France has never shown much of a penchant for gradual change. Rather, French history is marked by long periods of relative stability and continuity periodically interrupted by bursts of sometimes violent and radical reorientations. Revolutions in 1789, 1830, and 1848; wars in 1870, 1914, and 1939; and insurrections in 1958 and 1968—all stand in considerable contrast to the more gradual political evolutions of, say, the United States and Britain over the past 200 years. With nightly riots spreading across France, it is perhaps not too soon to ask whether we are witnessing another major turning point as France’s Fifth Republic approaches its fiftieth birthday.
Even if things do soon calm down—and my own guess is that an expanded police presence, nighttime curfews, and the waning novelty of torching cars will prevent further escalation—the crisis of the past two weeks is bound to have a lasting impact. The traditional French concept of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” has been revealed as a myth by groups of disgruntled youths who do not feel free or equal at all. As a result, not only is Paris burning, but two of the most cherished notions of the French political system—the idea that a state-centered economy can promote prosperity for all, and the expectation that a model of citizenship that ignores ethnic origins can provide equal opportunity and social order—are also going up in flames. Of these two issues, the latter has received more attention in the last few days. But the former is no less important.
To understand the challenges France faces, you first have to understand what is not happening this week. The riots are not a French “intifada,” as some American observers have assumed. There is, in fact, no evidence that the riots were instigated, endorsed, or supported by radical Muslim groups or clerics. On the contrary, calls by some clerics for calm have been utterly ignored by kids for whom the strictures of conservative Islam have rather less appeal than a night on the town. Nor for that matter were the riots triggered by events in Iraq, Israel, or anywhere else in the Middle East but instead by news closer to home—the accidental deaths of two young men reportedly running away from the cops. In this sense the riots are much more similar to the Los Angeles riots of 1992 than to the Madrid bombings of 2004 or the London bombings of this past summer. Just as many African Americans put themselves in the shoes of Rodney King and said, that could have been me, young Arabs throughout France realize that they, too, would have run from the police.
Numerous observers have correctly pointed out that a key part of the problem is France’s failure to integrate the children of Arab immigrants. Whereas the United States certainly has its own problems with the integration of minorities, notably African Americans, the French problem now appears much greater. America has for more than 40 years been making concerted if imperfect efforts to provide better opportunities for minorities; in France that process has hardly even begun. Of France’s 36,000 mayors, 577 members of parliament, and thousands of CEOs, diplomats, and media personalities, no more than a handful are of Arab origin. (The great exception has been the French national soccer team—led by Algerian-born Zinedine Zidane—but alas not many immigrants in the Paris suburbs have the skills to take this route out of their economic circumstances.)
Less attention has been paid to the ways in which the riots challenge traditional French economic thinking, but in the long run the issue will be just as important. After Hurricane Katrina revealed America’s own ugly underside—appalling poverty and inequality in one of the country’s great cities—the French comforted themselves that their superior economic model spared them from the ravages of U.S.-style capitalism. French politicians from across the political spectrum have engaged in a competition to see who could best reassure voters that they would protect the country from economic globalization. On the left, one former prime minister, Lionel Jospin, reentered the political fray with a book denouncing the costs of globalization even as another, Laurent Fabius, laid the groundwork for an upcoming presidential campaign by lashing out against free-market economics. And on the right, President Jacques Chirac reminded voters that he was against “ultra-liberal Anglo-Saxon” economic practices, while Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin sought an advantage against his rival—Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy—by promising to preserve a French model that protects the disadvantaged parts of society.
The ongoing street riots render this case much harder to make. A vivid reminder that unemployment levels among the youth in some immigrant communities are upwards of 40 percent, the riots underscore that by failing to produce jobs the French economy produces plenty of economic losers, and those losers are now out in the streets—because they have nothing further to lose. If the protesters were trade unionists or farmers, as they often were in France’s past, the case could be made that more protection or social welfare would buy them off. But such measures are unlikely to work with unorganized gangs of kids who have no jobs and little cause for hope.
The problems of France’s immigrant suburbs can thus no longer be ignored and cannot be solved in the absence of major change. In the short term, the government is right that a firm hand will be necessary and that law and order must be restored. But dealing with the problem in the long run—and ensuring that France’s immigrant suburbs do not become breeding grounds for the jihadists who would love to make inroads there—will require French leaders to address issues that have long been taboo. They will have to make French labor markets more flexible and cut bureaucratic red tape in order to create jobs; and they will have to take dramatic, far-reaching measures to promote opportunities for Muslim minorities, even at the risk of shattering traditional notions of social integration. Sarkozy has in the past hinted at a willingness to challenge the status quo both on economic management and social integration, and his all-but-certain presidential campaign next year will be an important test of whether such ideas—which seem all the more necessary now—can be sold to the French.
None of this will be easy in a political season, and election campaign calls for economic reform will surely be met with screams about repealing France’s social protections—just as calls for special measures to help immigrants will be attacked from the far-right and elsewhere as an assault on French culture. But with the riots spreading, now is not the moment for politicians to pander to, rather than challenge, the French preference for avoiding change. A retreat to the comforts of the status quo would be the surest way to guarantee those problems that led to the riots will only worsen—until they take the French system down with them.