Research - 11.07.2023 - 14:44 

“The French integration model has been bankrupt for a long time”

According to Christoph Frei, Associate Professor of Political Science at HSG, riots like the one currently taking place in France will keep occurring. This is because the violence on the streets, according to Frei, is largely based on two systemic problems: firstly, a failed model of integration and secondly, the extensive exclusion of the citizenry from political decision-making processes. 

Christoph Frei, you lived and researched in Paris for seven years and have been intensively studying French politics as an academic ever since. What would you say were the underlying reasons for the riots?

The death of the 17-year-old during a traffic stop was only the most recent trigger here. The underlying causes are part of the French political and social system. Thus, people who grow up in the banlieues and have a migration background are socially excluded practically from birth. They have virtually no chance of getting a decent education or job. From this, but also from everyday, tense confrontations with the forces of law and order, results an abysmal distrust of a state that is supposed to reliably provide public goods such as education, security and health care. These people experience on a daily basis that the French integration model, which relies on acculturation under equal conditions for all, has long been bankrupt.

What does this integration model look like?

It fits into a republican universalism that can be conceptually traced back to the French Revolution. In essence, it states that there should be no differences among people in France based on membership of ethnic or religious groups – rather, that everyone has the same rights and obligations. But it is precisely these rights that are largely fictitious for the inhabitants of the banlieues. Interactions with the external environment are characterized by xenophobia, racism and exclusion. Meanwhile, the French state with its organs and institutions refuses to acknowledge the problems in the status quo. In surveys, for example, religious affiliation is not asked because it is not allowed to have any significance in republican theory. 
The fact that, at the same time, the state simply manages the real problems instead of credibly fighting them is an endless source of frustration. This is where a second major, structurally anchored problem comes into play, namely the lack of opportunities to vent frustrations through regular democratic institutions. French citoyens and citoyennes have no means whatsoever to actively influence political decisions. The “referendum of the street”, too often associated with chaos and violence, stands as a functional equivalent – it is a means of making oneself heard that is accepted across society. Violence has literally been part of French political culture for centuries.

Did the extent of the violence in the current riots nevertheless surprise you?

No. There have already been massive, months-long riots on previous occasions: during protests by the yellow vests in 2018 and demonstrations against pension reform in recent months. And let’s not fool ourselves: the next riots in the banlieues are bound to happen, because they are largely based on systemic and culturally rooted problems. Firstly, there is the social and economic exclusion of entire population groups; secondly, there is a lack of opportunities to participate in political decision-making processes. Although the electorate elects a president every five years, as well as a national parliament, the citizenship of the Republic is otherwise excluded. France is, in effect, run by a political elite that numbers a few thousand people. The French parliament is one of the weakest in the Western world, and the executive has a massive preponderance. By way of comparison: In Switzerland, we can express ourselves around 30 times a year and at various levels – we can vent many times as citizens. Correspondingly, the political culture in Switzerland today sees virtually no use of violence.

Does France need political reform?

Fundamental changes would be necessary, yes – but this is a generational task that would have to lead to new social, educational and urban policies, among others. Above all, though, France ultimately needs an integration model that recognizes the reality of its immigration, the reality of an enormously heterogeneous population.

Nevertheless, there will be no fundamental reforms here. Rather, as is always the case in such situations, the government will become hyperactive. Sooner or later, it will enact a 10- or 12-point programme, invest more money in schools – and so on. But to address the fundamental problems, the political elite would have to muster a political will for change that has a lasting impact. I don’t see any signs of that. And so the recurring grievances cause people to further lose their trust in politics. Low voter turnouts in the regional elections, which are insignificant in terms of state policy, are a reflection of this mood.


Christoph Frei is HSG Titular Professor of Political Science with a special focus on international relations.

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