Identity politics and French law-and-order crisis



A scene in Paris

The French authorities are losing no time in ordering emergency funding for rectifying the material damage suffered by their country in the recent rioting and the swiftness with which this challenge is being undertaken needs to be lauded by the law-abiding the world over. However, the riots have brought to the fore issues relating to governance and these are of deep relevance to the North as well as the South.

There is no doubt that some of the governance questions posed by the riots would have been receiving the attention of the French authorities over the years but the notably destructive nature of the riots seems to suggest that, perhaps, more needs to be done to resolve these problems. For instance, some French public figures interviewed by the international media recently went on record that more progress needs to be made in the direction of ‘addressing the social issues’ underlying the disturbances. Some even said that ‘our democracy is sick’.

If the above criticisms are being leveled against France, which the impartial commentator would have no hesitation in describing as a thriving democracy, what could one say about those highly democracy-deficit states of the South, such as Sri Lanka, which are yet to address major issues growing out of ethnic discord in a constructive, substantive way? One could only say of the latter that they have failed appallingly to manage their governance problems, in the race relations context in particular, and by virtue of this fact need to be seen as being ‘at the bottom of the heap’ of democracy-deficit countries.

This columnist hopes that he would be proved wrong on this score by the Sri Lankan authorities. Some fundamental questions would prove the point. For example, what positive steps have Sri Lankan governments taken thus far to fully implement the 13th amendment to the country’s Constitution and thereby pave the way for at least a measure of ethnic equality? The answer is obviously in the negative.

The above comments are necessitated by the fact that countries of the South which are up against governance challenges, such as ushering ethnic harmony on the basis of equality, cannot afford to adopt what may be called ‘a holier than thou’ posture in relation to France. Needless to say, quite a number of Southern countries are today grappling with issues pertaining to nation-making, such as the equal treatment of ethnic communities.

One of the immediate issues arising from what seems to be the cold-blooded killing of the French teenager by a traffic policeman, which ignited country wide rioting, is power abuse by law-and-order personnel. This problem which is prevalent in scores of countries would need to be probed by the French authorities and to the extent possible rectified.

However, the sheer scale and destructiveness of the rioting prompted knowledgeable observers to comment that it was symptomatic of deep-seated and rankling animosities within some French minority groups against the state. It was noted that the rioting was at its most destructive in some urban areas that are seen to be suffering material deprivations of a marked kind. The French government is obliged to investigate these allegations and do what is required to rectify the issues concerned.

French President Emmanuel Macron had reportedly launched discussions with scores of the country’s mayors to bring the country back to normalcy but a prominent local government official who was interviewed by a section of the international media commented that there were ‘no mayors of colour’ among the conferring mayors nor were there any women among them. These too are serious limitations, if the relevant allegations are correct, that call for rectification. Apparently, there is no getting away from the need for any peace effort to be widely inclusive.

In the case of France and other countries that are up against problems of this nature, peace efforts, besides being widely inclusive, need to aim at ushering healing and amity among the relevant parties to the crises. And there could be no healing or enduring peace among adversaries without forgiveness and a spirit of brotherhood between them.

That forgiveness and brotherhood are essential ingredients of peace is borne out by the South African experience. These qualities most French women and men could be expected to be familiar with and bringing a measure of enduring peace to France on the basis of such cultural and spiritual legacies could be expected to be within the realms of the possible. Thus, what is needed is a process of reconciliation that would be grounded in these values.

Meanwhile, those sections that engaged in wanton destruction in the current crisis should be called upon to realize the futility and mindlessness of their actions. As reminded by some sections of French opinion, those who engaged in destructive acts only undermined their own and the national interest by conducting themselves the way they did. While the riots need to be seen by the French authorities as an eye-opener, there is no getting away from the need to bring the full force of the law to bear on criminal elements.

The crisis in France and developments of like kind around the world ought to remind governments and publics of the need to treat identity issues with the utmost care. Religious and cultural identities in particular need to be considered as profoundly sensitive. Any mishandling of such questions could amount to courting domestic and international disharmony.

We are just seeing the proof of this in current Swedish-Iranian relations. As should be expected, the burning of a copy of the Quran by an inhabitant of Sweden has led to some estrangement between the governments concerned besides leading to public protests in Iran. It is incumbent on the Swedish state to deliver justice in this question and ensure that the government-to-government crisis is managed effectively.

An inescapable conclusion from the foregoing is that the process of nation-building within countries needs to be seen as constantly on-going by governments and civilian publics. On and off, issues surface in the nation-making process and all relevant stakeholders need to be in a constant state of preparedness to take them on and resolve them. That is, there is no clear-cut, unchanging formula for nation-making or for the welding into an indivisible unity of a country’s diverse social groups. The formula needs to be amended to meet emerging needs. However, the bottom line is that healing should be finally aimed at.


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