxical identification” of the individual and the group, a paradoxical sense of belonging based on the denial of membership to an ethnic and religious community and of being a minority (because individuals have also internalized the official discourse) and at the same time a marginalization from the national community, which according to the republican rhetoric is the only one that matters.

On the level of vocabulary, assimilationist France refers to the children and grandchildren of immigrants born on French national territory, citizen by birth, as immigrant because of their “origin”, although maintains them statistically invisible. Words are not innocent. Whether origin refers to the previous nationality of a new citizen, or to membership in a religious tradition (Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim) of those who have been established for several generations, the introduction of the term in everyday language suggests the persistence of an ethnic and/or religious identity—a minority—separate from that of the majority.

Ethnicity, community, minority are words and concepts that are disturbing French social and political life and thought. They go against the ideology of a Republic “one and indivisible” because they refer to membership and loyalty to another community than the national community. Paradoxically, the very same politicians who preach French uniqueness are increasingly appealing to “communities”: the “immigrant community”, “Algerian community”, “Muslim community”. Successive governments “thank” or “consult” or “give the floor” to the “representatives of the relevant communities”. Clearly, the use of the term “community” in political discourse in France increasingly refers to the contrast between national community and “other” communities.

In 1981 the Socialist Party in power instituted a politics based on "the right to difference", allowing foreigners to create their own voluntary associations (the latter continues to this day). Tocqueville reports the power of associations in America and sees them as one of the driving forces of American democracy insofar as they limit the power of the state. In France, however, the creation of associations, encouraged by the state, aims at designating spokesmen for them, intermediaries between a group formed around common interests and the public authorities. This is the corporatist logic of the Ancien Régime, which in the French Republic recognizes labor unions, professional organizations, or other interest groups based on collective interest. This logic does not refer, in its principle, to identities—local, regional, religious or ethnic. But voluntary associations of immigrants have become identity organizations and emerged as a refuge, sometimes even a sanctuary, where culture, religion, ethnicity, and nation (of origin) have been interpreted, materialized, and taken root. Each of these concepts intervenes to transform an informal local community, constituted de facto by spatial proximity, into a cultural and/or religious community, expanding internal ties from local to transnational and imagined in terms of common identifications.

On a political level, the rejection of “multicultural” approaches did not prevent targeted policies where banlieues have been designed as “high priority urban zones” (Zones Urbaines Prioritaires—ZUP) and the schools in these areas as “high priority zones of education” (Zones d’Education Prioritaires—ZEP). Both have focused on specific measures stipulating that “more must be done where there is less”. In discourse, “less” is determined economically, as social handicaps; since the evil is primarily social, it must be corrected by society; while in reality, the social element is closely linked to the cultural. “The project of the high priority zone of education, from its preparation and development to its implementation, must emphasize concerns about foreign children and children of foreign origin”, wrote Hubert Prévot, secretary of state for Integration in a document on social policies of integration. The measures looked a priori like affirmative action (translated into French as “positive discrimination” after Nathan Glazers’s interpretation), as a compensation policy, but they rather confined social and cultural categories in disadvantaged areas while reinforcing the negative image of these territories of identities.

Thus states hold on to national “models” based on a rational historical narrative but politics applied everywhere have been more pragmatic, therefore converging. Pragmatism makes the definition of a “model” irrelevant, and practice leads to policies of adjustment with its perverse effects. Based on empirical evidence, I have emphasized that all democratic liberal states, whatever their rhetoric, tend towards negotiation of identities as a way to maintain identities by managing them as well as managing the democratic paradoxes created by the recognition of differences and their exclusion.

Whose communities?

In France, negotiations between the state and immigrants led to the construction of a community situating at the same time the concept of community as the antipode of integration. The question then became what would be the legitimate community to recognize. Obviously the “affair of foulard” made of Islam a way of “reappropriating” an identity. The mobilization of the national community around the scarf controversy reinforced the immigrant population's identification with Islam and made religion a mobilizing force that breathed substance into the formation of a community opposing confessionalism to secularism (laïcité), settling religion—Islam—as a main cleavage in the French society. Even though the politicians rallied around the case of the headscarf in the name of laïcité, that mobilization elevated Islam to the core of the collective identification of the descendants of North African immigrants. Forming a community hence becomes an option to define a collective identity perceived as a basis for action and public self-assertion. And for the state the creation of the CFCM (French Council of Muslim Worship) as a representative institution of Islam by the state comes to insure an Islam of France, to situate the second religion of the country on the same footing as other religions in France. The accommodation of politics after the effects of an applied multiculturalism led the state to a sort of institutional assimilation of Islam.

Obviously institutional representation does not prevent social and cultural exclusion. It rather seems the opposite when state officials, in order to calm the local fever, call for the help of Muslim religious leaders and of the “older brothers”—these local “law makers”—against whom they fought in order to liberate the girls from their tyranny by implementing the law banning the scarf in public schools. It has been said, proclaimed and emphasized that the riots did not have any ethnic or religious character. Indeed prayers and collective declarations of “Muslim religious officials” like the speech of the president of the CFCM, and even a Fatwa—a Muslim juridical sentence—announced in the media by the UOIF, known as the most radical religious organization and part of the national council—did not stop the riots. Instead the young generation of Maghrebian and African immigration brandished their French identity cards and claimed their Frenchness, by birth, by culture, by right.

The question is then to what extent legal individual citizenship can be a solution to exclusion and equality? Obviously, loyalty of the Muslim population has become a question from the State’s perspective, and for the young generation the feeling of inequality reveals mistrust towards the state. Studies on the disappointment of the young generation emphasize the inequality of treatment and the feeling of the non-protection of citizenship by the state, which leads to taking refuge in NGO or transnational networks (even if they don’t have a legal setting) each of which tries to promote an identification with Islam on these territories of identities since there is no identification with national territory, neither with the territory of reference of the parents.

Such a non-territoriality of political references has paradoxically re-localized the conflict in the banlieues. Violence in this context leads them to develop a form of expression that is territorialized and ethnicized, recentering all the diversity of the local population into a new subjectivity nourished by discourses trying to unify them and build new solidarities. The idea is to promote an abstract identity based on a moral community that is not territorial, to produce alternative heroes and victims among the young generation in the suburbs; victims and heroes who influence their dress code, their discourse, their action as localized revengers with ethno religious claims. They reflect on states their deficiency in human rights and citizenship as the founding principles of democratic equality. The activists seek to channel the loyalties of individuals in a non-territorialized community, thus redefining the terms of belonging and allegiance to a “global nation”.

The question of non-territoriality is addressed in the continuation of debates on multiculturalism and follows one of the unexpected effects of such policies. In the self-determination of such a nation, it is personal autonomy that dominates and manifests itself through the network of individuals’ relationships. Via a number of precise actions and rhetoric, these individuals try both to construct identity boundaries transcending those of states and to create a non-territorial political unity. The danger of such a development on both sides however is that it creates exclusive identities, even exclusive nationalisms, on the same national territory: the nationalism of a minority or an ethnic group vs. state nationalism. The first formulation suggests a feeling of collective belonging through transnationality and a will to consolidate their solidarity as a political community that transcends nation-states; that is, a nationalism that is expressed and developed beyond and outside the borders of states and their territory. It creates new expressions of belonging and a political engagement that reflects the nationalization of communitarian sentiments guided by an “imagined geography” or a “virtual geography” that is not limited to state territories but finds a setting in ghettos or local concentrations in the countries of immigration. The situation creates two interdependent modes of identification: local (territorial) and global or transnational (non-territorial) and not necessarily national—more so when the rhetoric on national identity excludes them or sees them as a challenge to its unity.

In Europe the rhetoric surrounding Islam, both localized (even nationalized with regard to the country of settlement) and non-territorialized, appears as the underpinnings of a “liberation” movement, a new movement of national emancipation, with the effects of identification with a new entity. The expression of a local and transnational autonomy has been crystallized after 1989, with the Rushdie affair in Great Britain and the headscarf affair in France. A decade later, the second Intifada (September 2000), the escalation of violence in the Middle-East, September 11, 2001, the war in Iraq, as well as other international events have affected collective identifications.

A form of nationalism across national borders provides an affective source of identification, resistance and mobilization. In reality a de-territorialized understanding of a nation can be the ultimate source of new tensions between states and communities or, more generally, a source of tensions within the international system. At stake is avoiding a clash of nationalisms—territorial and non-territorial, of states and of minorities.