The death of two Morocco-born minors in the suburbs of Paris on October 27 has unleashed one of the most serious social rebellions in France since the student protests of 1968. The acts of vandalism that began in the French capital expanded to several locations around the country, leaving a toll of nearly 8,000 burned-out vehicles, 2,700 arrests, dozens of wounded, and one death during the first twenty days of the crisis. Given these events, the rest of Europe is fearful of a contagious wave of violence within its borders. What are the causes of the conflict? What consequences will it have for French politics and the French economy? What lessons have been learned?


Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy took a hard line against the urban violence, referring to the criminals as ‘scum.’ Encouraged by events, the young people are beginning to act in a more organized way. They use SMS messages to tell one another where the police are moving, and they boast about their achievements on Web ‘blogs.’   


On November 3, the eighth night of disturbances, something that many feared began to happen: The revolt spread into other parts of France, and the government of Dominique de Villepin was no longer able to control it. Other cities, including Marseille, Dijon and Nice, became the target for attacks. On the tenth night of the conflict, 1,295 cars burned and 312 people were arrested.


On November 6, President Jacques Chirac, widely criticized for his silence during the wave of attacks, made his first public appearance, declaring that his priority was to reestablish public order. For the first time, the young rebels responded to the police by hurling rocks, and injuring 30 police officers. The next day, the rebellion claimed its first fatal injury. In addition, French prefects (delegates of the government) were authorized to establish a curfew. The wave of violence spread to other European cities.


On November 8, acts of vandalism dropped significantly, as a result of the curfew. The number of vehicles set on fire dropped to 617, from 1,173 the day earlier. On November 9, Sarkozy asked for the expulsion from France of foreigners detained by the police, despite the fact they had residence permits. According to one poll, 73% of the French population supported the emergency measures decreed by the government. In the days that followed, the wave of violence declined noticeably, especially in Paris. On November 14, the state of emergency was extended for three months, and the European Union announced that it was prepared to help France by providing 50 million euros. Chirac, in a message to the nation, recognized that his country was undergoing an authentic identity crisis. The turmoil continues.


Keys to the Conflict


Beyond ordinary French citizens, politicians, sociologists and people throughout Europe are wondering: How have we gotten into this kind of situation? Michel Camdessus, honorary governor of the Bank of France and former director-general of the International Monetary Fund, says these events result from the crisis of values that affects all of Europe. “The EU is cracking apart because of a paradox that is cultural, religious and linguistic. We are incapable of recognizing what we have in common; we are the continent of discontent; the Europe that is asleep. This crisis of identity has been created because we do not want to recognize the internal problems of the EU member-states. What is happening in France is a supreme example of this crisis,” Camdessus told the 44th gathering of the alumni association of the IESE [business school], which took place recently in Madrid.


“The rebellions originate in groups that have been marginalized economically and socially,” notes Antonio Fatás, an economics professor at the INSEAD business school in France. In his view, this situation is very similar to the marginalization process in other developed countries. However, there is a difference in the way these groups demonstrate their frustration. “There is a tradition in France of resolving social conflicts through demonstrations that are not peaceful, and this is just another example,” he notes.


For her part, Sara González, professor of economic integration at the Complutense University of Madrid, believes that the focus of the problem is the second- and third generation immigrants who live in France. In large measure, they are excluded from the system either voluntarily or involuntarily. These immigrants “believe that the society they live in has the obligation to guarantee them certain necessities (such as housing, health, education, and food).” Nevertheless, she adds, “It is not acceptable to place that burden on the public-sector budgets. It’s not just France; no other country in the EU can use such a large amount of funding for those goals.”


As a result, González believes “those countries that justified their lax immigration policies have fallen into a monumental conceptual trap, using the argument that it helps European economies to have more immigrants working and paying taxes. They believe this will mean that there are more people paying into the social security systems, and that will, in turn, guarantee the future of the pension system.” In her opinion, this is an enormous mistake. According to the concept of marginal productivity, “It is not about increasing the number of workers who produce; it’s all about getting those people who are already working to become more productive. It’s about getting people to contribute more to your social policies and pension systems.” Clearly, to do that, you have to “stimulate research and development, as spelled out in the Lisbon Agreement, and not base our economies on manual labor.” On the contrary, she notes, “The initial wave of immigrants quickly becomes a legion of people who demand public funding on a scale that is far beyond what they contribute” to the system.


For Mauro Guillén, management professor at Wharton, France’s immigration model should be blamed for the wave of violence. He says there are three models [of integration] in Europe. “The German-Swiss-Austrian model consists in attracting ‘guest workers’ who have to return to their countries one month a year, and do not want to become part of the society. The British model (which includes Spain) involves integrating immigrants into the society. The third model, which is the French model, ignores ethnic and religious differences and grants French nationality, but then fails to put into practice any mechanisms for integration.” As a result, he explains, “Immigrants, especially North Africans, have not become integrated into French society. They live in ghettos with unemployment rates of 30%, and they have become focal points of social instability.”


The Failure of the Integration System


These disturbances have not only harmed people and property. They have also revealed the integration policy of one of the developed world’s leading nations. Multiculturalism, in accordance with French ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, has been a failure.


Perhaps the most obvious proof lies in the fact that the immigrants live in ghettos on the periphery of Paris and other French cities. An estimated five million people, mostly from Africa and North Africa, live in the so-called “sensitive urban zones.” These veritable ghettos have become a breeding ground for poverty, drugs, high dropout rates, and unemployment rates that are sometimes twice the average national rates of 10 percent. Part of the problem is French housing policy, which has created, since the 1960s, buildings that are closed off from the rest of society. The government has made some effort to pull down the physical barriers that isolated these communities, but the effort does not appear to have worked.


In addition, France has been widely accused of failing to plan for the second and third generations of immigrants. They feel they’ve been abandoned because they cannot count on special programs for bringing them out of the ghettos. Religious policy, especially the prohibition against wearing the Islamic veil in schools, has also sowed seeds of discontent in the Islamic community.


For its part, the French government has tried to tackle the disturbances by using legal means such as the curfew to restore order, while also taking economic measures to pacify the population. From the outset of the violence, they have been talking about an economic and social stimulus plan for areas where marginality exists. According to El Mundo, the Spanish daily, this would include setting aside some €25 billion, of which €15 billion would be devoted to a ‘social integration’ plan. In addition, there would be tax relief for those companies that invest in those zones.


Despite such efforts, Guillén says there is no short-term solution. “France needs to reconsider its strategy for immigration and social integration. In addition, they should introduce programs for alleviating unemployment among young people.” For her part, González says that the problem can not be solved simply by increasing the amount of funds provided for the immigration problem. “That’s because part of what they are asking for is not something that you can pay for with money. French society, like any other society in Europe, has its own special way of life that resists bringing in other ways of life from outside, which people don’t want. For their part, immigrants want to reproduce [in Europe] the same values as in their own cultures; that’s what they’re asking for.”


Neither is Fatás very optimistic about a solution. “There are no magic recipes for solving this conflict,” he says. “The solution does not lie transferring something [to the immigrants], but in integrating the immigrants. But when there are differences in culture, religion and so forth, integration becomes difficult or even impossible,” he adds.


The Impact on Politics and the Economy


In one respect, the revolts have had a positive impact. They have spawned a genuine political debate about integration in France. Interior Minister Sarkozy has a more philosophical view of the problem than Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, his rival for the presidency. Sarkozy wants to combine a hard line against Islamic extremism with the adoption of measures that are similar to the U.S. policy of “affirmative action,” in order to facilitate the integration of ethnic minorities into the ruling class. Analysts say this policy shocks traditionalists such as Chirac and Villepin, who defend the French concept of individual equality.


Beyond that debate, it is quite possible that the outcome of the revolt will determine who succeeds Jacques Chirac as the next president. Some polls show that Villepin and Chirac have increased their popularity despite the crisis. According to other polls, which measure public confidence in the rival politicians’ ability to resolve the conflict, support for Sarkozy is one percentage point higher than that for Villepin. However, most experts believe that the government is not doing a good job. Fatás sums things up this way: “In the French government, there is a struggle between the ‘hard’ wing (who want to tackle the problem through police measures), and the ‘social’ wing, who want to talk about these social problems with an awareness that, politically, social discourse in France is always necessary. This ambiguity is always a factor in French governments (whether they are rightist or leftist), and it creates an unstable situation where these kinds of moves are possible.”


Guillén adds, “For years, we’ve seen that the French ruling class – which was raised in the ‘grandes écoles’ – works at reproducing itself, rather than for the good of the population. France has enormous problems (unemployment, slow growth, and companies that are barely competitive), but it is also a country that has resources, both tangible and intangible. It also has a very well-educated population.” He adds that it remains to be seen how many government officials wind up resigning or being dismissed [as a result of this crisis].


González has no doubt that the revolts will take a toll on all French politicians. “You have to remember that the French electorate can take a bold position, and it has provided a surprise on more than one occasion (remember the French ‘no’ in the referendum on the Constitutional Treaty). Liberty, equality and fraternity; but if there is no violence, that’s even better!”


According to most analysts, the French revolts will have only a minimal impact on the French economy, and on the European economy. However, Fatás emphasizes that this will depend on how long the conflict continues. The violence could wind up costing European insurance companies about 200 million euros. Of that total, some 20 million euros will be used to pay for [destroyed] cars, according to France’s association of insurance companies. In addition, some members of the European media believe that the disturbances could be a factor in the euro’s recent slight decline. However, Guillén doesn’t agree. “The euro is falling because interest rates are rising in the United States, not because of the disturbances,” he says.


Nevertheless, the revolt could mark a turning point in the European attitude toward immigration, and Turkey’s controversial effort to enter the European Union. In October, the EU and Turkey reached an agreement to negotiate the entry of that country into Europe, which currently has 25 member-states. Some countries favor admitting this Muslim country of 70 million people into the EU, with full rights. However, others would prefer to grant Turkey a lesser status.


Fatás has no doubt that the disturbances “are going to lead to a worsening in the attitude that [EU] citizens have toward immigration and about Turkey.” Guillén agrees, and adds, “Public opinion is carried away by the events of the day. It would be a disaster if this affected Turkey, which is a country that will deserve to enter the EU within a decade, more or less.”


The Contagious Crisis


The other EU member states are not hiding their concern that the wave of violence could spread beyond France’s borders. There have already been some disturbances in cities in Belgium, Germany and Portugal. Two risk factors are a concentration of immigrants in specific cities, and high unemployment rates. According to Guillén, countries like Belgium, Germany and Italy should be more concerned about such disturbances than Spain, which does not have a large concentration of immigrants in specific locations.


Nevertheless, Guillén warns that the central district of Madrid is already approaching the danger point. To prevent a similar situation from occurring in Spain, Guillén says, “You have to guarantee that people have access to services, and that they do not become a center of unemployment.”  So long as the Spanish economy continues to grow by 3% to 4%, “it will be easy to absorb the immigration. But there could be problems if the economy does not grow.” In addition, Fatás believes that the same conditions do not exist in Spain as in France, “because there is no tradition of these kinds of violent acts.”


In addition, while the French immigrants who play a major role in these disturbances are from the second and third generation, Spain’s immigrant community comes from the first generation. In addition, the majority are from Latin America, so they have a language, culture and religion that make it easier for them to adapt [to Spain]. Moreover, only a few months ago, the government enacted the large-scale regulation of immigrations, which will mean that they are not marginalized by the government. Nevertheless, experts recommend that Spain pay careful attention to the events in France, and enact integration plans that do not marginalize its immigrants. In the absence of such plans, the necessary conditions for similar acts of violence could gradually be created in years to come.

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