Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin unveiled a raft of social and economic measures designed to improve conditions in France's tough, low-income neighbourhoods that have spawned unrest raging across the country.
The initiatives -- outlined before parliament the same day the government approved powers to declare a state of emergency in specified regions of the country -- aim to reduce chronically high unemployment in those suburbs, provide better education and address entrenched racism.
'Our collective responsibility is to make difficult areas the same sort of territory as others in the republic,' Villepin said.
But he added that 'the reestablishment of public order is a prerequisite' to the measures being implemented -- something he admitted would 'take some time.'
Too little, too late in my opinion.
I also note that their is no mention beyond 'the reestablishment of public order' to combating crime in these areas. That is a key for economic development and without it, the process is doomed to fail.
One of the key things that I think the French need to address is the base question of why their immigrants should consider themselves part of France. What does being 'French' mean? What does France stand for?
Historically (and currently) being French means being a French by descent, or at the very least European.
France's population dynamics began to change in the middle of the 19th century, as France joined the Industrial Revolution. The pace of industrial growth pulled in millions of European immigrants over the next century, with especially large numbers arriving from Poland, Portugal, Italy, and Spain. These immigrants intermarried and assimilated over time, and their descendants are almost universally considered Francais de souche (ethnic French), or at least as uncomplicatedly 'French'.
This was not the case with the other big group of recent immigrants, the non-European peoples whose migration waxed as the intra-European migration waned in the 1960's. Since then, France has become home to millions of non-European peoples, principally from the former French colonies of the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa. The arrival of many Muslim migrants from North and West Africa has meant that Islam has become the second largest religion in France, with around 5 million or so adherents of varying levels of belief. It is estimated that around 50,000 Francais de souche (ethnic French) have converted to Islam.
Translation: If you are not white, you are not 'French'.
How to redefine French to mean something else is a challenge that France (and the rest of Europe has issues here as well) must face. America, and being American, is defined more by ideology than by descent. We are, generally speaking anyway, happy to count our immigrants as Americans. Obviously we are not perfect at this, but that is the core of our national identity. France of course is has an identity that is deeply tied into its ethnic background.
If France is to survive it needs to create a new meaning of what 'French' is.
Of course, even if it did that today it would be very tough to make it work. The Muslim immigrants and their children have been outsiders for long enough that they have built up their own sense of who they are, to a great degree defined by not being French. Any group that is forced to the sidelines tends to remake their ostracism into an identity of its own. That certainly happened in America with African Americans and is still something that we are trying to resolve. You can see the same effect in any high school.