Francesca Hansen ’06 is an international studies major finishing her first of two years at Sciences Po (Fondation nationale des sciences politiques) in the Krieger School’s joint BA/MA program with the Paris institution. The riots around Paris that made international news last fall were a particularly apt lesson for Hansen, who is pursuing research on integration issues for Islamic immigrants in Europe. This spring, she penned this essay for Arts and Sciences Magazine on the riots and her thoughts about French multiculturalism.
During last autumn’s riots, I picked up a copy of Le Monde at my bus stop in Paris. I turned to the inside page to find an article discussing foreign coverage of the riots. A large photo of an American TV screen showed the Fox News Network’s headline: “Paris Burns.” I looked around me. An elderly woman in a fur coat shifted uncomfortably; a small dog relieved itself on the sidewalk. No disgruntled youth here, no shells of burnt cars. My neighborhood, like most of Paris, and most of France, continued on indifferently as the suburbs burned.
This is the crux of the problem of the simmering tension in French society. A large part of the population seems to think there is nothing wrong, and a very small portion of the population seems to think there is quite a bit wrong. The banlieusards—poorer immigrants living in the suburbs—have been simmering with discontent for more than 50 years, and now the pot seems to be boiling over.
France’s version of the melting pot has been to enforce homogenization via state housing, and insist on the fact that immigrants of many different ethnicities and cultures consider themselves French. Everyone is expected to embrace French culture, and reject their own. Whereas in America, we are more than happy to divide our country into countless hyphenated nationalities—Irish-American, Malaysian-American, Egyptian-American—in France there are only les Français. There is essentially no official data on ethnic backgrounds. This failure to recognize France’s differences on paper translates to very tangible problems in society. Unemployment rates are high—up to 40 percent in some of the suburban ghettos where the riots have broken out. These infamous “second generation” children of immigrants are left poor and caught between French culture and their parents’ ethnic and religious identities.
To save the republic from itself, France must accept its multiculturalism. It will come as a large shock to much of the population, but there are more identities in France than that of the white, proud, middle-class citizen. Thus, the concept of the republic itself must be broadened.
How to do that? Where can French and “foreign” cultures meet in France? As a researcher, I can’t hope to single-handedly reform the French system, but I hope to understand how it can evolve. The answer is not to force every resident of France onto one hexagonal peg. Such supposedly universally “French” concepts of freedom, equality, and brotherhood must surely allow for common ground between immigrant and native. Small-scale measures hint at progress: My school here, Sciences Po, was the first grande école to recruit students from “sensitive areas” of Paris, a highly controversial step taken in 2000. It is this sort of forward thinking that will generally open up the mechanisms of French society, not a stubborn insistence on a monolithic French identity.
Francesca Hansen in Paris’ Luxembourg gardens.