The French connection: why the suburbs are burning

Article published on Nov. 21, 2005
Article published on Nov. 21, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Why is it only in France that there are suburbs up in flames? Perhaps because there is a link between Le Pen's 2002 victory, the No vote to the European Constitution and the recent outbreaks of violence.

April 21, 2002: the leader of the extreme right, Jean-Marie Le Pen, gets through to the second round of the French presidential elections. May 29, 2005: three years later, France says No to the European Constitution. October 27, the suburbs are up in arms: 8,500 cars set on fire, 200 buildings destroyed, 125 police officers injured and 600 people arrested.

The French exception

For years, France has been in the limelight for its political choices and for the way in which its society has evolved; more so than any other European country. Of course, Austria has its own right-wing populist, Haider, but, according to an opinion poll earlier this year, his xenophobic party, the Alliance for Austria's Future, enjoys just 5% support. The Netherlands also voted No to the Constitution, but the land of tulips was not as closely linked to the text, which was written for the most part by the former French President Giscard d'Estaing. In the last few decades, no other country has experienced a wave of urban violence comparable to what has been happening in France over the past few weeks. In short, France is suffering more than anywhere else from a social crisis.

Those who voted No in 2005 helped Le Pen in 2002

There is a definite connection between Le Pen's success, the No vote to the Constitution and the current outbreaks of violence in the suburbs. According to a recent survey, 63% of those who voted No on May 29 2005 effectively contributed to the near presidential catastrophe in 2002: 32% of those who voted No voted for Le Pen in 2002, and 31% for a left-wing presidential candidate other than Lionel Jospin, preventing him from reaching the second round in the elections and thereby facilitating Le Pen’s success. The two votes, right-wing reactionary and left-wing conservative, were, and still are, united in their fear of immigration. Of course former French Prime Minister Fabius's dislike of the 'Polish Plumber' seems somewhat more politically correct than Le Pen's attitude towards North African Arabs, but fundamentally both groups feel the same way.

The relationship between the 2002 presidential elections, which were dominated by the debate on crime, and the current violence is even more alarming. Le Pen has used the National Front's homepage to exploit the current situation by displaying the slogan "Le Pen told you so" above a worrying election video for the 1999 European elections in which a burning Paris is 'saved' by a tricolour flame, the symbol of Le Pen's party. However, it is not Le Pen but Nicolas Sarkozy, one of the candidates for the 2007 presidential elections, who is favoured by the public: 68% approved of his handling of the situation in the suburbs. And it is thanks to his particular political stance, which focuses on 'law and order', that he has earned compliments (but also incited jealousy) from Le Pen himself. After all, who couldn't but admire a man who has prolonged the national state of emergency, expelled violent foreigners, declared war on “scum” (racaille) and expressed a desire to “clean up the suburbs”?

But perhaps the most interesting correlation is that between the Non to the Constitution and the suburban crisis, because it highlights not only the anxieties of a xenophobic France but the conservatism of a large proportion of the Left who rejected an ‘economically liberal’ Constitution. A Left which clings to a sacred 'French social model' and now, in order to solve the problem of les banlieues, calls upon the welfare state to save the day.

France's Molotov cocktail

This Left should, however, explain the paradox that it is the country which provides the most generous state support where social problems are the worst. Not only can we cite the recent suburban conflicts, but also the 48 immigrants who were killed between April and August in three fires which broke out in the appalling Parisian buildings used to house them, supposedly suitable for human dwelling. The reason why is clear: France is in a crisis situation more than other countries because it has created a social cocktail which is (and this is a particularly fitting description) explosive.

First let's take the economic crisis in the suburbs, where ghettos have been created by housing the vast proportion of immigrants in buildings not fit for humans in areas hurriedly built in the 1960s. It is in these areas that, according to the experts, unemployment is on average 20% (double the national average) and about 40% amongst the young people there. This situation (which is already difficult due to the sheer number of immigrants which France has had to integrate) is made worse by the country’s belief in an education system which aims at assimilation of the individual in the national community, without any regard for the individual's linguistic, ethnic or religious origins.

This in turn leads to the paradox of telling multi-ethnic schoolchildren that ‘our ancestors were Gauls’; that in the ex-French colony of Algeria there were 'events' rather than a war; and that 'we are all French citizens'. Then, of course, there is the ban on Islamic headscarves in schools, even where the majority of pupils are Muslim. To this a large dose of discrimination is added, especially if you live in the outskirts of Paris and your name is Aïsha.

The third ingredient in this Molotov cocktail threatening France is the state’s interventionist ideology. Indeed the French translation of ‘welfare state’ is l'etat providence, enshrining the idea that the state can solve all. In a critique of Chirac's speech to the nation on November 14, Le Monde accused: "He pointed the finger at everyone. Only the State was left alone, as if he wanted to put all the blame on civil society". There is an almost religious belief in the omnipotence of state intervention and, therefore, in the need for further governmental aid for parts of the population which are already well subsidised, thanks to a system which is far too generous at handing out unemployment benefits in comparison to the rest of Europe.

France's social model is no longer up to date and its elite seems incapable of changing this. What's new is that now the victims of the system are rebelling. The risk is that this umpteenth alarm bell will be interpreted as simply an unexpected accident, to be sorted out by Le Pen-style methods.