John West - Labour supporter and journalist

Currently living in Paris, I'm a Labour member, activist and freelance journalist. I'll be writing mostly about missed opportunities, as I see them, and the necessity to rebuild Labour as a cohesive movement. We mustn't lose sight of reality, but we should sometimes challenge it.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

French lessons on social cohesion

This article is my definitive pitch on the French violence (having covered it in a rather threadbare manner in a previous post), and was published as the cover story in this week's Tribune (18/11/05):

French lessons in social cohesion: why the violence in France could happen in Britain, and what we can do about it


Violent unrest in the French banlieues represents neither a nail in the coffin of the modèle républicain of immigrant integration, nor an opportunity to sing the praises of a superior British model of multiculturalism. It does, however, reflect a deep-seated inequality of opportunity and outcome and a distinct lack of political will to do anything effective to counter it. To avoid community fracture, the Labour government must learn from French mistakes and not make any of their own.

The failure of the French political elite in recent years to face up to the problem of social exclusion, especially with reference to the ghettoised suburbs populated by minority communities, has been breathtaking in its scale. Take, for example, the fact that the one serious programme to target entrenched youth unemployment, Nouveaux services-emplois jeunes (‘new services-jobs for the young’) – established by the Parti Socialiste (PS) administration under Lionel Jospin – was scrapped by the centre-right government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin in 2003. Then, as now, youth unemployment in the poorest banlieues was at roughly 40% and stood at over 20% nationally. A ‘New Deal’ of sorts, it created jobs in the public sector, rewarded private sector involvement and provided educational opportunities. Since March, the government has been piloting a new, much scaled-down, version of the scheme – but it remains a pilot. The website has not been finished – a helpful note says it is ‘under construction’.

More chilling has been the naked ambition of interior minister Nicholas Sarkozy in using the misery and violence on display in recent weeks to reinforce his image as the hard-man of French politics. With both eyes, and a CCTV camera, on the presidential election in 2007, he made, on 10 November, an appearance on France 2’s television debate programme ‘A vous de juger’ (‘You Decide’). Violence was quietening down, but he saw no reason to moderate his language, serving up a resume of his rhetoric on the subject; promising crackdowns on the ‘racaille’ (‘rabble’), curfews, deportations of foreigners involved and – predictably – a change in immigration law. Confused, the PS deputé Julien Dray, also a guest on the programme, asked what foreigners and immigration had to do with the social unrest caused, in the most part, by second and third generation immigrants who had been born in France. He knew the real answer, though: Sarkozy was appealing to those who had voted for Le Pen in 2002, winning over far-right votes from the centre-right – and doing so by conflating delicate issues that need reasoned debate. Community relations based on dialogue and trust mean nothing to the ambitious interior minister.

Add to this a growing fear that the violence sprung from fanatical Islamic elements, the apparent disappearance of Jacques Chirac and the anonymity of the PS (too busy indulging in an internal referendum campaign at the peak of the rioting to either offer effective opposition or act as an interlocutor between the disaffected and the government) and the outlook for community relations in France looks bleak.

Nevertheless, those commentators trying to suggest that Britain has avoided the danger of such unrest by pursuing multiculturalism are wide of the mark. The French modèle républicain is colour-blind, leaving it partially blind to the ethnic nature of much of French inequality, with dire consequences (for example, it is illegal for the French state to compile unemployment statistics on the basis of ethnic origin). By contrast, Britain has a complete lack of unifying documents and ideals, creating isolated pockets of communities, rather than the patchwork that advocates of multiculturalism want to see.

The effect of both models is the same, as Tariq Ramadan, an Egyptian-Swiss academic and member of the UK government’s task force to explore Islamic extremism, explained in an article for Le Monde on 8 November: ‘what is organised in England by ethnicity is organised in France by wealth’. Britain’s multiculturalism without shared values has the effect of creating isolated communities and France’s ethnic minorities are bunched together because they are poor. Both models create separation and guarantee inequality.

October’s clashes between black and Asian youngsters in Birmingham served to show how inequality and separation in tandem can lead to rumour, suspicion and then, ultimately, unrest. This cocktail is utterly toxic. Time and again, unless something is done, we will see manifestations of disaffection and fear in the shape of violence.

Of course, in the event of disturbance, we look to the authorities to reinstate order. However, police chiefs, politicising themselves as never before in support of a profoundly illiberal and self-defeating anti-terrorism bill, have recently undone much of the good work undertaken to shed the force of an image of institutional racism. Many young Muslims in particular perceive – and perceptions are everything – the state to be legislating against them and have lost faith in the police. This is extremely dangerous and necessitates an urgent reappraisal of law and order legislation, with the scrapping of ID cards and a recommitment to community policing both utterly essential.

In addition, we should tackle head-on the segregation that faith schools inflict on society. New education proposals should be amended to this end, and should make ability banding compulsory to ensure a fair mix of pupils in our comprehensive schools - and a healthier society in the future.

More optimistically, the Labour government can build on a good economic record. The New Deal has brought opportunity back into people’s lives and entrenched youth unemployment has been broadsided. Nevertheless, we will need to redistribute more if we want to create the equality that is essential for a functioning, stable and creative society to flourish.

Complacency is the enemy – when communities become isolated, society fractures. For all the violence and damage in France, there has – so far – been only one death. 57 died in London on 7 July: the reality of fracture is upon us. It is this reality that should force us to learn the right lessons from the French unrest. We must avoid the head-on, divisive approach of Sarkozy and cannot afford the incompetence of their political elite.

Multiculturalism needs reinvigorating. Never blind to difference – celebrating it even – we must be equally sure of what brings us together. Freedom and equality, enshrined in law by established civil liberties, would be the best basis for a shared set of values. Sadly, Blair’s government tells us it is precisely these liberties that must be compromised in the name of security.

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