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Riots in France do not mean an alien takeover of Europe

July 18, 2023 at 9:29 am

People gather to protest the death of 17-year-old Nahel, who was shot in the chest by police in Nanterre on June 27, in Paris, France on June 29, 2023 [Firas Abdullah/Anadolu/Agency]

It was entirely predictable that when riots erupted in France after 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk was killed by a police officer they would provide another opportunity for the far-right in France and beyond to blame immigration and foreigners. Claims surfaced online and in the socio-political sphere that the rioters were predominantly from African or Middle Eastern countries; that they could not and never will be able to integrate; and that French and European governments must take urgent, drastic action to deport such foreign miscreants.

Little effort was made to delve deeper into such claims, of course. There was little or no discourse about the factors that might lead individuals or communities to respond in such a way, nor was there any acceptance of the role played by socio-economic factors.

Hardly any far-right figures understood or even cared that there is generally a significant disconnect between the first, second and third generations of immigrants in any country. It is almost overwhelmingly true to say that the first generation – who left their country due to conflict or for economic reasons – are usually law-abiding, hardworking, entrepreneurial and grateful.

This changes with the second generation, however, which tends towards criminal activity, anti-social behaviour and resentment of law and authority. All of this is likely to be an expression of the multiple identity crisis arising from a disconnect between the reality of where they were born and raised, and the “home” country or culture of their parents.

Eventually, such resentment fades as the second generation settles down into work and family life, and the children of immigrants adjust and adapt to the host country. That’s if they are not in prison, of course. By the time the third generation – the immigrants’ grandchildren – comes along, the community is generally a calm and integrated part of the national fabric.

Good examples of this are the Italian and Irish American communities, from which came the notorious 20th century criminal gangs; today they are generally productive and average citizens. The Jewish community in Britain grew from Ashkenazim who hailed from central and eastern Europe; it provides another example. Many of the infamous gangs and their leaders who ran London’s formerly rundown East End, such as the Yiddishers and the Bessarabian Tigers, came from that community, which is now indisputably one of the most prosperous and middle-class in the country.

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This is a process that immigrant communities typically go through; the violent spasms of resistance are a characteristic of the second generation. An exception would come from the suppression of a community’s religious practices, culture or language by the host state, which only extends the second generation’s integration pains.

The North African Muslims in France are an example of the latter. They suffer – like other religious groups – under state-enforced secularism, as do the Kurds in Turkiye, who have experienced limitations on their cultural identity and, up until recent decades, were not even allowed to speak the Kurdish language.

Thus, like a young man who has never been allowed to express his growing pains and adolescence, and fulfil a need for self-reliance and responsibility, a suppressed community remains in a perpetual state of resistance, a communal adolescence, and forced assimilation does the opposite of the state’s desired effect.

This hypothesis was alluded to in a 2016 article in The Atlantic, in which the author cited Sandra M. Bucerius, an associate professor at the University of Alberta, as stating in the Oxford Handbook of Crime and Criminal Justice that, “Second-generation immigrants typically have higher crime rates than first-generation immigrants.”

Bucerius drew a comparison between communities in the United States and European nations, however, by highlighting that in the US, “Most second-generation immigrants continue to enjoy lower crime rates than the native-born population. In stark contrast, research findings in European countries indicate that some second-generation immigrant groups have crime rates that drastically exceed those of the native-born population.”

The author of the article in The Atlantic then acknowledged that, “If the US begins to treat immigrants the way Europeans have (think France, not Sweden), shouldn’t we expect to see later-generation immigrants in New York become less like their law-abiding parents and more like second-generation immigrants in Paris?”

What host countries can do and what methods they can employ to speed up the integration of their second-generation immigrants is yet to be concluded, and it will take more than this article or a few studies to come up with a solution. All that is certain is that any government would be wise to avoid forceful assimilation or the suppression of ethnic and religious identities, and should instead focus on developing a sense of belonging and welcome that encourages a smooth integration process.

That may take time, perhaps even another generation, but it will ensure that major clashes between communities can be avoided, and will make perpetual resistance to authority unnecessary, simply because there will be little enforced authority to resist.

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Another claim espoused by the far-right that must be countered is that of an alien “takeover” of France and other European states. That is an easy claim to market and absorb, with plenty of online footage showing foreign “military-age males” camping on the streets of European capitals or gathering in makeshift or government transit camps. There is also a wealth of footage from the recent riots, highlighting the involvement of youths from the second-generation immigrant communities.

Such a claim, though, fails to take into account the fact that the vast majority of the French population – statistics vary, but it’s around 85 per cent – is “white” and “ethnic French”. Although the birth-rate of ethnic minorities contributes significantly to the country’s population, their demographic dominance is still a very distant possibility, if ever.

Nevertheless, even if the “ethnic French” do become a minority, it does not necessarily mean the “downfall of France” or the dominance of other cultures. French culture still dominates the government and security services, and is likely to continue to do so. The security services are very much in control of the situation and have taken sweeping measures, arresting thousands during the riots. They will, do doubt, take advantage of the new surveillance laws allowing unprecedented monitoring of devices, data and locations of those alleged to have been involved.

A majority does not necessitate rulership, and rulership does not require a majority. A strong and stable monopoly over security, as well as an established elite who control financial capital, are all an ethnic group needs to maintain power over the majority.

How else did European colonial powers rule over vast populations in their empires? In a more contemporary perspective, how else does the Israeli state rule over a population which is majority Palestinian and outnumbers Jewish Israelis who – despite the immigration of settlers – are fighting a losing demographic battle?

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Similarly, European states such as France are still controlled by their “natives”, whether in government, the fiscal authorities, the military and security agencies, or their “Establishment”. The far-right demagogues know that minority ethnic or religious groups will not be changing that fact any time soon. They also that their opposition to migrants of all backgrounds rests solely on racism and a sense of white entitlement, which will always find an “Other” to attack, and always has.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.