'Social systems are only as strong as their weakest link – and that will always be the human element. At a time when politics has invaded just about every area of our lives, we are reminded that we can’t put too much faith in political institutions. It isn’t any innate French arrogance which has led to this situation. The French are no more arrogant than the rest of us...'
For two weeks, starting in late October, riots rocked several major French cities, causing many people to question both their government’s capacity to rule and the strength of their social system.
I was actually in Paris when the first riots were breaking out -- though not, thankfully, in the affected suburbs.
None of us should gloat over France’s difficulties. France does have a unique culture, but it does not have a corner on the market for ethnic unrest.
In the multi-cultural nations of the West, we are all faced with similar issues regarding social inclusion and cohesion.
It isn’t any innate French arrogance which has led to this situation. The French are no more arrogant than the rest of us.
In my experience, France’s reputation – especially among the English – for producing people who are arrogant and self-opinionated is very undeserved. I can’t claim to be an expert, as I’ve not lived in France, but my experience of French people has been that of warmth and friendliness.
The French appreciate not only their own culture but the idea of culture generally. And they are, generally speaking, blessed with a love of life.
So, why is France in this position – and what are the lessons for the rest of us?
One of the most startling aspects of the French riots has been the way they have been co-ordinated.
No formal organisation seems to be behind the unrest. Yet the riots in different cities are linked, often by a use of the internet to fire unrest among disaffected youth and gangs.
In an age where some politicians are inclined to blame every major sign of unrest on the work of stateless terror groups, we’re reminded here that some social problems have causes much closer to home.
These riots sprang primarily out of an inequality within the French social system. The French are proud of their model for social integration, which claims to treat every French citizen, of whatever ethnic origin, as an equal.
In France there is none of the positive discrimination which is seen, for example, in the UK. In France, it is assumed that this will not be necessary; that the system can handle diversity without the need for special favours toward minorities.
For more than 30 years, though, children of immigrants – particularly from the former French colonies of northern Africa – have felt that the system is stacked against them. Now, a new generation has grown disenchanted with the ability of the government to solve its problems – or even to care about them.
In many of the riot-affected areas, unemployment has soared to between 30 and 50 percent. Small wonder, then, that the burning of cars, albeit in smaller numbers, has been going on for quite a while.
A second factor in the rioting is the apparent weakness of this French government.
John Simpson, BBC World Affairs Editor, makes a revealing observation. ‘Years of reporting on riots and revolutions,’ he says, ‘have shown me that crowds display a mysterious collective sense which somehow overrides the perceptions and fears of the individuals who make up the mass. And crowds have a remarkable feeling for the weakness of government.’ (1)
Had President Jacques Chirac and his centre-right government been in full control of French political life, the rioting might not have broken out – or, at least, it might not have lasted as long.
As the riots spread from the suburbs of Paris to other cities, the national government offered only weak responses to the crisis. Mr Chiraq, a wily politician, chose to remain aloof at the beginning of the crisis, letting his Ministers tackle the problems – and take the fall.
He gave little public support to the Minister charged with quelling the riots, Nicolas Sarkozy – perhaps because Mr. Sarkosy was been seen as a possible successor to the President. What’s more, Mr. Chiraq’s recent choice for Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin seems to represent the elitist system which the underclasses resent so strongly.
The government is not only perceived by many French people to be weak on the domestic front; it also seems to have lost much of its ifluence on the international stage.
This is something which is very dear to the heart of the French people and is part of their social consciousness -- at least among the upper and middle classes. France, they believe, has a unique role to play on the world stage, acting as a civilizing force in the world. She also acts as a counter-weight against the cultural-imperialist aspirations of other powers, most notably the USA.
The weakening of France’s status internationally may not solely be a result of its own actions.
Germany has been France’s long-time partner at the heart of the European project; their leaders standing shoulder-to-shoulder in defence what they see as European values. Yet the German political behemoth is undergoing its own internal political struggle.
Whatever the causes, it may be that ‘old Europe’ generally is being humbled, at the same time as America is facing its own challenges. Some good may come of this in the end. Blessed, after all, are the poor in spirit.
What can we all learn from the French situation?
Firstly, I think, that social systems are only as strong as their weakest link – and that will always be the human element.
At a time when politics has invaded just about every area of our lives, we are reminded that we can’t put too much faith in political or bureacratic institutions.
Politicians, bureacrats and social engineers are as human as the rest of us. We need to place our deepest faith in values which are based on something more substantial than realpolitik or whimsical public opinion.
Our values will always be built around one of two things: either social expediency or moral, ethical and spiritual rectitude. There is no middle ground: we must choose either convenience and political correctness, or altruism and a humane prophetic correctness.
Secondly, we might reflect the need to mix compassion with authority in building multi-ethnic communities.
If we are to live and grow together in healthy national ‘families’, we should encourage and expect family members to express their individuality. We should welcome the diversity; but without allowing any member to bring disorder or disrepute to the home as a whole.
If a ‘family’ member should step out of line we should deal with the problem compassionately, but with due respect for preserving what is good for the family as a whole.
Thirdly, we are reminded that finding answers to social problems may mean looking into our own hearts. Self-examination is never as easy a game to play as criticizing politicians, yet it is healthy for each us to re-visit our treatment of immigrants and others who may feel excluded from society’s benefits.
Perhaps there is more that we, as individuals, could do to reach out to the neighbour we hardly know. Perhaps, to borrow from Christ’s story of the Good Samaritan, we could stop more often to do something for the needy stranger by the roadside.
Finally, we should reflect on the need for humility – on a personal and a national level – when it comes to dealing with the pain and discomfort of others.
We should face up to and discuss the many problems associated with multi-culturalism. If there is poverty, better to be honest about it and act now, rather than wait for it to boil over in the next generation. And better not to wait for politicians and bureacrats to solve the problems on their own.