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
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'
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
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
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
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?
published on spiked, 8 November 2005