Ask the experts: French riots

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Dominique Moïsi, senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations, and John Thornhill, the FT’s European Edition Editor, answer your questions on the French riots below.

For Dominique Moïsi on why France is burning with fear and anger, click here

Read more on the French riots here

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What’s happening in France has been equated by some to the civil rights movement in the 1960s in the US. Do you see it that way? And will this be a historic turning point for France with it accepting into society members of its former colonies?
Rolf Rykken, Washington, DC, US

John Thornhill: All generalisations are dangerous, as the saying goes, even this one. While there are clearly some comparisons with the US in the 1960s, I think the issue in France has more to do with economic and social opportunity than legal status. It is also too early to tell whether this is a real turning point in French history, although I doubt it. France has reached many turning points before, but failed to turn.

Dominique Moïsi: The comparison with the US in the 1960s is a very good one, but where is the French equivalent in France of Lyndon Johnson? I am afraid such a person does not exist.


The recent suburban riots are often blamed on the failure of France’s “integration system”. What is so specific with the French integration (or assimilation) system? Aren’t immigrant youths simply the victims of France’s overall lack of economic prosperity? And what would it take for France to realise that it has gone well beyond the efficient frontier beyond which wealth redistribution reduces overall wealth creation?
Gilles de Chanterac, US

John Thornhill: I would not say that immigrant youths are simply the victims of France’s overall lack of economic prosperity. After all, France is a very rich country where some people enjoy some of the highest living standards in the world. It is more a question of providing equal opportunities to all French citizens to earn and share that wealth. That undoubtedly means that France’s economic “insiders” are going to have give up some of their privileges for the sake of the excluded “outsiders”. That sounds a simple economic solution. But it will be extremely difficult for any politician to sell that proposition to voters. The rich majority is unlikely to sacrifice its interests for the excluded minority. This democratic conundrum is not unique to France.

Dominique Moïsi: A more liberal economy that would create more jobs is part of the answer, but you need equally a more efficient state, one that does not treat its population of immigrant descent with a combination of indifference and contempt.


We in the UK clearly have to learn from what has happened in France too, as the situations are so similar. What are the key lessons for us?
Jonathan Mardall

John Thornhill: The three priorities for both countries are, to coin a phrase, education, education and education. Good and responsive primary and secondary schools are the best means of integration. Beyond that, flexible labour markets, sensitive but firm policing, and targeted financial help to improve public amenities would seem to be the most effective policies.


1. Does the way disadvantaged sections of French society are discriminated against, and the results we have seen over the past few weeks, have any lessons for the way protectionist tariff’s and trade restrictions discriminate against the poorest and most disadvantaged in the world? Or is the fact that these people are far away and cannot riot on French streets make the French position on Doha somehow defensible?

2. Do the statements of French politicians from across the political spectrum in response to the riots and the fact that it took the President 10 days to respond at all to the widespread rioting show how morally bankrupt the French political class has become? Does the panel think this political class is representative of the French people?
Mike Coulten, Energy Alert Ltd, Newmarket, UK

John Thornhill: 1. The FT’s editorial view is that the French position on maintaining agricultural subsidies is indefensible because it penalises the poor in the developing world (as well as keeping consumer prices excessively high in Europe). But this issue is not directly linked to the riots.

2. It was surprising to me - and to many other people - that the French president took so long to respond. However, French politics is very hierarchical and this issue was one that was first addressed by the interior minister and then the prime minister. According to a recent poll, some 73 per cent of French voters backed the government’s move to introduce curfews. In this sense, the political class is responding to the public clamour to restore order.


I would like to know what you think the best options are for the French government in order to tackle the riots in a humane and morally correct manner?
Kasser Dean, Open Systems Services LTD, UK

Dominique Moïsi: Law and order have to be restored, but the government must understand that security does not mean the return of the old social order which has proven to be a recipe for disaster. The rioters expressed their anger and frustration. They did it in the wrong manner, but we must listen to them to prevent further explosions tomorrow.

John Thornhill: The entire French leadership says the first step must be to restore order. Without it, one cannot imagine any other initiative being successfully introduced. But some commentators have stressed the need for the French police to become more sensitive to the needs of their communities. I think we will see more flexible community-based policing emerge in future.


Why is positive discrimination so unpopular in France when it has been shown to work in other countries?
Roy King, France

John Thornhill: As one government minister puts it: “Positive discrimination is still discrimination, and discrimination is illegal in France.” However, some universities, such as Sciences-Po in Paris, are now making huge efforts to encourage more applicants from deprived areas. This would appear to be the way to go without contravening French law.

Dominique Moïsi: France is a country where all citizens are supposed to be equals, and are therefore supposed to be treated equally. Of course the reality is far from this. To accept positive discrimination would be to accept that there exists a gap between principles and reality.


To what extent is it probable that the same type of ethnic minority riots will occur in other European countries? Do you think this problem is unique to France or not?
Yoshiaki Kaneko

John Thornhill: The problem is certainly not unique to France. There have been similar riots in several other European countries, including the UK. What is different in France this time is the duration, intensity, and geographical spread of the riots.

Dominique Moïsi: A combination of colonial legacy and humiliation, a very high level of young people in unemployment and disastrous urban planning is unique to France. But one cannot exclude the possibility that what we are witnessing in France is the beginning of a European immigration problem.


Following the riots, what is the risk of Le Pen exploiting the situation to make some sort of breakthrough at the next presidential election?
Bill Mascull, Bristol, UK

Dominique Moïsi: The extreme right has been reinforced by these events, but fortunately Le Pen is aging and now has a rival in Philippe de Villiers, not to mention the fact that the line taken by Sarkozy will attract a lot of extreme right voters.

John Thornhill: Le Pen has certainly been trying to make political capital out of the latest disturbances. There is a danger that French politics will continue to fragment. It looks likely that there will be more than a dozen candidates standing in the first round of the 2007 presidential elections, just as there were in 2002, increasing his chances of making it through to the second round. However, his chances of winning the second round are close to zero.


Why hasn’t the government called out the army to quell the riots?
Bob Auguston

Dominique Moïsi: To call upon the army would have been unnecessary and dangerous. Violence is receding and police are doing a fine job.

John Thornhill: Sending in the army would likely provoke an even greater backlash. The police have far more experience in dealing with these situations.


Given that the measures announced by the French Prime Minister deal solely with economic and education issues, do any of the panellists believe that they will have any effect without drastic changes to the police’s relationship with the inhabitants of the suburbs? And furthermore do you believe that this relationship can change?
John FitzGibbon, Dublin, Ireland.

John Thornhill: Dealing effectively with the underlying economic and social causes of the protests would go a very long way towards solving the problem. Young people with jobs are less likely to clash with the police than those without. But the police certainly could - and should - do a lot more to improve their relations with young people in the banlieues.

Dominique Moïsi: The police has to be educated. There have been very few people killed so far, which is proof that the police forces are restrained in their use of force, but discrimination and humiliation is the key to the problem. Dignity is essential and is not there at this moment.


1. How did the generous French welfare system fail to meet the needs of African immigrants? Why do so many French people deny the existence of racism or deny racism is a major cause of the discontent? Are they correct?

2. How much of the tension between mainstream French society and the people in the poor banlieues can be attributed to a cultural clash, rather than race?

3. How much upward mobility have African immigrants found in France? What portion of the second or third generation have a better standard of living then the first generation? How different is the experience of African immigrants from that of other immigrants from Eastern Europe or Asia for example?
Catherine Bellafronto

Dominique Moïsi: 1. Charity is not the answer, dignity and justice are. Discrimination is the key to the problem. The protesters felt, rightly, they were not treated as equals!

2. It is not about race as such. It is not a clash of civilisation; it is mainly a marxist issue - the emergence of a new version of the proletariat, economic and social conditions.

3. Upward mobility has largely failed because the most difficult community to integrate occurred when France had lost the recipes for successful integration, education, the army and above all economic growth.

John Thornhill: 1. The French welfare state remains generous - even for African immigrants. The problem is that young people want jobs not welfare. The French state is also colour-blind and enshrines the liberties of the individual rather than a community. It therefore regards all its citizens as French-French rather than Algerian-French or African-French, for example. It is hard to deal with a problem by institutional means if your institutions cannot take such differences into account.

2. French society has over several centuries successfully absorbed wave after wave of immigrants, whether Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Armenian, suggesting the latest problems owe more to economic injustices than cultural or religious clashes.

3. What is striking for an Englishman living in Paris is the invisibility of non-white faces in parliament, the media, or the upper echelons of business. Britain is hardly perfect in this regard but there does appear to be more social mobility. At a breakfast meeting this morning, a French minister said that the lack of social mobility stemmed from the failures of the education system to give all children an equal chance. The government now openly accepts it must do much more in this field.


What implications do you see for the French social model?
Ian Walsh, Nerotal 69, D-65193 Wiesbaden, Germany

John Thornhill: I think the riots raise serious questions about the viability of the French social model, which works wonderfully in theory but poorly in practice. Equality in law is a great principle, but it has evidently not produced equal outcomes. There is de facto discrimination in France even if there is no de jure discrimination.

Dominique Moïsi: It is not the French model as such which is challenged, but the divorce between reality and principles. How can you claim the universality of your model, when neither liberty, equality and fraternity do not exist in daily life and remain at best abstract principles?


Were the riots sparked by anger at the police for supposedly chasing the two boys for no reason or because of general distrust and dislike of the Paris police force? The images I have seen are strikingly reminiscent of the LA riots - what are the similarities and differences in the two outbreaks?
Clint Soderstrom, 3L University of Tulsa College of Law, US

Dominique Moïsi: France is not Los Angeles - you do not have minorities fighting each other, but a minority using violence against cars and public buildings to get attention. To destroy is for them a way to exist. A way to express their feelings of alienation and solitude.

John Thornhill: Riots need both a spark and fuel. There is no doubt that the spark in this case was provided by the deaths of the two boys in Clichy-sous-Bois, just as the acquittal of the police officers accused of beating Rodney King sparked the riots in LA. But French urban violence is not just directed against the police. The rioters’ anger appears to be against social and economic exclusion. In that sense, the latest events in France may have more in common with the US race riots of the 1960s.


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