Sunday, June 3, 2007

Voting, Not Rioting, and the Varieties of Voice

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of "guest blogs." The following post is from Cindy Skach, who teaches in the government department at Harvard and is currently in Paris doing research in the banlieues.

Argenteuil (Val-d’Oise), France. Polling booth, May 6, 2007, 11:35am. Author’s photo.

On October 25, 2005, Argenteuil made international headlines as the “tough” suburb of Paris where the then Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, reportedly referred to a group of local youth as “scum.” Two days later, in the equally “tough” neighborhood of Clichy-sous-Bois, two teenagers, fleeing police in a chase, were electrocuted as they hid in a power station. The so-called French riots of 2005 subsequently broke out after this combination of events.

My colleague, Robert Putnam, an expert on social capital and participatory democracy, published an op-ed in the Boston Globe last December that alluded to this social unrest. Contrasting what he saw as a “European” phenomenon with that of the US, Bob held the US’s immigrant society in high esteem. In the US, he claimed, immigrants waved flags to petition for inclusion, whereas European immigrants “torched cars to protest their exclusion from society.” Part of his explanation for this divergent practice was simply that, unlike in Europe, in the US “we’ve learned to live with overlapping identities.”

Leaving aside the historical complexity and variation, over time and space, among European member states’ immigration policies and practices, as detailed by experts such as Patrick Weil, two facts expose the problem with Bob’s analysis. First, the immigrants in the US rallying around the flag, prompting Putnam’s piece, were mostly illegal immigrants, whereas in France, many of those accused of participating in the violent events of 2005, were legal citizens of the Fifth Republic. Second, voting turnout rates for the 2007 French presidential election in these “tough” neighborhoods, many of them with a high percentage of the population from immigrant backgrounds, were extraordinarily high. Turnout for the first round of presidential elections this May in Argenteuil alone was 82%, a 17% increase from the 2002 elections.

Perhaps Albert Hirschman’s “exit/voice” theory is more informative here as a way of understanding differences in forms of participation among this population. Hirschman defined “exit” and “voice” as two contrasting responses members have available to them when they perceive a decline in benefits from the organization to which they belong. Exit involves leaving, physically or psychologically; voice involves articulating complaints in a variety of ways, including public protest and voting. The choice between the two is not always available, as possibilities of exit and of voice are conditioned by many factors, including access to resources, legal constraints, and historical legacies.

Places throughout France, such as Argenteuil, seem to show the continued relevance of Hirschman’s “hydraulic” model: deterioration in the quality of services provided by governments cumulates and generates pressure for discontent, which results in either exit or voice. But the more that this mounting pressure is unable to escape through exit, the more that is available to foment (many varieties of) voice.

For most legal immigrants in France, exit from the territory via migration, either back to their home country or to a third country, what we can term horizontal exit, is not an option. Moreover, immigrants are, by definition, people who have already used horizontal exit as a strategy. Exit from existing socio-economic circumstances, what we can term vertical exit, is path dependent in that this form of exit depends highly on how well previous decades of integration policy have offered immigrants and their children the resources necessary to improve their circumstances. With both horizontal and vertical exits closed off as options, varieties of “voice” remain immigrants’ only tool.

The point here is, of course, not to condone violence. Rather, the point, from the perspective of a social scientist, is to try to understand how history conditions the available choice set available for expressing discontent. The point is also to stress that in France, voice among the immigrant population has come not only in the form of violence, but in a variety of forms, the most recent one being the long-standing democratic demonstration of a desire to be “heard”: voting.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the picture. It makes the turnout number vivid and livens up the blog. Can you give the vote totals for the suburban districts? Did most of the new voters vote for Royal? Did non-ethnic voters in those districts show a backlash vote?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the nice comment and questions. You can find official results, down to the commune, here:

A breakdown of results according to "new" voters, ethnic and racial groups, etc, is, for a variety of reasons, difficult to find in France. Colleagues are working on this, and should I get some relevant data soon, I'll post it. Or perhaps another reader out there can do so for us...

Cindy Skach