Two years ago, after yet another couple of nights of rioting in the banlieues, twenty retired French generals wrote an open letter to Emmanuel Macron, then about to run for a second term, warning that the divisions between communities and increasing “violence and nihilism” in France would eventually cause a social breakdown, with a risk of “chaos” leading to a “civil war” that would then “require” a military “intervention… in a dangerous mission to protect our civilisational values and safeguard our compatriots”.
Strong stuff, co-signed by some 100 senior officers and about a thousand other members of the military, in a country where the Army is known as “the Great Mute”, i.e. never expressing a preference in national politics. In the one instance, during the Algerian independence war, when four generals attempted a putsch against President Charles de Gaulle on April 21, 1961 to protest the projected departure of France from her rebelling colony, they were followed by a pitiful number of the military, and the coup petered out within three days. Six decades later, the Lettre des généraux was received with contempt, with most commentators calling its authors “irrelevant”, reading its apocalyptic predictions as a “threat” against the Republic.
Yet this week Olivier Véran, the cabinet spokesman, seemed to share those conclusions as, on a visit to the village of Crépol, south of Lyon, he warned that France might be at a “tipping point” after the fatal stabbing of a local 16 year-old boy. Condemning both the knife attacks during a Saturday evening dance and the subsequent march by right-wing activists intent on a fight into the neighbourhood where the suspects live, the minister vowed that the government would stand with the bereaved family and called for a harsh sentencing, “up to a life sentence [with] no mitigating circumstances”, for the culprits. He reportedly added that the government is “clearly” aware that violence from “packs” is ratcheting up “tensions... you can’t stand these gangs any more... neither can we”, promising the “full mobilisation” of the state to “guarantee the safety of all citizens”.
Too little, too late: the minister’s well-meaning words were badly received. One of the villagers reportedly shouted to Véran: “You’ve done much more for them than you do for the hard-working people in the countryside, who get no benefits and raise their children with values.”
“Them” means the problem groups in council housing, many of whom are children or grandchildren of Muslim immigrants, like the Crépol knife-wielding attackers who disrupted the Saturday evening dance, allegedly shouting “we’ve come to get whites”. The Valence judiciary refused, against general custom, to give first names for the suspects they arrested. The entire country suspects why the names were not given: in the well-meaning aim not to “stigmatise” an entire community whose immense majority is law-abiding.
This time, several newspapers chose to question that decision (the centre-left Le Parisien, which belongs to Bernard Arnault, the luxury magnate, printed the Arabic first name of the suspected killer).
To say the French public are getting fractious is understating the current perception, supported by many sociologists and statisticians, that the country has failed badly in assimilating all citizens. To use a word coined by novelist Michel Houellebecq, France is increasingly “atomised”. France’s top pollster and political analyst, Jérôme Fourquet, talks of the “French archipelago”, a country of discrete islands, each inward-looking.
For almost three decades, government after government chose not to look too closely at a worsening situation. France was for centuries a land of successful assimilation. Italians, Spaniards, Russian Jews, Poles came and became French. But sheer numbers, as well as the change from a requirement to “assimilate” to the easier one of “integrate”, mean the French model is broken.
Each separate failure concurs to the general breakdown of the national compact. The long-admired French education system is no longer fit for purpose: our schools have slid from the top to the bottom of the PISA rankings in just a few years, especially in those areas where non-French-speaking children account for the majority in most classes. School teachers are less and less respected by both the body politic – which allowed their salaries to fall by half in real terms – and by their pupils, disruptive and often violent. In some areas, the history of the 20th century, especially of the Holocaust, has been near-impossible to teach for years: inroads by Islamism in the classrooms, long denied, have contributed to the murder of two teachers in three years.
The police, meanwhile, are badly paid, badly considered, often afraid for their lives in the areas where they must keep order, they resign in droves. (The profession has one of the highest suicide rates in France.) As a result, training time has been reduced from a year to eight months, so bad is the need for boots on the ground.
As a result, trust between the ruling classes and the people has declined in lockstep with France’s economic and cultural decline. (If you live in the centre of Paris or Lyon, even Marseille, you can send your children to good private schools and Grandes Écoles, almost guaranteeing good jobs that will enable them to keep living where the crisis is not felt.)
Like his predecessors, Emmanuel Macron first displayed indifference towards the chaotic immigration system: the new Immigration Bill, about to be debated by the National Assembly, tries to correct the laxist trends of recent years, but it will neither address the problem of French-born citizens who profess hate for their country, nor the rising arrivals from troubled areas. It may not take much for the next round of riots, or for an equally violent blowback from a hard-right deciding to take matters into their hands. That civil war the generals prophesied two years ago may be around the corner.