London is not Paris

The British model: Practical, durable, but by far not ideal

24 February 2006
Read in:
French republican assumptions about universal equality were shaken up by the rioting in November 2005. Now, despite its rocky past and imperfect present, the British multicultural model appears not to have been so badly mistaken. Representation of minorities in the media, in government, and in public services, are among the areas in which France could follow the British example: it's just a matter of mindset, says Peter Loizos.

The French got bad press in Britain during November 2005, some of which was incoherent. Mark Steyn, columnist at the rightwing Spectator, was certain that the rioters were predominantly Muslims, but how could he have known crowd composition and identity alignments in 300 sites? The magazine castigated the BBC for not mentioning Muslims, while placing on their cover an Islamic crescent over the map of northern Europe and trumpeting “Eurabia”. But many French Algerians of both sexes are secular in outlook and marry non- Algerians. They are no more Muslim than most French are Catholics. The young rioters were of North and West African origin, to be sure, but their grievances seem to have been more about economic and social exclusion. They attacked cars and schools, not churches. One week later, the same magazine ran an article by Frank Johnson saying that the riots were not about Islam at all, but about libert�, fraternit�, �galit�.

Since 2000, France has spent EUR 38 million on programmes designed to improve integration of minority youths, including special courses for those in “priority” neighbourhoods. But, as is often the case, the riots came when things may have been poised to improve marginally for the rioters. Could they have known that? Would they have cared? Most journalists identified the trigger to be the accidental death of two youths fleeing the police in Clichy-sous-bois. But there had been two terrible Paris fires in which poor migrants were killed in August 2005, and it is likely that these raised long-contained frustrations, the elite having been perceived to be insufficiently concerned.

Youth alienation amongst North and West Africans in France is deeper and more widespread than in Britain. The riot-stricken Paris suburb of Sevran has a 19 per cent unemployment rate (twice the national average); this rises to 30 percent of those under 25. Such figures could be matched in parts of Birmingham, Swansea, and Cardiff; in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, Bangladeshi youth unemployment runs close to 70 per cent. But in much of Britain, unemployment among young blacks and young whites differs by only a few percentage points. The fact that in France there were attacks on thirty schools made some commentators despair, because at first sight it looked as if the rioters were attacking the very places that might have helped them. But many have emerged from those schools with poor literacy in French, even though most French Algerians speak French as their first language. And then they face a discriminatory job market.

Recently, a French sociologist ingeniously tested the ethnic impartiality of job selection processes. He sent identical CVs to hundreds of companies, the only difference being French names, or immigrant ones. The CVs with French names were five times more likely to be offered work. Discrimination is illegal in theory, but like so much else about French republican equality, the practice is very different. So even when young minority schoolchildren have performed adequately, they know that if their name is Douala or Abdel Karim, their CV is unlikely to get to through to the short list.

There was another reason for attacking schools: they were the safest and most accessible symbols of the French state – much safer to attack than police stations. But what was the setting alight of cars supposed to express? Cars are unaffordable if you are on unemployment benefit and stay away from crime. A recent study showed that car ownership among the young unemployed in France is very low. Torching cars makes a point without risking more violent sanctions. When Algerians killed several policemen in Paris in 1960, there was such violent suppression that some 400 died; there has never been a public investigation of police brutality. It is safer to burn cars, even though in the short run it will “do no good”. Anthropologist Dounia Bouzar insists that the rioters are not rioting because they hate the republic, but because they want to be included in it. As an American black activist said in the 1960s: “It’s the wheel that squeaks that gets the grease”.

The riots produced mixed results. They shook up the French political elite and tarnished the image of a number of political leaders. In the short run they gave ammunition to the racist right. Jean-Marie Le Pen said, “I alone predicted this”, but his party have no solutions except for cutting welfare benefits and “repatriation” of people who in many cases were born in France and told they were French citizens. The far-Right cannot fix what is so manifestly broken.

But what about Britain? Is its recent history any better? The 7 July bombs in London this year killed many young people who were manifestly second generation immigrants “making it” in London. The bombs exploded at nine o’clock in the morning, when the underground is full of young professionals (British manual workers go to work between six and eight o’clock). The bombers were second-generation British-born men with jobs and futures, had they wanted them more than martyrdom. In Paris, which has known terrorist bombing for a long time, it was said that the British “multicultural” model appeared to have been badly damaged. French republicanism prefers to tell former colonials that they are French citizens. The 8000 burned-out cars, the many injuries, the hundreds of arrests, the admission of something rotten at the centre of French citizenship practice, will have frozen French smiles.

Nikolas Sarkozy, the Minister of the Interior, famously called the rioters “racaille” (scum). He admitted that the underlying causes were discrimination and deprivation, but denounced drug-related crime and gangs and extended the state of emergency, first enacted during the Algerian War, to three months. His approval ratings rose to 53 per cent. His rival, Dominique de Villepin, admitted that the French model of integration was “questionable”. Jacques Chirac, now on his way to retirement, spoke of “a profound malaise” and the need to recognize diversity.

British and French integration models have been quite different. The French have sought to define all French citizens are French, the key concept being citizenship of a republic. The French state has neither made explicit nor given recognition to cultural differences. French schools do not celebrate the religious festivals of Muslims, Jews – or Christians. The school is relentlessly secular, and headscarves may not be worn (they are more visible than a cross or Star of David, which can be worn under a shirt). Because ethnic disadvantage has not been recorded for public policy purposes, the French state has remained officially blind to job and housing discrimination, despite the victims knowing all about it.

The British, in contrast, are subjects of a constitutional monarchy. The British Empire allowed different races to be represented as loyal imperial subjects, and the post-imperial British drifted into the “celebration of diversity” as a way of dealing with the charge that the white British were racist. Ethnic disadvantage monitoring is public policy, although not binding on the private sector.

Britain arrived at this via a rocky road: there was no shortage of race and class riots. The Notting Hill Riots of 1960, when white youths attacked blacks, were punished with tough prison sentences. In the mid-1970s, the annual Black Caribbean Carnival in Notting Hill, west London, was established as an annual event, which the police gradually learned to manage with smiles rather than baton charges. Today, the Notting Hill Carnival draws many thousands of young whites as part of normal London fun, and has become a symbol of the hope for racial harmony in Britain.

There were major riots in Brixton in 1981, which again led to official investigations, the Scarman Inquiry, and trenchant criticism of police methods. There were the 1985 Broadwater Farm riots, in which a community relations policeman, P.C. Blakelock, was beaten to death by a mob, after police attempts to arrest suspected drug dealers had turned the community sour. The racist killing of young black student Stephen Lawrence became a focus for public concern over negligence and incompetence in the original police investigation. In 2003, there were confrontations between Asian and white youths in Bradford, a city that had a man called Hussein as mayor, and racist politicians soon sought to raise the temperature. Thousands of racial “incidents” are reported to the police each year, ranging from verbal abuse to physical violence. British society has not been as successful in keeping communal peace as could be wished. But it has been trying.

Certain things have gone right in Britain in the wake of these intermittent disturbances. There is still a liberal public conscience and it can be aroused. Church groups are important voices. Racial discrimination in the workplace is punishable by law, and the law is often effective: people bring cases, and may win significant compensation. The visibility of ethnic minorities in advertising and media has greatly increased. Turn on the four terrestrial television channels, and you can find black and Asian newscasters and reporters. George Alegiah and Ragi Omaar are high-profile foreign correspondents. Lenny Henry and Myra Syal are well-known comedians, and all kinds of television comedies feature ethnic groups’ tensions within wider society. The cinema has also produced a number of popular bittersweet dramas in which racial antagonism is challenged by love, and often mitigated by humour. Black fashion icon Naomi Campbell is British, and others are in hot pursuit. Any local government advertisement must now have a rainbow of different visible ethnicities, and this goes for the police too. There are no jobs known to be reserved for people of Anglo-Saxon parentage, and the security services are desperately seeking ethnic minority recruits in the wake of 9/11. These representations and role models must give young people hope that British society is open to talent.

The British public services, and particularly the health service (the largest employer in Europe) and local government, have formally embraced an equal opportunities policy, which at times comes close to being a positive discrimination policy. The Race Relations Amendment Act of 2000 places a duty on all public bodies to promote racial equality, as well as good relations between people from different racial groups. There have been black and Asian ministers in the Blair cabinet, black and Asian Peers in the House of Lords, and local government has council leaders from ethnic minority backgrounds.

But problems persist. In Britain, boys of Afro-Caribbean origin are five times more likely to be excluded from school than their white peers. Immigrants often (though not always) end up in the worst public housing. They are targets for attack from lower-class whites bitter that immigrants receive any social welfare support at all.

The British were amazed that Nicholas Sarkozy could denounce the rioters quite so coarsely. British extremists in public pronouncements watch their language and try to sound reasonable. It is only when they are caught by concealed cameras that their true sentiments come clear, as was the case with British National Party leader Nick Griffin and a colleague (the secret footage, later shown in a BBC documentary, led to criminal charges against the two, though failed to bring a conviction). Perhaps “scum” was a considered response, rather than an uncontrolled outburst. Sarkozy is competing for political space with Jean-Marie Le Pen; the use of strong language is as effective a vote-puller among those French who detest immigrants as the punch deputy prime minister John Prescott landed on a man who had thrown an egg at him would have been among British working-class voters.

French media do not provide so many positive role models as British media, though Chirac suggested this must be remedied. It would be neither hard nor costly – it is more of a mind-set problem. Given that the French economy is in serious difficulties, and that the “Anglo-Saxon model”, the Blair-Brown pro-market reform, has been delivering an economy with more people in work, the timing of these riots could not be more awkward for conventional republican political faiths, whether old Left or old Right. Just when the French economy needs a major re-think, race relations need a re-think, too. Just when more jobs are needed, French whites are locked in bitter competition with the children of migrants. Hamish Macrae, a British economic journalist, suggested that what France needs is more people working: not a few highly efficient workers, but more “bad” jobs, lower-paid service sector jobs which allow the jobless work experience and a foot on the career ladder.

What will be needed will be fewer protected jobs for French-French (six million jobs in France are reserved for EU nationals only) and more opportunities for hyphenated-French, Algerian-French, Malian-French, and people who do not officially exist as a problem because the French state will not get its mind around the hyphens. A debate has started in France on the representation of minorities, migrant disadvantage and aspiration. It is long overdue.

Abdelmalek Sayad was a sociologist who wrote extensively on the sufferings of immigrants. He interviewed a Kabylian in 1975 who described vividly his first impressions of the country which the Franco-Algerian relationship had condemned him to migrate to:

And what a France I discovered! It wasn’t at all what I expected to find. To think I’d believed France wasn’t exile (el ghorba). You really have to come here to France to know the truth. Here, you hear things being said that they never say to us back home. You hear everyone telling you, “This is no life for human beings. This is a life you cannot love; in our country dogs have a better life than this”. I will always remember this image of my arrival in France, it is the first thing I saw, the first thing I heard: you knock at a door, it opens on to a little room that smells of a mixture of things, the damp, the closed atmosphere, the sweat of sleeping men. Such sadness! Such misery in their eyes, in their voices – they spoke softly – in their words. That gave me an insight into what loneliness is, what sadness is: the darkness of the room, the darkness in the room. The darkness in the streets – the darkness of the whole of France, because in our France, there is nothing but darkness.

The riots suggest that 30 years later, the children of that generation still feel France is dark. The burning cars gave a few hours of light, but will they illuminate the collective mind of the French state? Meanwhile, Britain has little cause for complacency. British streets have blazed before and they may do so again. These are major problems and they have no quick fixes. The solutions must focus on unemployment, alienation, and representation (above all in the police force), with less attention to often misleading irrelevant religious labels.

Published 24 February 2006

Original in English
First published in Le Monde diplomatique 12/2005 (German version)

Contributed by Le Monde diplomatique (Berlin)
© Peter Loizos/Le Monde diplomatique Eurozine

PDF / PRINT

recommended articles