There is no single reason for the riots that have continued and spread throughout France with results that are likely to go well beyond the physical and economic damage to endanger whatever bonds of social cohesion remain after the rioting finally runs its course. Several preliminary explanations, however, suggest themselves.
The most fundamental reason the riots have persisted so long, as Daniel Polsby, dean of the law school at George Mason University, explained, is that “if young men, especially, don’t have something to aspire to, some hope for a way out of what they perceive as a hopeless situation, they become logical candidates to riot.”
In a piece co-written with David Haddock of Northwestern University, Dean Polsby noted that those who believe they have nothing to lose can be prone to riot in a way that established, middle-class people may never be.
Why do so many people in France feel they have nothing to lose?
Although most of the rioters seem to be young Muslim immigrants, or children of immigrants, from North Africa and Africa, and there are solid pockets of sympathizers with the concept of jihad in many French neighborhoods, religion provides only a partial answer.
Religion is important, to be sure, but also important is the clumsy way the French government has handled immigration.
Until a few decades ago most European countries had not been magnets for immigration; indeed most had experienced emigration. Given a degree of jealousy (and a certain provincialism) about the need to preserve the French way of life, the country had no real strategy for dealing with an influx so large — about 6 million Muslims among a population of 60 million — it was virtually guaranteed to change the “French way of life.”
In practice, immigrants have concentrated themselves in poor neighborhoods where the government has provided public housing virtually guaranteed to become slums and little else — especially not a way to aspire to become either part of the larger country or economically independent.
This situation has been exacerbated by the French social/economic model. The French are noted for micromanaging the economy and decreeing a 35-hour work week and other benefits to those who are working. The trade-off has been high levels of unemployment (10 percent nationwide, often 30 percent in immigrant neighborhoods) and a static economy with little hope for upward mobility.
There is little effort to encourage assimilation. In fact, the levels of separation become reinforcing — religion, language, location, economic status — further driving distrust and, ultimately, contempt.
The fact that the government has been unable for nearly two weeks to control the riots demonstrates that it is not government power that provides social stability, though it can keep certain kinds of crime under control.
Stability is the result of an implicit social contract and thousands of generally unseen bonds whereby people agree not to settle differences through violence, and control themselves.
When those bonds do not exist, government is powerless to cope.
When these riots finally run their course — hopefully without a brutal crackdown, but that could come — the French people would do well to reconsider their social and economic model.