By Beatrice Quintana

Often absent from the fear-driven media frenzy surrounding the Islamic State and France’s recent terror attacks in Nice and Paris the less acknowledged reasons may be found behind the augmenting violence in France and the rest of Europe. Aside from a reckless foreign policy, including centuries of colonial domination and more recently, a series of clumsy interventions in the Middle East, France’s integration policy must be examined. After all, the perpetrators of the recent attacks were first- and second-generation immigrants from some of France’s most deprived banlieues. As Noam Chomsky recently said in an interview for Truth-Out:

‘I think we have to be cautious in interpreting ISIS claims of responsibility for terrorist attacks. Akbar Ahmed, one of the most careful and discerning analysts of radical Islam concludes that “the reality is that while ISIS may influence these Muslims in a general way, their animus is coming from their position as unwanted immigrants in Europe, especially in France, where they are still not treated French, even if they are born there. The community as a whole has a disproportionate population of unemployed youth with poor education and housing and is constantly the butt of cultural humiliation. It is not an integrated community’.[1]

While the violent uprisings that occurred throughout the 1980s and the 1990s across Parisian and Lyonnaise suburbs and the 2005 riots in Clichy-sous-Bois were a clear indicator of the resentment brewing among banlieue youth, responses from the government and the mainstream media were inadequate and served to further alienate those living on the edges of French society. Rather than seeing the unrest as a response to deep-rooted marginalisation, systematic discrimination by the police, and the government’s general failure to address unemployment and lack of opportunity in the cités (public housing estates), Sarkozy branded those instigating the riots ‘des racailles’ (scum) and vowed to ‘wash the place out with a hose’.[2]. Not only were these the most serious civil disturbances seen in France in almost forty years, they pointed to the outright failure of the so called modèle d’intégration républicain (republican integration model).

In contrast to the Anglo-Saxon and U.S. multicultural approaches which have allowed the expression of distinct cultural and religious communities in the public sphere, the French integration model has welcomed immigrants on the condition they abandon their distinctive cultural and linguistic traits and embrace a monolithic French identity and culture, based on the universalist principles of laïcité (secularity), equality, and the separation of the public and the private sphere.[3]

Yet, we must ask, to what extent does republican citizenship actually embody universalism, as opposed to a particularist and intolerant articulation of national values? A look at France’s treatment of different immigrant groups and even second-generation French citizens exposes the gap between the rhetoric of colour-blind acceptance into the nation and the actual treatment of different ethnic minority groups. The contradictory nature of these principles is all the more apparent in light of the recent ‘burkini’ saga, during which PM Manuel Valls proclaimed the garment to be incompatible with the ‘values of France and the Republic’. Parallels can also be drawn with the headscarf affair which began in 1989 and culminated in a 2004 law banning the garment from French state schools. While the Jewish yarmulke had been worn freely for decades in French schools, the wearing of an Islamic headscarf was somehow ‘ostentatious’, and girls who wore them were cast as victims of Muslim oppression.[4]

Moreover, without looking deeper on the restrictions in place preventing all forms of ethnic monitoring, anti-discrimination policies in France have been extremely slow to take effect. Despite numerous reports from the High Council of Integration throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, clearly outlining the inequality of opportunity and the discrimination of ethnic minorities, no substantial policy changes were made during this period by neither the Right-wing governments nor the Socialists. It was only in June 2005 that a European Union Directive ordered President Chirac to set up the Haute Autorité de lutte contre les discriminations et pour l’égalité, an independent body to deal with discrimination.

Perhaps it is time to rethink traditional and outdated principles of republicanism and national belonging which serve to include some, whilst excluding others. Rather than scaremongering, it is of vital importance to reflect more profoundly on current events, tracing them back to their roots and finding substantial means of healing deep-seated resentment and anger. France’s government must find peaceful means of curtailing future extremist violence by rectifying what has largely been an intolerant integration policy, one of indifference to the discrimination experienced by immigrants, and of reluctance to adapt to the multicultural reality of French today’s society.

Beatrice Quintana recently graduated from the University of Manchester with a BA(Hons) in history. Excerpts were used from her dissertation written on France’s integration policy and the cultural responses to exclusion and discrimination from within the banlieue. Having grown up in various countries (England, France and Argentina) she holds a deep curiosity for world affairs. Humanist in her outlook, she looks to expose past and present injustices, particularly those perpetuated by the West, which she feels are not acknowledged enough by the mainstream media.


[2] Sarkozy et les banlieues, 19/20 Édition nationale, France 3, 31 Octobre, 2005., [accessed 2 March, 2016].

[3] Charles Tshimanga, ‘Let the Music Play: The African Diaspora, Popular Culture, and National Identity in Contemporary France’, in Frenchness and the African Diaspora, ed. by Charles Tshimanga and Didier Gondola, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), p. 264.

[4] Alec G. Hargreaves, Multi-Ethnic France: Immigration, Politics, Culture and Society, (Oxon: Routledge, 2007).