France is on fire again, and whilst the world has come to see rioting and striking as a French recreation, ironically, bits of French identity are slowly going up in flames.

Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons



Can an Old France accept, absorb and reconcile with a New France?

In 2019, I published a book on Identity that was primarily inspired by my experiences in France. In the brief time I lived and worked there, I could feel the tensions between communities and identities.  Language, appearance, gender, and culture had already been turned into political tools. France’s make up had changed to the extent that streaks of black and shades of brown had begun to claim their share of public space. When I moved to the Czech Republic, the standing joke was that the French football team looked like an African team . That simple joke reveals the exclusion from society that coloured people face routinely. No matter which part of the world one lives in, colour plays into the hands of politicians, populists and patriots. The superficial association makes one part of a club or sadly excludes one from it; no domain is free from colour politics. Angry artists  in one part of the world were up in arms because they felt the Oscars were too white whilst others felt the French football team was too black.  Of course, a simple joke does not affect a robust society, but diversity in France is proving to be a failed experiment and it is weakening her from within. In order for any country to survive this scale of mass immigration there must be a strong existing culture, a high birth rate of the native population that helps the integration of new citizens in schools, and the will to integrate on the part of new comers. However, France’s high birth rate is largely due to her French population of immigrant origins, and they foster the values of a New France.


Integration or assimilation? Let’s call the whole thing off.


For my part, I am French of Indian origin and that is usually how I introduce myself in order to avoid puzzled pauses in the conversation or a follow up question on my ethnicity. I wasn’t born and bred in France and yet, I have always found myself comfortable with French values of assimilation. There are many like me of diverse origins who cherish the values of liberté égalité fraternité et laïcité. However, the challenge or opposition France faces today stems largely from a giant wave of a citizens successfully born on French soil and unsuccessfully assimilated into French values. Furthermore, they show no desire to uphold the values of an Old France. The primary reason remains the failure of the French Republic to bring its citizens into the fold. Schooling, society, and family have miserably failed in their respective roles.  France has an ancient history of assimilation and about one in four French have either Spanish, Italian or Portuguese roots. The harsh reality is that while Inter european assimilation has succeeded, extra European seems to have fared abysmally, leaving France badly fractured.



Whose France it is anyway?


In 2009 Nicolas Sarkozy organised a nation-wide debate on French identity titled, Qu’est-ce qu’être français?, meaning ‘What does it mean to be French?’  In the true spirit of debate, citizens from all walks of life were encouraged to express themselves, and soon all of France was plunged into the debates. Prominent French writers, philosophers, intellectuals and eloquent orators graced the nation-wide debate in community centres and television studios. At first, it seemed like a riveting exchange of ideas and much of it was thought-provoking. However, the healthy debates quickly turned into an anti-immigrant and more specifically, anti-Islam rant. The years of political correctness had kept a tight lid on the nation’s feelings, and when people finally got a chance to vent their frustrations on the threat to the French way of life, it was impossible to moderate the debates; they got so visceral that they had to be called off. Although it is not unusual for a nation to debate its changing cultural identity, it was unwise to pull the plug so abruptly because it left people without a sense of closure and exposed the clear divisions of identity. The debate might have ended but one thing was for certain  ̶  Islam was under a giant magnifying glass of suspicion.


Religion is long known to fall prey to divisive politics. One must remember that France’s distinct catholic nature was achieved with the mass slaughter of Protestants. True that was in the 16th  century, but one cannot deny that religion defines identity and still successfully stokes flames of divisions across the globe. France has struggled to remain laïque; the word implies secular but its history dates back to the law of 1905 which surgically separated Church and State. The rest of the world may call it secularism, but in France, we have a more subtle definition of the word ‘laïcité’. Until 1905, Catholicism was a dominant force in France, and the Church had the last word on matters from birth to burial. The Catholic Church heavily influenced almost every sphere of French society. Slowly but surely, the French Republic set herself free from the Church and its influence. The complete separation of Church and State was finally achieved in 1905. It remains one of the strongest pillars of French identity and is known as la Loi sur la Laïcité. For many, secular may mean separate and equal, but in French terms, it implies a separation of Church and State, and it calls upon its citizens to keep religion in their private spheres. The trouble is that this New France is driven by a culture where religion is interwoven into public life. France has got into debates on the place of Islam in French society, suffered horrific terrorist attacks, and the extreme ends of the political spectrum have capitalised on electoral gains.


In addition to the above divisions, France, like Britain is a rather class-conscious society. The vast majority of French immigration still comes from the poorer parts of Northern Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa and whilst some find their place in France, the rest retreat to their community life in the banlieue. Over 40 years of withdrawal into these zones has fostered and forged an alternative culture, narrative, and identity. 


This France is less-desired, less-known, less-appreciated, but sees herself as the New France and is at loggerheads with the Old France. This New France communicates with the Old France through violence. The irony is that perhaps the only virtue it shares with the Old France is violence.


 No justice no peace


When Nahel, a young lad of 17 known to the police for his numerous petty crimes, was shot dead by a policeman for repeatedly refusing to comply with police procedures, I expected the New France to riot.  A video captured the horrific scene and before we knew it, the mother of the deceased boy announced her battle cry from a motorbike. Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse, Lille and other cities saw buses burn, town halls attacked and public property looted and vandalised. For his part, President Macron has put it all  down to violent video games and further proved he is as incompetent on French soil as he is on the international scene. Recently, he tried to buy himself an invitation  for the BRICS summit in South Africa, but was politely shown the door, and we all remember his failed diplomacy with Putin before Russia invaded Ukraine.  Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the fiery leader of La France Insoumise, is the face of this New France. Almost 70% of French Muslims vote for his party and he blames the French authority and the Police for the death of Nahel. In 2016, Omar Sy, the famous actor, come out in support of Adama Traoré, a French black man who died in police custody on his own birthday. Adama had multiple criminal records and had been incarcerated. In fact he was accused of raping an inmate during his prison sentence, but yet, famous figures like Omar Sy came out in his defence. Their argument was and remains that France does not have the death penalty, but the Police is allowed extrajudicial killings. Writers, journalists, and social workers who support Jean-Luc Mélenchon point out that studies show that black men are 20 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the Police. The fact that the Police are in hot pursuit of criminals who act in unpredictable ways that endangers passers-by, which in turn leads to undesirable deaths is not of any relevance for the New France. What makes this riot unique is the fact that the rioters are targeting mayors and even their families. Yet, those sympathetic to the New France echo the view of Pas de justice pas de calme, No justice no peace.


In 2005, two teenagers, Bouna Traoré (15), and Zyed Benna (17), were electrocuted after running away from police in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. It triggered three weeks of rioting  ̶  the worst in France for 40 years. All this happened in the background of the ‘Stop and Search’ that was pushed by the then Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. An inquiry found the boys were innocent, but had impulsively begun to flee when they saw the police. In the chase that ensued they hid in a power transformer where they were electrocuted and died. The case dragged on for 10 years and the two French officers accused of failing to help the boys were cleared. The three weeks of violence in 2005 and the views expressed by the Muslim minority shortly after were just the tip of the iceberg and a clear sign of things to come.  It was a seminal moment because France was celebrating i 100th year of separation of Church and State.


Lax laws and no order


Back then, Nicolas Sarkozy decided to reform the Police department by replacing community policing or community-oriented policing by hard-handed, hostile police forces who knew little about the ground reality of the neighbourhood. In the following years, François Hollande became President of the French Republic and passed laws that reduced prison sentences and even let people off with bracelets and anklets for serious crimes. As a peace-offering, money was poured into the troubled neighbourhoods of the banlieues to build better facilities and amenities, schools and libraries, but with every riot we find ourselves back to square one. In addition, France continues to take about 500,000 legal immigrants every year, largely from North Africa and Africa, with no plan in place to assimilate them into Old French values. The result is that these populations have adhered to their own set of values, beliefs, and culture. All in stark contradiction of an erstwhile France.


A month ago, Sarkozy himself was sentenced by the appeals court and handed down a three-year prison sentence, two years suspended and one to be served at home with a bracelet. For a man who claimed to clean up France, Sarkozy only left a long trail of trash that may follow him to his grave. In 2011, Jacques Chirac, received a two-year suspended sentence for corruption over a fake jobs scandal relating to his time as Paris mayor. Turns out, the defenders of the right leaning old France are morally bankrupt and make poor role models. If anything, they have taught vast sections of a New France that acquiring wealth and money by any means was the way to the top. Small surprise then that Nahel ended up dead in a posh car that his family had absolutely no means of buying. Curiously, the car was registered in Poland. The banlieues have seen a flush of fancy cars all registered in Poland where cars are a lot cheaper. It so happens that Poland is a key player in New Europe or Eastern Europe and it strongly opposes Old Europe or Western Europe in matters concerning identity, politics, gender, and of course, immigration. The French failure in assimilating its citizens will surely be exploited by Hungary, Poland and other counties of a New Europe that are tired of being patronised by the Old Europe. 


As for France, she is still undoubtedly the heart of this Old Europe, but she is in a coma and only time will tell if she wakes up with Charlemagne’s heart or Charles Martel’s hammer.