Paris Still Smolders

December 14, 2006 Topic: Society Region: Western EuropeEurope Tags: MuslimMuslim BrotherhoodYugoslaviaIslam

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.

The anger felt by immigrants and their children has been simmering for decades in Paris' suburbs, and it now threatens the fabric of what even Nietzsche once called Europe's "most spiritual and sophisticated culture." It has been fueled by the frustration of a generation of immigrants brought over to rebuild France after World War II, who now look enviously out of their shoddy high-rises at only a dim glimmer of the Paris that their parents came over for.

Consequently, Europe has clearly become an even more important staging ground for terrorism than the Middle East. The real cause lies not in unemployment or poverty, but in France's 200 year-old identity crisis, which has produced public policy half-way houses. The French government's reaction to these problems has been a push for a stricter immigration policy, mandatory French speaking religious leaders and a ban on the hijab and other religious insignia in public schools. Unfortunately, efforts towards assimilating France's growing Muslim population have been too little too late. While there are few real reactionaries, the mainstream desire to preserve French "culture" has now become an uphill battle.

Gearing up for an election in April 2007, the French will have a golden opportunity to change the tide. As a secular state, France must develop policies which continue to stand firm against religious leaders who stoke the flames of an increasingly radicalized religious identity that is forming an entire generational mindset. However, as a democracy, it has to develop policies which also offer greater economic incentives and promote grass- roots civic engagement in order to assimilate its minorities.

The worse is yet to come unless power is given to leaders who can combine the theoretical and practical genius of someone like a Tocqueville or Montesquieu. Theory, guided by practice, must enlighten practice. It must be articulated in the language of our century, not that of the past, and seek to inspire the French to adopt a cohesive national identity. Whether this identity takes on the Lockean model of a capitalist and multicultural America, a version of a Gaullist ideal or some European hybrid, is what the French must decide. Reformulating this policy does not mean dreaming of the France of days past. However, it does require disinterested soul-searching for a consistent vision of the future through reconciling theoretical divisions of the past in order to guide present domestic policy reforms. Perhaps former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine was on to something when he said "We need a new Montesquieu who can think everything over again starting from zero.

Glen Feder is a senior research analyst at the Investigative Project on Terrorism and a doctoral candidate in political science at Boston College and L'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, France.