Paris Still Smolders

While Paris still simmers with immigrant rage, most analysis converges upon the same couple of factors, overlooking the prime French policy error.

PARIS, France

French police continue to round up and prosecute suspects of this year's riots, which occurred on October 27-the anniversary of last year's riots. While incidents were minor in comparison to last year, with around 277 cars and buses burned this time, not everyone was spared from the violence. In Marseille, 26-year-old Mama Galledou is still fighting for her life after over 62 percent of her body was burned when several teens doused her bus with gas and set it afire. We have been given a grim reminder that since last year, the root of the problem has not changed.

While terrorism experts are correct to dissect the ideological anatomy of the rioters, and indeed the confluence of French policy and that ideology, much of the analysis has converged upon one or two factors, overlooking the prime French policy error and its enormous influence of their religious-secular hybrid ideology.

Religion is not the prime reason for the riots, but it is one important element. The current generation of young Muslim immigrants in France no longer adheres to the pious Tabligh movement of their parents, which peaked in the 1970s and 1980s. The Tabligh movement, which was one of the most important Islamic movements by the end of the twentieth century, originated in the late 1920s in India and emphasized the strict imitation of Muhammad's life instead of the politicization of Islam. Part of the reason for this shift is that in 1997, in an effort to strike a compromise between preserving the rights of their minority groups and protecting traditional French secularist principles, France decided to streamline powerful Islamic organizations into one unified coalition called Le Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (French Council for the Muslim Religion). While the French government hoped that this would create one moderate and unified voice within the Muslim community, its effort backfired.

The results of the election held amid the Muslim population for the council was the victory of a fundamentalist Islamic organization: the Muslim Brotherhood's Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (UOIF). Through the enormously successful efforts of the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (UOIF) and figures like Tariq Ramadan, the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology has spread like wildfire among French youth. The Muslim Brotherhood is not simply a religious movement, but a global social movement that promotes a version of Islam that adamantly rejects secularized political and social institutions.

Interestingly, this is not the only formative ideological influence on France's Muslim youth. The current rioters blend an uneasy mix of enlightenment notions of human rights with an increasingly radicalized cultural/"religious" identity-not to mention the vestiges of a historic animosity towards the very country they live in. While the perpetrators of the violence have produced few official ideological statements, the nature of the riots speaks volumes. Most of the arrests that have been made are of Muslim North African men, with the average age being only 16. They are second and third generation of immigrants who are now fluent in French and protected by their French citizenship, but have still inherited a historical animosity towards French colonization and the war in Algeria.

Their Western-inherited notion of "rights"-which was originally inspired by Rousseau and other enlightenment thinkers-were passed down to them not by Rousseau directly, but through the tumult of the 1960s, where early Sartrian ideas of "alienation" and the late Sartrian ideas of "social justice" were popularized. They blend this version of "rights"-which, ironically, were originally made in direct opposition to the divine monarchy-with their own religious identity.

Ten years ago, French President Jacques Chirac campaigned on the theme of resolving these "social divisions", but little has been done. Today unemployment levels in the suburbs have reached 40 to 50 percent, and discrimination towards North Africans among the non-immigrant population is rampant. These are the factors that analysts typically point to, but it is the blending of religious fundamentalism (which was exacerbated by the French government's overt attempt to attenuate it) and the pseudo-enlightenment ideas of the 1960s that is driving the violent reaction of an increasingly alienated population of French youth.

Meanwhile, that hybrid ideology, with its strong fundamentalist influence, has created a great disconnect with France's elite. One has only to read French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's 19th century writing style in his 600-page book on Napoleon that he published four years ago in order to understand the political elite's love of French "grandeur." They fear that the language, philosophy, and literature that once flourished in the days of the old aristocracy, described marvelously by authors such as Balzac and epitomized in historical characters like Madame de Sevigny, are being lost forever.

Many elites and non-elites alike look upon the cauldron of hate in immigrant neighborhoods and fear French identity is being threatened. They argue that France did not endure a bloody revolution to throw out the laws of 1905, which declare a strict separation between church and state. And the revolution in the 18th century, colonial expansionism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and later two world wars did not take place, in the eyes of many French, to turn France into a giant melting pot. France is a nation where its citizens must be able to speak French. It is a country where the political ideals of "egalite" must combine with "liberte" and "fraternite"-which require the cohesion of certain fundamental political, social and economic principles that make up the French ethos.