French nationalism and the Paris riots

No doubt most of you are aware that Muslim youths have been rioting in Paris, nightly, for nearly two weeks now. A 61-year-old man was beaten to death. A woman in her 50s, on crutches, was doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire. The rioters are burning more than 1,000 cars per night.

I would like to draw a connection between the riots in Paris and an event here in Canada ten years ago.

1995 referendumOn October 30, 1995, residents of Quebec nearly voted to separate from Canada. According to Wikipedia, the final vote was 50.58% against to 49.42% in favour of separation. English Canadians watched the returns with our hearts in our throats:  we had no say in the decision as our nation was very nearly torn in two.

But what is the connection between this event and the riots in Paris? The answer is, French nationalism.

Someone who was being interviewed on CBC radio tried to explain the alienation of the Muslim youths who are rioting nightly in Paris. He said that the majority of the population does not regard them as “really” French. Even Muslims who were born in France are up against that prejudice.

When I heard those comments, I thought of the 1995 referendum.

Let me step back and provide a little historical context. There was a time when the Francophone population of Quebec had good reason to resent English Canada. Mordecai Richler explains,

[French Canadians] can recall when they weren’t welcome in the higher reaches of Quebec’s leading law firms, brokerage houses or banks. In 1961 French Canadians, though they made up something like a third of Canada’s then population of nineteen million, held somewhat less than fifteen percent of responsible federal jobs. A survey showed that while four fifths of the directors of 183 major companies in Canada, were Canadian born, less than 7% of these positions were held by French Canadians.

But those days are long past. The sea change began in the early 1960s with the Quiet Revolution, which profoundly redefined the role of Quebec, and Quebeckers, within Confederation. Quebeckers have assumed their rightful place in the boardrooms of the nation and at the highest echelons of government. It is often pointed out that Canada’s Prime Minister has come from Quebec for 32 of the past 33 years.

Thus it is hard to understand Francophone Quebeckers’ continuing alienation. At a time when the United Nations repeatedly chose Canada as the best nation on earth in which to live, Quebeckers seriously considered leaving Canada to found a separate nation.

The impulse is attributable to French nationalism.

When the result of the 1995 referendum was clear, the leader of the separatist cause offered an infamous explanation of the result. Then Premier Jacques Parizeau said:

Let’s stop talking about the francophones of Quebec. Let’s talk about us. Sixty per cent of us have voted in favour.

We need to pause here just for a moment. Who is the “us” to whom M. Parizeau refers? The answer is, “real” Quebeckers. These folk sometimes identify themselves as pur laine (pure wool) Quebeckers — those whose ancestors came from France and who settled in Quebec many generations ago.

M. Parizeau was dividing Quebec voters into “us” and “them”. They may be francophones insofar as they speak French, but they are not to be mistaken for us. He continued:

… It’s true we have been defeated, but basically by what? By money and the ethnic vote. All it means is that in the next round [i.e., the next referendum], instead of us being 60 or 61 per cent in favour, we’ll be 63 or 64 per cent.

This notorious phrase, “money and the ethnic vote”, continues to resound ten years later. It is true that allophones (those whose first language is neither French nor English) voted against separation en masse (see the Wikipedia article sited above). But all residents of Quebec were entitled to participate in determining their fate. M. Parizeau’s remarks suggest that he bitterly resented allophones for scuppering his pet project.

Paris burnsNow let us return to those Muslim youths in Paris — the ones who doubt they are accepted as “really” French. Is this scenario plausible? I think so.

By no means do I condone the rioting in Paris. All around the world, Muslims are responsible for acts of violence and the murder of civilians, just as we are now seeing in France. Evidence continues to mount that there is something in contemporary Muslim culture which lends itself to such acts.

But surely we should still consider whether the Muslim youths of France have just cause to feel alienated. Timothy Smith, described as a specialist in French history, offers this opinion:

Whereas Toronto has small pockets of self-segregated ethnic communities (which tend to disperse over a generation or two), Paris has entire suburbs, with hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in almost complete isolation from the mainstream, decade after decade.

The French government refuses to recognize ethnic communities as legitimate actors — it would prefer that they simply disappear quietly into the mainstream. North Africans are expected to jettison all their cultural and religious baggage at the border, and pretend that their ancestors are the Gauls. Multiculturalism is dismissed as a dangerous Anglo-Saxon import. … The French believe that multiculturalism would only privilege individuals by association with their ethnic, religious or racial roots.

Smith believes that France could learn a thing or two from Canada’s example:

There is no such concept as Algerian French. By contrast, one can be Chinese Canadian and still be considered a full citizen. Before immigrants to Canada become equal in the economic sense, their culture is already considered equal in the theoretical sense. The one helps lead to the other. …

Most Canadians see immigrants in a positive light — they add diversity to the cultural scene, they spice up our cuisine, they make important economic contributions, they will help pay for the boomers’ pensions. …

Obviously, racism exists in Canada, but where is the equivalent of France’s unabashedly xenophobic National Front party, which received 5.5 million votes in 2002? Which political party in Canada is led by a man who plasters city walls with election posters vowing: “When he [this leader] comes, they [the immigrants] are going?”

Even in Quebec, multiculturalism has been embraced as a social good. Jacques Parizeau’s offensive remarks on the night of the 1995 referendum marked a high-water mark in bitterness directed toward “ethnics”. The new generation of separatist leaders actively courts the allophone vote. They hope to hold another referendum some day, and they want immigrants to feel that there is a place for them in an independent Quebec.

France can, indeed, learn a few lessons from Canada’s example. The article by Timothy Smith concludes:

Amazingly, there isn’t a single member of the National Assembly from mainland France who is a visible minority, even as 9 per cent to 10 per cent of the population is Muslim. If there were one such politician, perhaps he or she could visit the suburbs and deliver a message of hope.
Advertisements

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mrs.Aginoth
    Nov 09, 2005 @ 04:32:00

    Very well put Q. I have been trying to explain that the French riots are not “islamofascist imperialism” but socioeconomic uprisings on a number of US blogs, without success.

    There is no doubt in my mind that the fact that the rioters are (mostly) muslim is completely irrelevent to the cause of the riots.

    The French Nationalism & abhorrance of anything that smacks of religion in secular society was bound to reach breaking point at some time – we went through similar riots in the 70’s in the UK as the carribean community looked for equality in opportunities, working conditions and public treatment.

    However, we were able to calm the situation with a)new laws making it illegal to discriminate & b)a large number of individuals & families who had assimilated into the British communities.

    France is in a different situation, as they already have anti-discrimination laws, but the culture has not changed & they deliberately house all immigrants in enormous estates, rather than letting them disperse & mingle.

    I don’t know what the solution there is, but it is going to be a long process.

    I think you are right that French Nationalism is a problem, as they see any new culture/language/customs as “weakening” their French identity, rather than as bringing new impetus to the country. and it is that culture that needs to be changed.

    Reply

  2. raydada
    Nov 09, 2005 @ 04:53:00

    Paris riots. LA riots. Here in the Southern Hemisphere we’ve had the aboriginal youth impaled on picket fence after being chased by the cops. the French have been asking for this for years. When you ignore open wounds. They fester and infect.

    Reply

  3. CyberKitten
    Nov 09, 2005 @ 07:16:00

    Reply

  4. Aginoth
    Nov 09, 2005 @ 08:27:00

    Not much more to add to what Mrs.A said, we are of one mind.

    It’s all down to teh inability of the French to accept ethnic diversity as a strengthening influence, and they’re continued treatment of immigrants as second class citizens.

    Heard a former algerian immigrant to France interviewed this morning…this was the gist of it…“We were welcomed to France with promises of a better life, but the French reject us as not French, I have lived here for 25 years, I am a French citizen, I have a French Passport, I pay my Taxes; but the France born French will not even speak to me, let alone accept me!”

    Reply

  5. Q
    Nov 09, 2005 @ 09:11:00

    Cyberkitten:
    Thanks for the link. It provides a lot of historical illumination. Here’s an excerpt, but it is well worth reading in its entirety:

    “The first week in December will mark the 22nd anniversary of the Marche des Beurs (Beur means Arab in French slang). I was present to see the cortege of 100,000 arrive in Paris — it was the Franco-Arab equivalent of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice.

    “The Marche des Beurs was organized from Lyon’s horrific, enormous suburban high-rise ghetto, Les Minguettes … and its central theme was the demand to be recognized as French “comme les autres” — like everyone else … a demand, in sum, for complete integration. But for the mass of Franco-Arabs, little has changed since 1983 — and the integrationist movement of “jeunes beurs” created around that march petered out in frustration and despair as the dream of integration failed. In recent years, its place has been taken by Islamist fundamentalists operating through local mosques. …

    “But the current rebellion has little to do with Islamic fundamentalism. It is the anguished scream of a lost generation in search of an identity, children caught between two cultures and belonging to neither — a rebellion of kids who, born in France and often speaking little Arabic, don’t know the country where their parents were born, but who feel excluded, marginalized and invisible in the country in which they live.”

    Q

    Reply

  6. Stalker
    Nov 09, 2005 @ 09:36:00

    Reply

  7. CyberKitten
    Nov 09, 2005 @ 10:37:00

    Q said: Cyberkitten:
    Thanks for the link. It provides a lot of historical illumination.

    I only managed to skim it (being at work) but thought it very relevant to the discussion here.

    I think its the turn of the French to realise that people will only take so much. After years of discrimination & oppression people – normally the young men of a particular community – will turn around and burn the city to the ground.

    The French Authorities have yet to learn that harsher treatment will not have the desired effect of quelling the disturbences…

    Reply

  8. Carolyn
    Nov 09, 2005 @ 11:10:00

    Very well said. I agree with Mrs. A as well. After reading the blog entry, I asked a co-worker if he’d been following the news about it. He hadn’t, and so I told him about it and we discussed the reasons, and the similarities in other countries, as well as the US (he happens to be African American and relates to not being considered American by fellow Americans).

    When you have a large population that’s not given opportunities to grow socioeconomically, and treated like crap, of course everything comes to a head.

    In France, they claim they don’t have racial hate crimes…that’s because on crime reports, whether a victim is North African French or French…they’re labeled as French. Every crime in France is Frech on French. They allow the privelege of being French when it’s advantageous to the nation, not the citizens.

    I’m not in favor of any sort of violence, but I’m also embarassed by apathy (especially in the US). They have a point they’re trying to get across, but they’ve not been given the voice to say it. This is clearly frustration boiling over.

    Reply

  9. Jack's Shack
    Nov 09, 2005 @ 11:44:00

    I am not totally convinced one way or another. I thought that this blogger had a good post about it.

    I also found Daniel Pipes commentary to be interesting too.

    At this point I do not buy the argument that this is simply a socioeconomic uprising there are too many tics to just accept that, but I grant that I am not convinced that it is a Muslim uprising either.

    I suspect that it is a blend of the two.

    Did I do a good job of straddling the fence. 😉

    Reply

  10. Q
    Nov 09, 2005 @ 12:47:00

    Jack:
    I think the difficulty is that we’re talking about a mob. The large mass undoubtedly breaks down into sub-groups (not to say “gangs”, necessarily) who will vary in their motives. Some individuals may just think it’s fun to set fire to stuff and get away with it.

    But I do think we have to ask the question, Is this another case of Islam v. the West, or is it something else?

    I found Mr. Pipes’ analysis unpersuasive. I think he’s making assertions without providing evidence to support them. For example, he says, “indigenous Muslims of northwestern Europe have in the past year deployed three distinct forms of jihad”. But that begs the question. Are the riots in Paris a third form of jihad or is there another explanation?

    Mr. Pipes doesn’t make a case for his point of view. Whereas the other link you provide serves up evidence for the socio-economic interpretation:

    “The images of the rioters on the streets of Clichy show them sporting T-shirts labelled mort pour rien (died in vain). Now what could be more un-Islamic than that? No claiming of martyrdom or dozens of virgins here.

    “There are not the flags, the typical chanting and sloganizing of Islamism on the marches. It’s true that over the last months, many attacks have taken place on Jewish premises, including cemeteries.

    “But where today rioters are interviewed, they talk of the same types of grievance as articulated by race rioters of the sixties and seventies, of exclusion from jobs and harassment by the police.”

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some gangs of Muslim youths who lend a jihadist bent to the violence. But, viewing the riots as a whole, I think Carolyn describes it well: “This is clearly frustration boiling over.”
    Q

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: