A brutal New Year’s Eve gang attack on two French police officers illustrates the failure of that nation’s ghetto-and-forget policy. As the video footage from just outside Paris shows, it’s a miracle that neither officer was killed in the line of duty.
Still, this was far from the only serious incident on New Year’s Eve. As has become the annual custom in urban France, more than a thousand cars were burned by roving gangs.
The particularly visceral nature of these attacks only speaks to the broader malady afflicting urban France: its entrenched culture of criminality and poverty. In many French cities, armed gangs control housing projects or suburban “banlieues” with a reign of brutal terror and criminal efficiency. Those who cross them end up maimed or dead.
Yet the defining problem is one of absent good government.
Take the “stand off” means by which French police approach criminal activity in the projects. Instead of developing long-term investigations against senior leaders and stationing police in a continuous deployment structure, they launch the occasional drug raid but largely leave residents to the mercy of the gangs. Understandably, this is not an environment conducive to constructive social mobility.
It reflects a broader disinterest in government policy.
After all, successive governments have thrown large sums at welfare programs in the projects, but they have failed to cultivate national integration and corollary social expectation. In 2016, French welfare spending was the highest of any Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member state standing at 31.5 percent. But what has it got?
A decrepit economy and a culture of hopeless stagnation. In turn, many young minority Frenchmen and immigrants believe their best life opportunities will come from playing the system rather than educational achievement.
So while the time is long overdue for France to return order to its towns and cities, society must also look in the mirror. For one, the striking divergence between minority social mobility in France and the United States speaks to America’s far greater success in integration. In France, however, minorities are often treated with a thinly veiled disdain by the middle and upper classes.
As Andrew Hussey noted in his 2014 book, The French Intifada, the problem is particularly serious in those with ancestry in the French former colonies. Interviewing residents in these segregated/self-segregated areas, Hussey found that “They openly identified with the Palestinians, whom they saw as prisoners in their own land, like the dispossessed of the banlieues.” This sense of non-identity is a toxic one.
But until France is able to forge a new sense of national identity, toxic acts like that on New Year’s Eve will continue to be the norm.