Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

French lessons for us all
The riots reveal the political exhaustion of Europe.

The outbreak of riots in France has not only caught the police unaware - it has also highlighted the incapacity of the European imagination to make sense of events today.

As I have argued on spiked before, politics seems to be lost for words: public figures and the media struggle to understand or explain the big issues of the twenty-first century. Now, many seem unable to make sense of a situation where relatively small groups of teenagers and children from the banlieues can expose the powerlessness of the French forces of law and order, and of the French political elite itself. How could youngsters with no political aims or objectives call into question the legitimacy of all authority, and expose the feeble sense of identity in one of the oldest and most powerful nations in Europe?

Silence and evasion have dominated the response to the French crisis. Some have sought refuge in economic explanations. Bill Clinton's banal statement 'It's the economy, stupid!' seems to have acquired the status of unquestioned political truth. This is an attempt to use the language of the 1980s - poverty, exclusion and marginalisation - to make sense of the current riots. If the disturbances can be explained in economic terms, then maybe there's an off-the-peg solution to them: if only an EU development grant or training and jobs schemes could do the trick and calm things down!

Unfortunately, the outburst of confused and nihilistic violence cannot be simply understood through the idiom of economics. Yes, people in Aulnay-sous-Bois, Blanc-Mesnil and other suburbs in Paris are often at the bottom of the economic ladder and many live with the scourge of unemployment and lack of opportunities. But the current unrest is not simply caused by poverty. History shows that poverty alone rarely leads to violent disturbances. We need to take into account other influences shaping current events.

Another predictable explanation for the riots is to argue that France has done a very bad job of integrating its various immigrant communities. Commentators wedded to the policy of multiculturalism find it incomprehensible that a modern nation could still believe in the ideal of assimilation. The historically progressive ideal that says a nation should treat its people as citizens rather than as members of an estate, a religious, ethnic or cultural group is today described as scandalous by those who think the politics of identity should dominate. So France is indicted for its failure to embrace and institutionalise multiculturalism and give due respect to different ethnic groups.

From this perspective, the unrest is seen as a rerun of the riots that afflicted the USA in the Sixties or Britain's inner cities in the Eighties and Nineties. This interpretation means that well-rehearsed and readily recognisable solutions can be wheeled out: if we add a few crumbs of multicultural policy on a layer of inner-city regeneration, spice it up with some community policing and a dash of cultural politics, and deliver it with joined-up government, then maybe things will be okay.

There is little doubt that the version of assimilation practised in France is not faithful to its principles of true universalism. It also clearly isn't working. But the multiculturalist critics of France should reflect on the state of the rest of Europe. The recent torching of cars in Berlin and Brussels may be isolated copycat events, but they are also symptomatic of an under-the-surface tension similar to that which led to violent outbursts in France. A recent editorial in the UK Guardian - titled 'Learning from each other' - lectured the French about their need to learn from the experience of America in the Sixties and Britain in the Eighties, and to draw the appropriate multiculturalist conclusions. The editorial failed to mention the inner-city riots that broke out in England in 2001, after many years of trying and testing multiculturalist policies. Then there was rioting in the multicultural strongholds of Bradford, Burnley and Oldham, suggesting that multiculturalism is a no more effective policy than current French attempts at assimilation.

The riots in England in 2001 provided two important lessons for policymakers. First, they showed that riots could not be reduced to the problem of economic deprivation. Yes, these communities were relatively poor - but the Asian youth involved in the unrest tended to come from communities that were better off, better networked and better educated than their white working-class counterparts. Second, the riots showed that the politics of inclusion did not bring communities closer together. All the evidence suggested that the younger generations of ethnic minorities felt more distant and estranged from Britain than did their elders. Paradoxically, it seems that the very different policies pursued by the British and French elites have led to very similar outcomes.

Politics without meaning

The most significant thing about recent events in France is not the behaviour of the rioters, but the reaction of the political class and official authority. The Bush regime's response to the flooding of New Orleans looks positively energetic when compared with the sense of paralysis and confusion that seems to have gripped French officialdom.

During the first week of the unrest, French politicians devoted their energies mainly to scoring points against one another. Nero fiddling away while Rome burned seemed to serve as a role model for the French Cabinet. For a whole week, President Jacques Chirac literally withdrew from the public domain and said nothing. Contrary to some media reports about the heavy-handedness of the French riot police, they too behaved as if they were sleepwalking. A police force that has traditionally been associated with casual brutality seemed to run out of ideas, and instead went through the motions of pretending to respond to the rioters. After a few days the police adopted the role of the misunderstood victim, wondering out loud: Why are they hurting us?

This reluctance publicly to address the issue at stake is not peculiar to the French politician. One of the clearest manifestations of today's sense of political exhaustion is our elites' desperate desire to avoid discussing uncomfortable problems. Last month it was the turn of British officials to be far too busy openly to discuss a serious problem. The violence that broke out in the Lozells suburb of Birmingham - when rioting between black and Asian communities was sparked by a rumour about a 14-year-old black girl being gang-raped by a group of Asian men - was treated as an embarrassing episode, where leaders adopted the attitude of 'the less said the better' . In the absence of clarity, some seem to think that problems are better ignored than confronted. Such a response may have provided a provisional solution to the Lozells disturbances. But it failed utterly in France.

Although the spread of unrest from Parisian suburbs to other parts of France can be seen as a result of spontaneous emulation, its main driver has been the response of the authorities themselves. The French elite lacks purpose and is politically exhausted. As I argue in greater detail in my new book Politics of Fear, for the first time in the modern era the European political elites lack a project. They no longer have a mission to perform, and do not possess a distinct outlook that can inform their policies and day-to-day actions.

In recent decades, these elites have embraced the EU and sought to cobble together a European identity that might render public life with some meaning. However, this elitist managerial project lacks the capacity to inspire the public. The rejection of the EU Constitution in France and Holland earlier this year clearly demonstrated this technocratic institution's lack of legitimacy.

The current state of political exhaustion shows that public life lacks a sense of purpose, perspective and meaning. Most government policies try to get around this problem by avoiding it. The celebration of diversity is probably the clearest example of such an evasive strategy. Celebrating the many is a meaningless act that simply recognises the reality that we are not all the same. It is as vacuous as the worship of one or a few. Diversity is a statement of fact - and to turn a fact into an ideal is to avoid having real ideals altogether. More specifically, it spares the authorities from spelling out what defines their society. That is why the French policy of assimilation and the British pursuit of multiculturalism have such similar outcomes: these policies are about avoiding the hard task of saying what it means to be British or French, and therefore implicitly raise the question of meaning in an acute form.

What the events in France demonstrate is that power means very little without purpose. Power and authority gain definition through a sense of direction. Without meaning, even the power of the military and the police loses much of its force. And the more this powerlessness becomes exposed, the more it encourages those who are estranged from society to have a go. This is not simply a case of official incompetence, but rather points to an elite that no longer believes in the legitimacy of its own authority and way of life. The way in which this crisis of belief has been intensely amplified through the French media has been one of the main drivers of the recent unrest. But don't blame the media: their cynical criticism of French authority is quietly shared by those who wield power. By letting the cat out of the bag, the French media simply transmit the message that politics lacks meaning.

What is French about the exhaustion of politics

Since the end of the Cold War, the process of political exhaustion has dominated public life in the West. This process has had a distinct and powerful impact on France.

Throughout modern times, France experienced an intense and sophisticated form of class politics. The conflict between left and right had a powerful impact on every dimension of French culture. However, with the disintegration of class politics in the Eighties, the traditional distinctions in public life have lost meaning. These changes have taken their toll on left-wing and working-class movements in particular. Class politics today exists only in a caricatured populist form and no longer serves as a focus for unity for the masses. Although tensions between native French and immigrant workers have a long history, such conflicts were tempered through the institutions of the labour movement. The decline of this movement has contributed to a situation where ethnic, cultural and racial differences are consolidated.

The marginalisation of the labour movement is paralleled by the decline of coherence within the French elite. Since the end of the Second World War, France's rulers have sought to carve out a distinct global role. President De Gaulle tried to promote a powerful global image through the possession of a nuclear deterrent; it was an attempt to project a sense of national independence in a world dominated, during the Cold War years, by the two so-called superpowers. De Gaulle also attempted to assume leadership of Europe and enthusiastically encouraged the construction of a continental institution. And French governments carefully cultivated their national heritage and culture in pursuit of their project of gaining global influence. Despite its relative economic weakness, the combination of these policies endowed French politics with a mission and allowed France to punch above its weight.

Since the end of the Cold War, it has become much less clear what France's global role might be. Its claim to act as the leader of Europe has been undermined by the expansion of the EU and the decline of the French-German axis. Indeed, the rejection of the EU Constitution by the French electorate this year indicated that Europe can no longer serve as a rallying call to the French. In the absence of the Gaullist mission, domestic politics has descended into farce. Party politics has lost its way. Chirac is no De Gaulle: he presides over a political system where cliques of individuals fight for office and privilege and little else.

Somewhere between De Gaulle's aggressive nationalism and the silent, spineless and confused politics of today, France has lost its identity. When I talked to political activists earlier this year, I was told that the French are different to the Anglo-Saxons because they embrace the 'social' model. Now that the myth of the 'social' model has been exploded by the outbursts in the ghettoes, it is difficult to point to any values that are distinctly French. That is why all the recent speeches that refer to France sound so hollow. It is not surprising that people who originate from Africa or North Africa are not particularly inspired by the French flag. The emperor wears no clothes, and it is difficult to be impressed by non-existent garments.

The cumulative effect of the loss of meaning in France, and the undermining of the elite's authority, is the intensification of conflicts and divisions. The people that live in the immigrant suburbs of Paris not only lack access to resources - they are also profoundly estranged from the values and way of life associated with France. The youngsters torching cars and burning down their schools have no distinct political project or objective. They are not driven by social perspective or an Islamist ideology - at least not yet. They simply desire the kind of French prosperity that they see on the other side of the tracks, but without wanting to be associated with any idea of France.

To put it bluntly: there are no French values to share. In the absence of a common web of meaning, even small differences can turn into a major conflict. In such circumstances, there is every incentive to inflate suspicion and magnify difference. That is the politics of today, and probably of tomorrow.

One last point: the Anglo-American media have been quick to preach to the French about the enlightened ways of doing race relations, and call on them to learn from America and Britain. Maybe this learning should be the other way around. The problems that afflict France are not the result of unimaginative Gallic policymaking. They are ultimately the product of a political exhaustion that is no less prevalent in Britain or Belgium than it is in France. The solution lies not in dreaming up clever ways of managing community conflict, but in demanding that societies stop evading the fundamental questions posed in our times: what is the purpose of politics; who are we as a society; and what defines our humanity?

First published on spiked, 8 November 2005