SOCIAL FRACTURE: The French Mirror of Britain

THE RIOTING in Clichy and in several other suburbs in France has stirred keen interest in Great Britain. There have been attempts to understand how “the French system of integration has failed”-the mirror image of what took place last summer when, following the bombing attacks in London, French commentators pointed to the incipient collapse of British multiculturalism. One is left with the impression that, on both sides of the Channel, an attempt is being made to put one’s own apprehensions to rest by scrutinizing the shortcomings of one’s neighbor.

The comparison between the two systems of integration is inoperative. The British model is neither better nor worse than the French. Both, drawing on their respective histories, cultures and psychologies, have over time developed specific integration mechanisms. Among them we can identify achievements and failures, which in turn can only be understood as a function of each country’s socio-political, economic and cultural particularities. Each possesses its own unique collective intelligence, and must draw on its political and collective creativity to resolve crises. The present crisis commands our attention because it points to the way certain similarities, formulated as government policy or publicdebate, have fuelled social, cultural and religious tensions in both countries-as they have elsewhere in Europe.

But beneath everything else lurks the question of Islam, and the integration of Muslims. Whether dealing with issues related to secularism or to identity, analysts and politicians seem obsessed with the idea that Islam itself is the problem. Muslims cannot be truly European, they suggest, raising fears that Islam may prove to be a threat to public order. We are facing a case of political brinkmanship, a dangerous strategy that attempts to turn such fears to shortterm electoral advantage, using arguments that were once restricted to parties of the extreme right: the security psychosis, so-called national preference, and policies of discrimination that, in the public mind, become confounded with the question of immigration.
The constant references to integration and identity reveals two phenomena. On the one hand, there is a chronic inability to hear those Muslim voices that for years have been asserting that Islam is not the problem, and that millions of Muslims have embraced perfectly well their status as Europeans, Muslims and democrats. And on the other hand, far more acutely than we realize, both the Left and the Right suffer from lack of the political resolve needed to engage pressing social issues. Perpetuating fear to win votes is easier than presenting courageous social and educational policies.

A study of street-level realities in France and Britain reveals, far from the false debates, startling similarities. Whether along ethnic or economic lines, the two models have put in place veritable ghettos. In the Anglo-Saxon system, the nature of ethno-social relations tends to regulate interpersonal relations within the “imported communities” themselves. Less social violence is the result. Nonetheless, these communities remain isolated, rarely mingling with one another. The French big city suburbs, as well as the rich residential areas, are true social and economic ghettos. In France, political discourse recoils in horror from “religious communitarianism,” but it is unable to grasp that another form of “communitarianism,” socio-economic this time, is fragmenting and undermining society. It is a fact that proportionally. Blacks, Arabs and Muslims are the least well-off citizens, the most marginalized. What Great Britain has de facto established ethnically, France has put in place via the wallet.

The extent to which both models draw upon and promote xenophobic concepts cannot be overstated. Wc must confront our own racism. In our atomized societies, Asians, Turks, Arabs and Blacks are described in terms inspired by xenophobia; discriminatory housing and employment policies are nothing more than institutionalized racism. Certainly the causes are many, ranging from fear to ignorance, but the facts are in-they demand a pro-active educational and civic policy.

Social, and not religious concerns lie at the heart of the debate. To counteract the trend toward ghettoization and racism, we must develop a new sense of political creativity-one that dares to take risks. High-priority commitments are called for in several key areas. The first is education: school curricula have little or nothing to say about the history and the traditions of those who make up today’s society. If the official curriculum does not recognize the parents’ contribution, how can we pretend that it respects their children? Worse, the public ghetto-schools that should be working to reduce inequality are compounding it. Instead of creating anxiety about private religious schools, which affect less than one percent of the populations concerned, would it not be more sensible to call for the reform of a public school system that generates growing inequality among citizens on a daily basis?

A second priority is the fight against unemployment and discrimination in the labor market. In almost all European countries, unemployment rates among citizens of “immigrant origin” are far higher than among “native-born” citizens. It is of the highest importance to provide equal access to the labor market, and to end all reference to citizens’ “immigrant origin.” Instead of purely symbolic actions, governments should act to establish just and equitable employment standards and penalize racial discrimination in both the public and private spheres.

The third area of concern is housing and urban policy. The issue is a complex one: local authorities rarely dare to challenge the communitarian reflexes of the wealthy and/or the ethnic communities. Yet the objective of greater social intermingling can only be attained through the kind of firm, political commitment that is prepared to confront selfprotective and sectarian reflexes head on.

Such policies are unpopular. Political parties are reluctant to adopt and promote them. But the future demands that we make them our objective, far removed from the “upcoming election syndrome” and the insidious whispers of fear. We must launch national movements that crystallize grass-roots initiatives promoting civic education and participatory democracy, focused on local projects that bring together, in the name of the common good, citizens from varied historical, social, religious and ethnic backgrounds. Confidence must be restored: in ourselves and in our neighbors, along with self-respect and respect for our neighbors.

Such measures cannot wait. They must be combined with policies that ensure public security. But such policies will be futile if they are not part of an approach that is at once wideranging and courageous. No such policies are taking shape around us, either on the Right or the Left. Those who consider themselves French or British are now being told that they are, first and foremost, Arabs, Asians, or Muslims. How can individuals who have been socially and/or psychologically swept to the margins of society avoid being attracted by the voices of literalism and radicalism? “You have been rejected because of who you are,” they whisper. “There is no other path for you than that of the collision of identities and the clash of civilizations.”

We have now alas come full circle: the constant reference to Islam and integration has pushed real problems aside, and given ammunition to those who, on the Muslims’ side, would “Islamizc” every problem. On the other side, they lend credence to the idea of an inevitable conflict with Islam. Trapped in a debate as impassioned as it is sterile about “who is French” and “who is British,” we can no longer hear the legitimate social demands of citizens who are nowFrench or British in full. Their violent reaction, employing illegitimate means, is unfortunately understandable against the deafness of authority. Now, by creating a false debate on integration to avoid the real debate that must take placethat of equal opportunity and the sharing of power-we are reaping what some seem to have sought all along to sow: to stigmatize people’s sense of belonging, to fan the flames of fear, and to monopolize and perpetuate their power, symbolic as well as economic and political. Share they must, however-this is the lesson history will teach them.

  • Most Viewed This Week on TIM

  • Latest comments on TIM

  • About the autor

    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

    Latest at tim

    See our Current issue

    Join our Newsletter

    Enter your e-mail address below to receive periodic updates from The Islamic Monthly.

  • Follow us on


    Comments are closed