The entire political class in France has got it wrong
For almost two weeks now, violence had raged nightly in the suburbs of Frances cities. In response, the country has, for the first time in half a century, invoked a state of emergency. Its police are now armed with broad new powers; even as they try to calm rioters with promises of jobs and social programs, they are enforcing curfews, conducting raids without warrants, restricting media.
The riots have destabilized the very heart of the Republic and raised a series of questions that must be faced head-on. The entire political class in France has got it wrong ..... Left and Right are struggling to grasp the scope of a phenomenon that will requires a veritable intellectual revolution in the way the terms of the debate are now posited.
There can be no doubt that violence is no solution, that the destruction of public property, buses and cars must stop and wrongdoers punished. Nor is there any doubt that some young people are indulging in pure vandalism. Restoration of law and order is a priority, especially for residents of the suburbs - the first victims of the violence.
The fact remains, however, that such measures will be ineffective if France fails to grasp the nature of the message that this orgy of violence is sending. Continuation of a head-in-the-sand policy toward the suburbs will ultimately have devastating consequences for social peace. France urgently needs rigorous criticism of the way in which its political and intellectual classes have for the last 15 years considered questions of the unity of the Republic, and how immigrants and their children are integrated. We have witnessed passionate (and repetitive) debates about secularism, schools, and the compatibility of Islam with republican values. French politicians and intellectuals have a surprising capacity to sustain these deafening debates for months about questions that are poorly expressed and/or have in fact already been resolved. The upshot is an unhealthy climate of general confusion concerning ways to deal with substantive questions - starting with this one: Will France finally realize that Islam is a French religion?
Some religious questioning is important, to be sure (and Muslims themselves need to examine the issues). But will we ever finally hear that there is virtually a consensus among French people of Islamic faith that they are bound to strict and full compliance with the French Constitution and law? Surely this was established decades ago.
Clearly Moslems must remain self-critical about literalist readings that encourage people to withdraw into themselves and tend toward radicalization and/or violence. But it is also essential for French society to overcome its own distrust by listening to Moslems, and by ceasing to require them to keep justifying themselves. The France of the new millennium needs the voice of a Jean Jaures, the French socialist leader who a century ago not only championed Alfred Dreyfus, he had the courage to say that religions did not in any way threaten the future of France. It is the mishandling of the social question that poses the real danger to the unity of the Republic.
The Left is completely disconnected from reality on the ground. Its leaders, apparently concerned with maintaining a media presence and guaranteeing themselves time on TV screens, have created organizations that claim to “represent the suburbs” - but that in fact accept the terms of the political and media debates of the salons of Paris, terms in effect a thousand miles removed from the realities on the ground. Groups such as SOS Racisme and Ni Putes ni Soumises (both created by the Socialists) surf the media topics of secularism, Islam, integration and Islamization; listened to by the Parisian elite, they are ignored by the people they are supposed to represent. The president of SOS Racisme actually complained in the English newspaper The Independent that he had not been asked by the government to help it deal with the latest wave of violence : the Rightist current Government may be criticized for its ineffectiveness on social questions, but it cannot be accused of being misinformed about those voices that enjoy some legitimacy on the ground.
The French tend to idealize the notion of ” the unity of the Republic,” but in social terms this unity is a myth. Debates about Islam, integration and immigration are ideological strategies to avoid facing up to reality - the reality that French citizens are treated as second-class citizens who are given inexperienced teachers in ghetto schools, substandard housing and little access to jobs. Under our very eyes, France is becoming a nation of gated residences for the rich, and a middle class who form enclaves, seeking to distance themselves from the ghettos of societyҒs rejects. Institutional racism is a daily reality in the job and housing markets. Aside from a few token Arabs and Muslims, the representation in political and media circles of voices from the suburbs is laughable.
France urgently needs a revolution in thinking. The nation has changed and its education programs must express this. Those who make up France today are entitled to official recognition in the nations collective memory. History, far from being an unhealthy competition of memories, must involve objectivity and respectful understanding. A new breath of creativity is needed in educational policy, a new focus on teacher training and school administration. To truly create equality of opportunity will require a tripling of investment in those areas that are educationally disadvantaged.
And let us recognize that it is counterproductive to send in the police following a political speech mixing insult and disrespect. Little will change until the residents of the suburbs are not merely seen as problems but are respected as full French citizens, listened to and allowed to be involved in devising solutions.
Trust has crumbled. Only local initiatives based on dialogue, citizenship and participatory democracy - and accompanied by the creation of effective social services and long-term housing and employment plans - can ensure that the situation wonҒt become even worse.
France needs determined and brave politicians who can look the fears and racism spreading across the country in the face. Energetic politicians who refuse to continue to perverting and falsifying debates by “Islamizing” social questions. Politicians who respect the equal dignity of all citizens and refuse to speak of “French people of immigrant origin” four generations after their ancestors arrived here. Politicians who know that if France is to restore social peace in the suburbs, it must do something about the injustices that undermine that peace.
This is what the thugs and hooligans of the suburbs are crying out for and, in the final analysis, it is the political parties that discredit themselves by not listening.
Tariq Ramadan, named twice by Time magazine as one of the 21st Centurys key innovators, is a visiting professor at St. AntonyҒs College, Oxford, and a senior research fellow at the Lokahi Foundation.
This article was published in Globe and Mail on the 10th November.
Please visit Prof Ramadan’s excellent site to read many of his articles http://www.tariqramadan.com/welcome.php3