Saturday, January 10, 2015

France's Integration Problem

A correspondent of mine stated this morning that the recent terror attacks demonstrated that France had "spectacularly failed" to resolve its integration problem.

Here is my reponse:

How do we judge relative success and failure of integration? Have we been spectacularly successful in the US in integrating African-Americans (who have been here longer than most of us but still face challenges all their own)? The French journalist Jean Quatremer pointed out this morning that because France doesn't keep ethnic/racial statistics, we don't know how many Muslims serve in the French military and police, but we do know that they are "spectacularly" overrepresented. They are also well represented in the state bureaucracy. These institutions (at least the military and bureaucracy, not so much the police) were, despite the Dreyfus Affair, the royal road to Jewish assimilation in France, as Pierre Birnbaum has shown. They seem to be working for Muslims as well.

In another broadcast from France this morning, Alain Finkielkraut, Alain Duhamel, and Eric Zemmour discussed the integration issue. Finkielkraut and Zemmour are often classed these days as "neo-reactionaries" if not "neo-fascists," but they're worth listening to, because they are representative of a substantial body of thinking. They would agree with my correspondent that there has been a "spectacular failure of integration," which they attribute to a failure of the school system in the wake of "massification of education." Another word for this might be "democratization" of education. The Third Republic in particular vaunted the schools as the primary integrating institution, not just for foreigners but for the native-born, who needed to be turned into good republicans ("peasants into Frenchmen," as Eugen Weber put it). But education in the Third Republic was narrowly based and highly elitist. It did provide upward mobility for a very select group of talented pupils but did little for the rest. For Finkielkraut and Zemmour, the problem is that the French schools, because of "massification,," have abandoned the old system's emphasis on "la culture classique" and instead of inculcating Racine and La Rochefoucauld try to meet students half-way on their own turf, thus opening the door to the horrors of American multiculturalism, which for them is the root of all evil, or at any rate the opposite of the French monoculturalism they prefer. To me, "back to Racine" does not hold out much promise for integrating the disaffected, however.

What about today's terrorists? The Kouachi brothers, it seems, although born in the 10th Arr. of Paris, were educated in the countryside in a school run by a foundation to help children of immigrants find their way (if I remember correctly what I heard; I have no printed source for this, so it may be inaccurate). They fit in well, according to those who remember them. But when they returned to Paris they fell under the influence of an "unlicensed" Islamic preacher cum criminal with a bit of flair. Eventually they wound up in Yemen, where they were indoctrinated by an American-born radical who taught them that Americans were out to exterminate Muslims in Iraq. That message had nothing to do with conditions in France. Their alienation seems to have derived from an interpretation of geopolitics rather than a "spectacular failure" in France.

I would be the last to deny that France has an integration problem. But what exactly should it be doing to resolve it? Earlier generations of immigrants in other countries also at times succumbed to violence related to the geopolitical situation, as any reader of Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent or Henry James' Princess Cassamassima will recall. I'm sure I suffer from having gone a bit native on the French view of things, and I do recognize the specific difficulties of integration stemming from France's colonial past, but are French integration problems really so different from the problems of other countries in this regard? What is "spectacular" about France's failure, other than the fact that it issued in a spectacular display of violence?


FrédéricLN said...

My 2 eurocents: "are French integration problems really so different from the problems of other countries in this regard?" No.

Are the expectations of many French people regarding integration, different from expectations in other countries? Yes. One of key French "Republican" values that is shared by a broad majority nowadays is "laïcité", including the idea that (civil) law, including customs in some respect (as far as they express deeply share values — see the interdiction of hiding one's face), has higher rank than religious laws.

For example, during the debate on "mariage pour tous", there was a discussion about a "clause de conscience" allowing deputy mayors to avoid marrying people of the same sex —meaning that another deputy mayor would be in charge that day, i.e. the two persons would be married in any case. President Hollande expressed that suggestion. There has been almost unanimity to reject it. Maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of people were against same-sex marriage, many of them with religious background (Christians, Muslims…); but everybody agreed that when the law would enforce them, each mayor should celebrate them.

The issue here is: there is widespread fear that, for may Muslims in France (meaning, 5000? 50000? 500000? it's about fear, not about numbers…), charia should be enforced even where it is in contradiction with French law. Meaning, using charia-authorized violence against enemies of religion, is legitimate.

Re the substance, that is not se different from the debates about violence in extreme-left circles in the early 70's, I guess.

The naming "integration" is new and relates, imho, to this expectation and understanding of laïcité.

FrédéricLN said...

"for may Muslims in France" ->Please read "according to many Muslims in France"

brent said...

You open up a really important topic here, and the fact of 'spectacular overrepresentation' of Muslims in the armed services and police is a crucial datum. By their nature, though, the 'successes' of integration dissolve into the whole; it's the failures one has to worry about. As a complete outsider, trying to learn more about the third gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, I found my way to a description of Grande-Borne/Grigny, where he spent much of his life and was seen shortly before the attacks. What a nightmare! Particularly the descriptions in this blog entry
depict a failure of integration so massive one wonders how any menu of services or strategies might address it. I don't know how many such cités exist, or if this one is fairly described. Certainly some American ghettos have been described similarly--the author even refers to Grande-Borne as France's South Bronx. But (and this may be a crucial difference) the intersection of such a large, desperate community with the seductive, apocalyptic rhetoric of the global Islamist/Jihadi movement you cite, may be exceptionally volatile--a whole new chapter in the history of failed integration.

Art Goldhammer said...

Brent, Of course I'm aware of examples like the one you cite. I posted on Facebook the rather alarming testimony of a teacher in Grenoble, some of whose 12-yr-old students refused to observe the minute of silence in honor of the victims. Le Monde ran a similar article. But you and I could both cite many places in the US where similar disaffection is likely to be found: in addition to the South Bronx you mention, East Baltimore, parts of Chicago, South L. A., St. Louis county, etc. My point is that degrees of relative failure are hard to evaluate, and the perception of the French situation is exacerbated by the geopolitical complication. I'm not trying to exonerate France; I'm trying to bring its problems into clear focus.

Anonymous said...

Statistics from the DEPP show that for the child of immigrant parents to get to a "bac général" (~go to college - the bac général is the highest-level one, similar to an all-AP/Honors program in the US, and the "bac" that is most conducive to college success) the odds are 6%.
If in the US, one said "the odds of Latinos" (or African Americans or South Asians or first gen kids) are 6% they'll get into college", there'd be an outcry. At this level, it's either admitting one group is dumber and lazier than average (which some do, in France at least, perhaps similarly in the US?), or admitting there's a huge systemic problem.
That's not relative failure. That's abysmal failure.
Now, add to this the fact France pretends to be the country of equality and the number sounds even worse.
(Disadvantaged kids are disadvantaged educationally everywhere. That much? I doubt it.)
None of this explains terrorism, certainly, as indeed the SOuth Bronx would have sprouted many terrorists too. Except isn't gang war a form of internal terrorism (narcoterrorism exists, after all, and the training of youngsters for Daesh can probably be studied so as to compare it to the training of youngsters for gangs...) - not a rhetorical question.

Anonymous said...

I agree "back to Racine" would solve absolutely nothing - not to mention even kids with strong academic skills struggle reading Racine at age 15 or 16, so not sure how making it part of the regular 13 year old's curriculum would help.

I also agree the failure may not be "spectacular", but representation of "intégration" can best be seen in Plus Belle La Vie, rather than in the really bad French productions such as Joséphine Ange Gardien to excellent ones such as Fais pas ci Fais pas ça or Petits Crimes. Representations are what they were in the US circa 1990 (I think.)
Art, do you watch Plus Belle La Vie? Ever watch TF1? F2? In Prime Time?

Art Goldhammer said...

Anonymous 1: have to look at comparable US stats controlling for income, not much better I expect
Anonymous 2: Yes, I have watched Plus belle la vie and similar shows. I think they deliberately paint rather too rosy a picture of interracial harmony: the formerly "racist" cop Bauer (sp?) gets it on with the fetching Beurette cop Samia, etc. But I agree that watching the signs from pop culture is one indication of a society's idealized norms.

Olivier BORRAZ said...


Although I agree it would be too simple to suggest that France's integration problem is a central explanation to the tragedy of these last few days, and although France is clearly not the only country with an integration problem, I believe that if we do not look seriously at the social dimensions and instead focus on wider geopolitical issues, questions of freedom of the press, or religious motives, then we miss the thick description.

All three assassins were French and all three are a product of the French educational, social, political and economic system. They are the product of a school system that produces every year thousands of new "failures", kids who leave school without a diploma, and who don't even master fundamental basics in reading and maths. An elitist system designed to reproduce ruling elites that produces every year a mass of castaways. Who for many live in areas where unemployment levels are extremely high and where illegal activities are a dominant part of the economy. In neighborhoods that do not provide basic services to their populations. In towns that have been abandoned by the State in favor of a strategy of "containment", where we help those who can to get out but leave the others there. To the point where prison becomes a major institution of socialization, training futur criminals and now futur terrorists. If you add on top of that questions of integration, but more importantly the way we treat very badly the children of immigrants (for instance by calling them franco-Algerians, when they are in fact franco-French!), and the constant "symbolic violence" thrust against Muslims by the media, I find it surprising that there are not more tragedies like the one we just experienced! We have created the perfect conditions for what happened.

We need to make sense of these events, very much like the Norwegians had to make sense of the Anders Breivik massacre: how can affluent societies produce such monsters? And we must force ourselves to reject any psychological argument, or simply frame the problem as one of fundamentalism or terrorism.

As a Frenchman, hearing these last few days talk of "war", "a French 9/11", fight against terrorism and fundamentalism, I fear that we are missing the point and not questioning our own collective responsibility. And looking across Europe these last few weeks (Germany, Sweden, ...), I also believe that we are not the only ones who must engage in this effort.


Art Goldhammer said...

Olivier, Thanks for this corrective. Of course I agree with many of your points. I no doubt overstated my case because I think that many Americans have a distorted view of France as a society that has failed in every way, but I should be able to make that point without minimizing its actual failings, which you rightly highlight.

Art Goldhammer said...

This comment by a schoolteacher in Seine Saint-Denis about the reactions of her students is interesting and much more nuanced than the one from Grenoble I referenced the other day:

Art Goldhammer said...

This article by Olivier Roy is also relevant:

Swedish-Parisian said...

To Anonymous:
The stat you give that children of immigrants have 6% prob. to get a "bac general" is completely false. I suppose the stat comes from this DEEP document:

It says there (in table 5) that children of immigrants from Maghreb have 38& chance of getting bac general or techno (both of which give access to college) against 53.5% for "francais de souche". Granted, 7% of Maghreb immigrants will obtain "bac scientifique" (against 17% of non-immigrants), but a) this is much narrower than bac general (as it does not include bac L and bac ES) and b) this does not control for income, educational background, etc.

In short, what you've written is plain disinformation about the French education system.