I am back in France and have been staying for a month now. I left about 7-8 years ago and only came back a few days twice a year for season holidays to visit my parents. My contact with French politics was limited to following the news sporadically in the dailies, and I only kept ties with French culture by exploring eighteenth century literature and philosophy. I left partly because I felt ill-treated in France, partly because I felt I would not be able to achieve what I wanted to in a society I perceived as highly hierarchical, responding to authority, but yet constantly acting — in an immature way — against authority.
Coming back was a big shock. Things are even worse and more pronounced, I think than when I left. Or is it just because being in France I am also following the news through the radio and television? What I perceive is a society in crisis. Not only the recession and the economic crisis, which is now even worsened by the global financial crash, but also the whole society and its identity.
I read in the serious and trustworthy Le Monde about how the French police is perusing at a European conference about its solid techniques of repression and anti-riot tactics for the suburbs. The European neighbours applauded politely but off the records wondered about the necessity and efficiency of this kind of violence. Two days later a video was shown in the French media of policemen beating a young inhabitant of these suburbs who appears defenceless, and allegedly was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. A few days later, during a friendly football match between France and Tunisia, the French national anthem La Marseillaise was booed and whistled by supporters. Great demonstration of paternal protest ensued from the powers-that-be about these “imbeciles” who should “show respect to the national anthem and the players”; huge political tempest in a football glass.
The issue is that so many of these Frenchmen feel at odds with the French identity as displayed in mainstream media and by the authorities.
An excellent documentary “9-3 mémoire d’un territoire” (“9-3 memory of a territory”) investigates one of these “suburban area” that has so often been shown in the media as violence zone, one of these areas where two years ago rampage and riots occurred. The immigration from all the countries have accumulated there over a century. From the first Spanish and Italian workers brought to die in these poisonous and polluted death-factories established around Paris, to the North African and African ones brought to reconstruct France after World War II, parked in the sixties and seventies in the cheapest possible buildings, to the more recent Africans and inhabitants from former colonies lured into employment. Today this zone is disaffected by public authority, no school or any public infrastructure can be built on a polluted and poisonous ground, the youth is unemployed and rejected from the French education system, which only reproduce the same elite trained to pass special exams in the grandes écoles.
Le Monde was also presenting a series of investigations about integration in politics entitled “when a French Obama?”: in the French Parliament only 1MP out of 577 is black! 4 out of 343 senators are of Maghreb descent. 2000 out of 520,000 town-hall counsellors are representing diversity. In the government though, Rachida Dati, Rama Yade and Fadela Amara represent diversity. However, they seem to miss the point. Barack Obama is not a candidate for a minority. He is bot a black candidate to represent the African-American. In my view, he would not even be able to run for the presidency if he was. He is so successful because he has always held a speech about unity. He is a cosmopolitan candidate with multiple identities, in which everyone can recognise one’s own. This candidate was only possible in a country were, firstly, minorities could be recognise and gain access to higher education, social positions and political representations, and, secondly, multiethnicity and multiculturalism was so widespread that a new model of commonality and unity had to be imagined.
So is it really so hard to understand why some football supporters boo the Marseillaise? Is it really the appropriate response to display a paternalistic faked anger and indignation at the reality of a failed model of French integration? To show this withdrawal to nationalist symbols, which do not mean anything to anyone any more? These statesmen are hanging to symbols from the nineteenth century, as if our society was still living the glorious days of the coming industrial age, and necessitated a social cohesion based on a strong and rigorously monolithic national mass culture. On the other hand, people reject these symbols for this very same reason.
As if the “nation” ever meant a uni-dimensional view of culture. As if the Marseillaise was the anthem of a nationalistic and patriotic emotion that only the far-right and the conservatives had the courage to display publicly.
It seems to me that it is the whole French conception of the nation-state that needs to be dramatically re-investigated and thought anew. The nation is a common denominator for diversity, originally. In the early days of the French revolution it was the common concept to gather all free men as opposed to tyrants. By the same token, the patrie was this territory on which men were free and participating to public decisions. Seen this way, there is nothing “wrong” in being a nationalist or a patriot. It also allows a more open conception of society and identity. And after all it is only later that the concept of nation and patrie became “French”, or for that matter “British” or “German” etc: in the late eighteenth century in the history of ideas, and in the late nineteenth century for the deep roots in society.
This change of paradigm may sound aloof from realities. It is not. It matters because we enter progressively a change to a creative economy, in which growth is produced by the “creative industries”. And according to some social and economic theories, they can only thrive in towns and regions were tolerance, talent, and technology are encouraged. This means that a lot of money must be invested in the development of research and higher education, and that different education models than the one of the industrial age must be fostered. The goal is not to produce communicative elements in the society that must perform repetitive and des-individualised tasks such as writing “to whom it may concern” letters, but to produce individuals capable of functioning in opened and diverse societies, creative and talented, able to think for themselves rather than repeat what a rigid society needs them to repeat.
France is not on this path. Of course, some grandes écoles are breaching the taboo of “affirmative action” by recruiting young from these ethnically diverse suburbs. But it is a drop in the ocean. There are less PhD dissertations completed in France than in the UK and Germany. Worse, the rates are dropping while they are soaring in these countries. Budgets for research are not up to the levels they should be. France is not investing in the future. On top of this, elected officials are still functioning in the rhetoric of a Third Republic France with grandiose ideas of the French identity, values and symbols.
There is a need for a cosmopolitan state. This cosmopolitan state would reinterpret these national values and symbols, back to their pre-industrial liberal roots, in order to foster the creative economy. At the same time, there is a need to change the mentality that everyone should expect the state or public authorities to do everything. There is a need for more individualistic energy and initiatives. It is also the role of education to teach people not to wait for authority to regulate problems. This does not mean a minimalistic state, it means a responsible and mature population that does not just strike for any problem but efficiently communicate. It means a society based on more egalitarian principles. It means an education that values what people can accomplish according to their capacities. It means a society that respect human beings for what they can do and give the opportunity to accomplish their potential, instead of solely looking at what grande école one studied at and what hierarchical rank one occupies. Only a tolerant and flat based social model with an opened identity can flourish. This means that France must reinvent herself, and this path is best traced through re-investing in her revolutionary roots.