France: some perspectives

Thanks to Juan Cole I do not have to spend a great amount of time writing and explaining some key elements needed to understand multiculturalism, or the absence of it, in France. I’l give you a few quotes to digest and discuss.

The young people from North African societies such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are mostly only nominal Muslims. They frequently do not speak much Arabic, and don’t have “proper” French, either. They frequently do not know much about Islam and most of them certainly don’t practice it– much less being more virulent about it than Middle Easterners. Aware of their in-between-ness, young persons of North African heritage in France developed a distinctive identity. They took the word Arabe and scrambled it to produce Beur (which sounds in French like the word for “butter”). Beur culture can be compared a bit to hip-hop as a form of urban expression of marginality and self-assertion in a racist society. It is mostly secular.

This confirms my own experiences with, for instance, Moroccans in Belgium. They form their own subculture. Hip-hop, R&B, traditional music, track suits, hooded sweat shirts (mainly in France) are some of the more visible aspects.

The French have determinedly avoided multiculturalism or affirmative action. They have insisted that everyone is French together and on a “color-blind” set of policies. “Color-blind” policies based on “merit” always seem to benefit some groups more than others, despite a rhetoric of equality and achievement.

As a bonus, I give you another, unrelated yet thought-provoking, quote from this article on the BBC news site by John Simpson, emphasis mine:

Years of reporting on riots and revolutions have shown me that crowds display a mysterious collective sense which somehow overrides the perceptions and fears of the individuals who make up the mass. And crowds have a remarkable feeling for the weakness of government. There is of course a huge well of fury and resentment among the children of North African and African immigrants in the suburbs of French cities. The suburbs have been woefully ignored for 30 years. Violence there is regular and unexceptionable. Even on a normal weekend, between 20 and 30 vehicles are regularly attacked and burned by rioters.

Go read the linked articles and share your insights and comments with us.

21 thoughts on “France: some perspectives

  1. Just a curiousity really Guy. Are we really sure that Cole has the right etymology here? Beur is clearly verlan (l’envers) but has it really nothing to do with the term Berber? I had always assumed that since many of the Algerian migrants come from Kabylia, and that the Berber presence in that region is large, this expression had some connection. Especially since it seems highly dubious to call the berbers arabs at all. See eg:

    http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=194215

    Apparently Ben Bella made it politically correct inside Algeria to call them Arabs by making the statement “We are all Arabians now” in recognition of the role they played in the independence movement, but this is a bit like Kennedy saying “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” :).

    My feeling is ignorance is rife on this topic (referring even possibly to myself here since I have no special knowledge).

    Incidentally, a majority of the Morrocan migrants to Spain are Berbers, and undocumented immigrants are now routinely offered the alternative of an interpretor in arabic or in Amazigh (the Berber language) if they happen to be arraigned before a judge.

    Looking at the info on the page I link to they suggest that as many as 80% of Moroccans and Algerians may be Berbers. If this is the case, then it is a bit like the Shia in Sunni Iraq (the part of the iceberg which is below the waterline).

    My feeling is that too many ‘middle east scholars’ have swallowed (either for, or in the case of Pipes against) the Arab nationalist line in too many questions. But it’s only a feeling.

    But at the end of the day, and from the European end, it shows just how ignorant we are about who exactly it is that lives among us.

  2. Edward, as far as I know ‘beur’ now refers to any Maghrébien regardless of his/her origins. This text about BEUR FM explains everything:Given the connotations of the word ‘beur’ there may be preconceptions that one may have today towards media phenomena using the term in its title. ‘Beur’ has associations with a certain time, place and type of individual. It is now over twenty years old and is a word that was created through the form of slang called ‘verlan’, which inverts the syllables of a word. Beur is a distortion of the word ‘arabe’ and is said to be more the product of the large estates surrounding Paris than associated with other regions in France. A Beur denotes someone of working class North African immigrant parents, who was born or at least grew up in France with French schooling. The name was originally used as an auto-designation, precisely to distance them from being labelled ‘arabe’. The word ‘beur’ was taken on by the media and with time came to ghettoise this population, as observed by Azouz Begag,
    Another noted paragraph:‘Most of the programs were in Berber, which the Arabic-speaking listeners didn’t necessarily understand. I wanted to play a little of everything: Arabic, Kabyle, and Anglo-Saxon music. Sometimes, by impulse, I only played Arabic music to show that although I’m Kabyle I also listen to Arabic music ….. It was at Radio Beur that I discovered that even within our own community there could be an anti-Arab racism.
    And you are absolutely right about the distinction between Arabs and Berbers. My brother-in-law is a Moroccan Berber and I know a majority of Moroccans in Belgium are also Berber. Ironically, Abou Jah Jah’s AEL (Arab European League) failed miserably at Belgianselections a few years ago, precisely ‘because’ he was advocating a form of Arab nationalism. Berbers in general do not like Arab nationalism at all.

    Link to text about BEUR FM: http://wjfms.ncl.ac.uk/KnapperWJ.htm

  3. They are torching cars and public buildings. Thus they are attacking the state, not the rich. That’s very French, if you will.

    However, it is not true that France doesn’t do anything for the immigrant communities. Numerous infrastructure and welfare projects were launched sharing the identical outcome of failure. That might mean that one must not allow majority immigrant towns to form. On the other hand citizens are free to move where they will.

    On the third hand, the state must not give in to blackmail or violence. As long as there is open revolt, there must be a crackdown with as much force as necessary.

  4. Edward, check out this link about BEUR FM: http://wjfms.ncl.ac.uk/KnapperWJ.htm

    Two quotes:Given the connotations of the word ‘beur’ there may be preconceptions that one may have today towards media phenomena using the term in its title. ‘Beur’ has associations with a certain time, place and type of individual. It is now over twenty years old and is a word that was created through the form of slang called ‘verlan’, which inverts the syllables of a word. Beur is a distortion of the word ‘arabe’ and is said to be more the product of the large estates surrounding Paris than associated with other regions in France. A Beur denotes someone of working class North African immigrant parents, who was born or at least grew up in France with French schooling. The name was originally used as an auto-designation, precisely to distance them from being labelled ‘arabe’. The word ‘beur’ was taken on by the media and with time came to ghettoise this population, as observed by Azouz Begag,And, a bit further on:Most of the programs were in Berber, which the Arabic-speaking listeners didn’t necessarily understand. I wanted to play a little of everything: Arabic, Kabyle, and Anglo-Saxon music. Sometimes, by impulse, I only played Arabic music to show that although I’m Kabyle I also listen to Arabic music ….. It was at Radio Beur that I discovered that even within our own community there could be an anti-Arab racism.’I believe the word ‘beur’ now refers to any person of Maghrébien descent. And you are absolutely correct when you point out the difference between Arabs and Berbers. My Berber brother-in-law will agree vehemently :-) Even Abou Jah Jah of the Arab European League discovered this distinction when he failed, miserably, to get Berber votes for his Arab nationalist party. Chalk & Cheese.

  5. A bit off-topic, but here is an amazing piece of text about immigration into France: http://www.c3.hu/scripta/scripta0/replika/honlap/english/02/02silver.htm (French Alterity Articulating Intra-National Difference in the New Europe, by Paul A. Silverstein, University of Chicago)

    Throughout the colonial period in Algeria (1830–1962), ethnological and military reports from Algeria paid particular attention to the Berber-speaking populations of Kabylia, contrasting them to their Arab neighbors.3 A network of research centers, archives, and journals in both the Maghreb and France devoted to the scientific study of Berber language and culture was created in order to fix the ethnic boundary between the two groups and to use such a division to justify economic and social policy.4 On the one hand, these studies characterized the Berbers as uncivilized warriors, fiercely defending their mountain refuges against all invaders (Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, French).5 Whereas the Arab accepted the tutelage of Islamic caliphs, the ‘fiercely independent’ Berber, according to the reports, abhorred the very idea of central authority and was prepared to defend his absolute liberty to the death (Guernier 1950: 171–172). On the other hand, these barbarians were actually seen as relatively close to European civilization, naturally endowed with values consonant with ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’. Religiously speaking, they were viewed as less fanatically attached to Islam, for, according to General Daumas, head of Algerian affairs for the French government, “they have accepted the Koran but they have not embraced it” (1855).Worth a read?

  6. “A bit off-topic,”

    OK thanks a lot. I don’t think it is off topic at all. I think it gets to the heart of one part of the issue: the role of islamic fundamentalism in all of this.

    “Whereas the Arab accepted the tutelage of Islamic caliphs, the ‘fiercely independent’ Berber, according to the reports, abhorred the very idea of central authority and was prepared to defend his absolute liberty to the death.”

    Isn’t this the whole point. These people are not going to easily accept being part of the New Caliphate that OBL wants to establish. They aren’t suddenly going to start wearing traditional Arab dress, and they aren’t going to go to special schools just to learn Arabaic (at least not in general they aren’t).

    Their identity is another one.

    I’ve just realised that the principal ringleaders in the March 11th thing in Spain had names like ‘the Egyptian’, ‘the Tunisian’ etc. They seem to have been primarily old hands from Arab nationalism, and Arab nationalists are something the Berbers in general will never be.

    So it shouldn’t really be that difficult to drive a wedge between the people identifying with these protests and the people who want to get a ‘dirty nuke’ into the centre of Paris, if we have the will to do so that is.

    The Pakistani population in the UK – for example – is very different in this sense, since they seem to be closer to Wahhabite radicalism in the religio-cultural tradition.

    Incidentally, on relevant links, this piece from Morgan Stanley economist Eric Cheney (which I’ll probably put up in Afem) seems quite sensitive and seems to talk a lot of sense.

    http://www.morganstanley.com/GEFdata/digests/20051109-wed.html#anchor0

  7. “So it shouldn’t really be that difficult to drive a wedge between the people identifying with these protests and the people who want to get a ‘dirty nuke’ into the centre of Paris, if we have the will to do so that is.”

    It is all about respect and prospects for the future. If the inhabitants of the banlieues can participate in French society on equal terms as everybody else, and if they are allowed to construct something, it is going to be a lot easier to identify and isolate those elements who are truly dangerous. Unfortunately, that is not going to be easy considering the economic outlook at the moment.

  8. “Unfortunately, that is not going to be easy considering the economic outlook at the moment.”

    Agreed in general, but I’m not sure, in the French case, that the economic outlook is all that bad. It isn’t spectacularly brilliant either, but there is a lot of space in-between. Also, of course, bridging the communicational divide will only improve longer term prospects, which I think is what is going to happen.

    Essentially it is the economic position of what we economists tend to call the ‘insiders’ (again see Cheney) which is most under threat from globalisation etc. And of course the government has got deficit problems, so finding the cash to try and ease the insiders out, and bring the outsiders in may involve a tricky balancing act.

  9. Thanks, Hans, for that link. Very recognisable and hardly islamist style “intifada”. But we already knew that, didn’t we? ;-)

  10. “Thanks, Hans, for that link. Very recognisable and hardly islamist style “intifada”. But we already knew that, didn’t we?”

    The anti-Israeli intifada wasn’t primarily Islamist either.

    The French guerilla riots showed two lessons learned from the intifada. First, a high level of violence that is just below the threshold of justifying a vicious crackdown. This allows for lots of recruitment, a sense that you are ‘effective’ even if you don’t get anything done, and very little personal risk for most participants (which reinforces the previous two ideas). Second, an avoidance of direct confrontation with law enforcement for the majority of the acts. Mobs quickly find themselves in direct physical contact with the authorities. These riots typically did not. Tactically, this looked like the beginning of the first intifada. I wouldn’t use one day of lessening calm (when it is raining) to dismiss the analogy out of hand.

  11. The French guerilla riots showed two lessons learned from the intifada.

    Who’s organizing the French guerrilla riots? Are they associated with any coherent political movement at all?

    Gack. One might as well argue that the American urban riots of the 1960s were motivated by Communists.

  12. If the inhabitants of the banlieues can participate in French society on equal terms as everybody else

    That is not so simple. Their level of education is lower than in the general population and a high percentage live in poorer areas. Secondly, you also have true immigrants which face the language barrier.
    Even if there were no racism in French society, they would still be poorer for longer than a decade or even two.

    Of course, you cannot switch off racism by law. Especially as the members of a subculture of foreign origin are busy working to strengthen racist attitudes.

    The first step should be to enforce law and order. The second step, in my oppinion, is to recognize that more money will not help. There must be a concentration on education, enforcing schooling. All aspects of that particular subculture that are hostile to or hindering to education must be actively combatted.

  13. “The French guerilla riots showed two lessons learned from the intifada.”

    But then you might as well say that both groups had watched a lot of footage of what happened *earlier* in Belfast and Londonderry.

    Obviously there is viral learning and learning by doing even in rioting, and herd behaviour, and all sorts of things like that. I would say it is important to take note of the kinds of images on the TV the participants might have been exposed to from early childhood. Also the micro-psychological studies which seem to show that young people today have a shorter fuse when it comes to moving into aggressive behaviour, but this is by the by.

    I don’t think we should mistake form with content: the Northern Irish intifada and the Palestinian one do not seem to have been especially linked ideologically – although militants from both the relevant groups may have openly sympathised with each other’s situation.

    More to the point, I didn’t notice any evidence of the Palestinian headscarves in the TV footage I saw. In fact, as Guy suggests, the Beur preferred headgear seems to be the hood. Also not surprising since – again as we are noting – the majority of those who have been involved are either black Africans or non-Arab Berbers.

    My guess, but it’s only a guess, is that you would probably find more evidence of Palestinian scarves on ‘home grown’ anti-globalisation demos.

  14. One might as well argue that the American urban riots of the 1960s were motivated by Communists.

    I’m sure that this was argued at the time. Taylor Branch shows convincingly how the conservatives at the time tried to portray Martin Luther King as a communist agent.

  15. Todd in today’s Le Monde has this: Pour ce qui est des gosses de banlieue d’origine africaine ou maghrébine, ils ne sont pas du tout dans la même situation que les Pakistanais d’Angleterre ou les Turcs d’Allemagne. Chez nous, les taux de mariages mixtes tournaient au début des années 1990 autour de 25 % pour les filles d’Algériens, alors qu’ils étaient de 1 % pour les filles de Turcs et d’epsilon pour celles de Pakistanais. La simple mixité ethnique des bandes de jeunes en France est impossible à concevoir dans les pays anglo-saxons

  16. Thank you Hans for those numbers, it confirms what I was saying about mixed mariages in the “Multiculturalism? As if!” thread, i.e. the results of the French way for integrating immigrants aren’t so bad at the end of the day…

  17. “The Pakistani population in the UK – for example – is very different in this sense, since they seem to be closer to Wahhabite radicalism in the religio-cultural tradition.”

    Couldn’t be further from the truth. To most “Wahhabite radicals” the vast majority of Pakistanis, who actually belong to the Braelvi “religio-cultural” tradition, are “grave-worshipping heretics”.