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November 14, 2005

the new sans-culottes

Some French intellectuals really believe it. They are convinced that the Arab and African youth who are rioting in their suburbs are completely French, totally committed to the traditional ideology of the French leftist working class, which includes the great republican trinity of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Culture, race, and religion are irrelevant, although certain ancient French values inspire the immigrant youth. What we see in France are young citoyens taking to the barricades to defend the Rights of Man against Anglo-Saxon inequality and cultural separatism.

See, for example, this priceless interview that I translate from yesterday's Le Monde:

Emmanuel Todd (historian and demographer): But I see nothing in the events themselves that radically distinguishes the children of immigrants from the rest of French society. I see exactly the opposite. I interpret the events as a rejection of marginalization. None of this could have happened if the children of immigrants hadn't embraced a few of the fundamental values of French society, such as, for instance, the dyad of liberty-equality. Among other actors--the police led by the government, the local authorities, the non-immigrant population--I have seen maybe some exasperation, but no wholesale rejection.

Q: You want to say that the youth are revolting because they have accepted the republican model and believe that it doesn't work?

Todd: Exactly. I read their revolt as the hope of equality. French society is wrought by the rise of inegalitarian values that touch the whole developed world. Well enough accepted in the United States, where its only political effect is the rise of neoconservatism, this global inegalitarian tendency goes over badly in France. It collides with an egalitarian anthropological value that has been at the heart of peasant family structures in the Parisian basin. That substrate, which rose up in the 17th century or earlier still, is not found among the English peasantry, for whom the inheritance of land was unequal.

When you are at the top of the society, you can get used to this inegalitarian trend, even if it is against your principles; that is not too uncomfortable. In contrast, the popular center and middle classes take it very badly. They give votes to the [National Front Party of Le Pen], which has an egalitarian component, with its ability to say shit to the elites, and an inegalitarian component, with its tendency to look below for a scapegoat, in the immigrants.

These kids from the suburbs, from African or Maghreb origins, they are not at all in the same situation as the Pakistanis of England or the Turks of Germany. For the daughters of Algerians [in France], the rate of mixed marriages hovered at the beginning of the 1990s at around 25%, when it was at one percent for the daughters of Turks [in Germany] and infinitesimal for the daughters of Pakistanis [in Britain]. The simple ethnic mixture of bands of youth in France is inconceivable in Anglo-Saxon countries. Obviously, I'm not meaning to give an idyllic vision of the France of 1789, which put to work the national republicans' dream with its assumption of a Universal Man.

The last sentence protests too much: M. Todd does indeed see the present in terms of 1789. His bare facts appear to be correct. For example, I checked the inter-marriage rates among Pakistanis in Britain and found (somewhat to my surprise) that they are as low as Todd claims. (See pdf, p. 15) However, it seems wrong almost to the point of lunacy to claim that immigrant youth in Paris are influenced by the 17th century peasant culture of the same region. Todd wants to combine a passionate French nationalism with an anti-racist and universalist ideology. Thus he claims that anyone born in the Ile-de-France, regardless of color or creed, is essentially French and thus morally superior to the perfidious Anglo-Saxons with their tolerance of inequality. If the rioters are classic Frenchmen, no wonder the police fundamentally accept them; no wonder they intermarry at high rates.

Some grounds for skepticism: (1) France has not been notably egalitarian in modern times. As measured by GINI coefficients, France is less equal than Japan, Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Spain, and only slightly more so than Britain. (2) The "global inegalitarian trend" reflects enthusiasm for liberty. Liberty is always in tension with equality. Indeed, the French revolutionaries of 1789 were profoundly committed to free markets and private property--values that they tried to export to the whole world. "Neoconservatism" is not alien to France. (3) Notwithstanding the low intermarriage rates among British Pakistanis, "ethnic mixing" is very common in London and New York--at least as evident as in Paris. (4) Despite Todd's fondest hopes, race, religion, and culture surely matter to young Moslems of color--and to French police officers and local authorities. Embracing the rioters as the authentic heirs of 1789 is touching, but I don't think it has much to do with reality.

Posted by peterlevine at November 14, 2005 08:45 AM

Comments

Thanks for that insight.

Posted by: airth10 [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 14, 2005 10:39 AM

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