France: One and Divisible
Published on: Nov 18, 2005

Ezra Suleiman is professor of political science and director of the European Studies program at Princeton University. He is the author most recently of Dismantling Democracies (Princeton University Press, 2003). 

One of the first things that a social scientist, as opposed to a political activist, notices about the breakout of the suburban riots in France is the ignorance of all those who are called upon to comment on, or who have the responsibility for resolving the crisis. Aside from knowing the place and the general conditions of the minorities who are both the perpetrators and the victims of these riots, there is really hardly any helpful data available. There is an absence of social science data on the minorities, on the diversity of cultures, on their relative economic positions, on employment and income levels, on education standards, on religiosity. We don’t even know why some minorities have fared better than others. The “explanations” offered by the pundits and various “experts” have lacked coherence for the simple reason that data of any kind is simply absent.

One might ask: where are the sociologists in general, and the urban sociologists in particular? What has happened to the cradle of sociology? What have sociologists been doing all these years? In the absence of hard data about why these riots broke out at this moment and in a particular place, whether they were organized or spontaneous, why they took the form they took, what the desires or demands of the rioters are, and even the basic organization of the communities, it becomes even difficult to devise policies for resolving the “conditions”. The police become the only group with (obviously partial) information. And they certainly can’t substitute for social scientists.

Social science in France is almost entirely funded by the state, and social scientists (all civil servants) need to be particularly sensitive to the state’s core beliefs or injunctions if they want support for their funding. They, too, fell victim to a state ideology that goes a long way to explaining not merely the origins of the riots but the absence of data that might have helped the authorities adopt policies that might have avoided the outbreaks, or even to react to them more effectively, and certainly to have a better idea of what the aftermath should consist of.

France has today a problem on its hands that it always believed would only plague other countries. It has a crisis of citizenship and of unity, the very kinds of problems it believed that its republican ideology immunized it against. It’s now an article of faith, one that France has long taken pride in, that this is what makes the country both exceptional and universalist. The view is widely shared, both on the Left and the Right, that Republican ideology, which separates public and private spaces and determines appropriate behavior for the former, is the glue for national unity. It ostensibly places all citizens on an equal footing and equality is what republicanism is mostly about.

Who would not adhere to such a simple philosophy? Through thick and thin, the French elite have seemed to believe that the republican philosophy is timeless. It is also preferable to democracy. Regis Debray, the former revolutionary intellectual, has argued, with considerable pride, that France is a republic, not a democracy. This implies that the nation and the state must always give preference to the collectivity over the individual. This is after all what distinguishes France from the United States which, for Debray, prefers its individualism and its democracy. This is a viewpoint or a philosophy that has become more and more abstract but that continues to a large extent to orient public policy. One can never underestimate the impact of abstract ideas on France’s leaders and on those that influence them. It was Tocqueville who noted in 1856, “the desire or rather the passion that we have shown over the past sixty years for general ideas”, the “attraction for general theories” and the scorn with which reality is often greeted. Political language, Tocqueville observed, is filled with “general expressions, abstract terms, ambitious words, and literary flights”.

And so it is with republicanism, a concept whose abstraction has become glaring not because it doesn’t come close to mirroring reality, but because its power now resides in shielding the French from reality.

The urban riots that recently broke out in France result from a loyalty to a philosophy that has scarcely been modified even in the face of a society whose ethnic, class, and religious composition has been evolving. But there is an equally strong attachment to a second, equally important ideology, which is of a more recent vintage and which goes by the name of “the French social model”. Both “le modele republicain” and “le modele social” have much to recommend them: the first stresses equality while the second points to “solidarity”, or “fraternity”. They are not subject to debate since politicians risk their careers if they so much as suggest a debate on such principles.

Why have these guiding principles been so avidly embraced by the elites of the Left and the Right? Republicanism not only explains and justifies state centralization, but is believed to set up a unified, egalitarian, and secular society. This is in direct contrast to what the French see as the “communitarian” society of the United States where ethnic and religious groups are viewed as undermining the cohesiveness of the society. But can a society be acknowledged to be diverse in the private domain and unified in the public arena? And what is meant by “equality”? Who determines what is the “common good” and what represents equality?

There is in this philosophy not merely the preference for equality over liberty but, as Raymond Aron observed many years ago, the imposition of equality can only lead to the restrictions of the liberty of some citizens. The problem, however, is that notions of power are taken out of consideration and the principle of equality itself becomes abstract.

In a highly inegalitarian society, and in many respects a highly hierarchical, even elitist society, what does equality of schooling actually mean? It’s supposed to mean that all schools are pretty much equal and that all diplomas are pretty much of similar standards and of equal value. Yet, most of the evidence we have suggests the contrary. One does not have to be familiar with Pierre Bourdieu’s work to know that schools tend to perpetuate inequalities rather than reduce them. France has in fact consciously created an unequal school system. On the one hand there is the system in place that guarantees all children free infant care as well as primary, secondary and university education. The right to register (one does not even apply) in a university is guaranteed by a high school diploma. But alongside these institutions of mass democracy exist highly competitive institutions, entry into which assures one professional and economic success.

The chances of social mobility have become heavily restricted even for those French citizens who fall into the lower-middle and middle class. What, then, are they for the immigrant populations of sub-Saharan and North Africa? Even setting aside the obstacle of latent racism, the chances for escaping the ghetto and moving up the economic and professional ladder are essentially miniscule. Can a society really create cohesion if a substantial portion of its citizens feel that one of its guiding principles is a sham? Republicanism has created neither solidarity nor national unity, nor equality.

The second principle—the social model—that France clings to has clearly become an albatross around the nation’s neck. The generous social provisions of the French welfare state came into being after the Second World War. This was the period of the French “economic miracle” when France experienced spectacular economic growth. It created a model welfare state that it could well afford. It was able to preserve social cohesion despite a quarter to a third of the electorate voting for the Communist party. But the days of wine and roses came to an end and the major political forces vow daily that they can be counted on to preserve the French “social model”.

This model has much to recommend it, but it needs to be paid for. Even the French Minister of Finance said recently that France was living on credit. Oddly, the French economy has much going for it. The productivity of its workers is among the highest in the world. But the number of hours worked has been so drastically reduced that the country can no longer afford the leisure it has granted itself. The social provisions of any country depend on its wealth. France now faces a choice: either it works longer hours or it cuts drastically many of its social provisions, a choice that no political party dares talk about.

Many of the social democratic Western and Northern Europe on societies have faced the same dilemma in recent years. Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Ireland, Spain, and even Germany have made substantial reforms in the way they administer social provisions without becoming “ultraliberal”, that is, “Anglo-Saxon” type capitalist economies. Yet, France remains impervious to some urgently-needed structural reforms. In what other industrial society can a leading trade union leader say that continual and monumental deficits are irrelevant and that the only thing that matters is the redistribution of wealth, without so much as eliciting any criticism?

Some Americans find much that is laudable about the generosity of the French state, whether in subsidizing culture, maintaining a splendid railway system, or financing education and health care, all areas for which much remains to be done in the United States. But the state is unable to subsidize the same welfare state it created at a time when choices scarcely had to be made. Yet, it continues to maintain a guiding hand in social, cultural, and economic activities. It preserves a culture of paternalism. It was even faulted for having reduced the aid it accords to civic associations in the suburbs, certainly not Tocqueville’s idea of grass-roots democracy. Centralization remains a key ingredient of the republican model.

The preservation of the social model depends on a growing economy. But, having committed themselves to equality and to preserving the social model, French elites have pretty much abandoned wealth creation. In fact, many of the measures taken in recent years by different governments, whether the 35 hour week or the tax structure, indicate pretty clearly that governments were not thinking of a growing economy but rather of how best to divide the labor market that would remain stagnant. Since new jobs would not be created, the challenge became how best to divide the jobs among those seeking work. The “social model” comes at a heavy price. In fact, one can ask, as Tony Blair and others have done, in what way can a policy claim to be called a model when it results in, or certainly does not alleviate, a 10 percent unemployment rate?

These structural features are directly tied to the suburban uprisings. Even if some forms of affirmative action were to be introduced, a move that has been adamantly rejected by French intellectual and political elites, these reforms could not be supported by the labor market. A growing job market is a necessary complement to affirmative action. And without a growing economy no government can have much to offer to the suburban poor who have suffered from the republican model and from France’s reluctance to pursue a more aggressive policy of growth.

As a prelude to alleviating some of the racial tensions and economic conditions of the largely immigrant populations, France finds itself in need of structural reforms that scarcely lend themselves to debate. A gaping deficit that far exceeds the 3 percent of GDP limit set by the European Union, a trade deficit (a new phenomenon), a mediocre economic growth rate, and an unemployment rate that is among the highest in the industrial world – all this severely constrains any government. But, above all, in the end it will undermine the present “social model”. And a policy that is intended to lead to equality will only further undermine the economic status of the underprivileged.

The policies that have been followed by all governments in recent years have proclaimed their fidelity to the objective of equality. Yet, in the name of equality, the governments have succeeded only in exacerbating inequalities. Why is this the case?

All politics may be local, but all policies are certainly made by elites. If one analyses the bases of the republican model one sees that in the name of equality much inequality has been created and continues to be justified. Indeed, the data we have suggests that social mobility has been stalled in France and inequalities have been rising. The principles of the republican model have become abstract and disconnected from reality. They have also led to conservatism not just on the Right but particularly on the Left, which champions the model with equal vigor.

Unlike what occurred in the United States in the post-war period where members of the protestant establishment took the lead in prodding their own recalcitrant class to accept the emerging new forces in the society, or when in 19th century Britain’s aristocracy took the far-sighted measures of extending voting rights, the forward-looking members of the French elite have been a rare species. Educated and cultured though the members of this elite are, their rear-guard action is now an obstacle both to acknowledging the problems of inequality, integration, and democracy and to resolving them.

Those who oppose any change in the present system are themselves products of the system. Those in positions of power owe for the most part their rise to a school system that is the symbol of republicanism, even if the inequalities in the system are well masked. All end up closing ranks to defend an ideal, but also to defend their own positions. One can of course defend both, but it is difficult for an interested group to convincingly claim that only noble principles are at stake any more than the protestant elite in America was believed when it maintained that it was merely defending institutions that gave rise to the best and brightest.

The French elite, like all groups in a democratic society, is engaged in defending its own position and privileges. Its hold on power, on the influential and lucrative institutions to which it has access, and on the privileges that accompany this access, all conspire to incite the defense of the republican model that made these advantages possible. The elites are aware that their fate depends on the system remaining restricted; otherwise they will face the same fate as the WASP elite in the United States. But it’s also possible that their obtuseness will result in a worse fate, that of their aristocratic ancestors.

Has the ideological defense of a model of societal organization that owes much to history (the Third Republic constitution was acceptable because it “divided the French least”, said Gambetta) become merely an alibi for conservatism? This is probably the case since there is a consensus among the elite on both sides of the political spectrum on preserving the benefits that the model brings to the class that gains most from the status quo and that would have the most to lose by the entry into leadership positions of those that are “different”, even if the law considers them equally French. Since one doesn’t just live by being called French, most ethnic groups now want what the law says they are entitled to. This is an unexpected challenge for which the leaders of the society have not been prepared. And they can no longer answer that the solution is “equality of the republican model”.

France has had a tendency to take refuge in abstractions and to rely on the construction of abstract models, concepts, ideas, all of which end up serving as an ideology for those who embrace this particular vision. Once issues or solutions come up against a weltanschauung, all notions of practicality are discarded. The rulers, noted Tocqueville, “apply the same rules in the same manner throughout their empire” and this led them to believe in the “idea of a legislation that is so general and so uniformly applied that it is the same for everyone”. This is precisely what no longer works. Assimilation and integration are not a dichotomy. The first cannot come about without the second.

The riots that have taken place in France have stripped the republican model of its last veneer of credibility. It has also unexpectedly put the country face to face with an economic model that is also ill-adapted to the contemporary world. It’s not difficult to understand why a majority of French voters said no the European Union’s constitutional treaty. Fear of competition, of globalization, of immigration has led increasingly to looking-inward, xenophobia, and to populism. The riots will increase all this. But perhaps they will be a wake-up call to those elites who run the country who may come to realize that the abstract principles by which they justify their actions and policies, and from which they have been the chief beneficiaries, need to be brought in line with reality. The fervent attachment to the status quo has now outlived any usefulness it might once have had.