The ire of young immigrants who set fires in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities has smoldered for 30 years, but it now blazes in any living room with a TV set. The stories about why France is on fire are many, and they all tell how hard it is to reach the ideal of liberté, egalité, and fraternité.
One of these stories will sound familiar to people of all Western nations: An urbane society needs a cheap labor force for menial jobs. Somebody needs to force-feed geese to make fois gras.
Others tell the story of a well-meaning government with a generous welfare system that backfired. "The right wing in charge with Chirac has done a dreadful job," says Philippe Malidor, a French journalist of religion and society. "They demolished a few good things done by the Left, especially the so-called proximity police [which provided a way for local police to engage the youth in volatile areas]. They privileged repression over social action with the youth." France's 10 percent unemployment disproportionately affects immigrant guest workers and their naturalized children, who, depending on the suburb, face up to 60 percent unemployment.
Another story tells of France's changing numbers: as birthrates among the indigenous French decline (a trend that's echoed in all industrialized nations), the birth rates among poor immigrants are rising. More numbers: Educated, middle-class women get up to €1,000 a monthalmost the minimum wageto stop working for a year and have a third child.
And there's another storyor myth, if you willabout France's society. In France, say the French, there are no "minority" citizens. There are only the French. The society refuses to ask its citizens about their ethnicity in census forms. But everyone knows where the brown-faced African immigrants live: in concrete high rise towers, the architectural eyesores, many with 100 flats and up to 3,000 families.
Another story is about exasperated young people desperate to get a hearing to talk about some of these stories. And about choosing wrong means to do so.
The religion angle
Where the stories all tie together is what the French detest to talk about in polite company or in government meetings: religion. It so happens that the young and the restless are followers of Islam, up to five million of France's 60 million population.
But the French arsonists are a religious story only by default. The Qur'an doesn't ordain setting property, or its owners, on fire. Sébastien Fath, who researches evangelicalism at the National Center for Scientific Research at the Sorbonne, is adamant that "radical Islam communities have done their best to stop the violence. Far from nurturing the riots, these Muslims are trying to calm down the youth. Most of the few ones who shouted Allahu Akbar [God is Great] during the riots are not devout Muslims."
Even if the arsonists aren't devout practitioners of Islam, the raging violence is still a story about religion. The rioters are believers who are children of believers. The religion of their parents is incompatible with laïcité, the French society's well-oiled order according to which church and state stay out of each other's way. Such a system is compatible with, and even protective of, Christianity, because the teachings of Christ can work well within a democracy. But Islam just isn't this adaptable.
One example: Last year, presidents of French universities released a declaration to bar religious activity at universities. "One reason for thatand it's awfully controversial to say sois that Islamic activists have been active in the university," says David Brown, the head of University Bible Groups (the French equivalent of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship). "They demanded that they should be able to lay out their prayer mats during examinations, for example. Or they refused to take an oral exam with a female professor."
The schools seem to have overreacted to these agitations by limiting the freedom of expression of those who do not violate principles of democracy. As a result, University Bible Groups finds it harder to meet on university campuses.
This mutual incompatibility between the secular state and Islam is why Muslim families haven't assimilated well into French culture. Consequently, they have found it hard to get decent jobs. And they have found it hard to make friends with the "French French." This gives rise to discriminationin which immigrants are both victims and perpetrators. And this, in turn, leads to desperation and stupid ways of dealing with it, like drug trafficking. When you're economically forced to live in cramped quarters with parents and even grandparents, it's easy to feel trapped. And those who feel trapped often feel the need to break out.
What can be done about this complex web of stories? Have Christ's followers dared to tread where the government cannot? Have they become the social safety net that catches what the federal bureaucracy disposes?
When asked about it, they're very French. They offer disclaimers. They minimize their role. They shrug their shoulders and shake their heads.
"I would love French evangelical Christians to be a social safety net, but all too often they are hiding in the woodwork!" says Nogent Bible Institute's lecturer in practical theology André Pownall, who himself socializes and networks with the immigrants, and loves them with Christ's love. "French Christians have joined in the 'white flight' from these troubled suburbs. With rapid transportation, many of our Paris churches are regional rather than local, and have little contact with the suburb in which they are situated."
A missionary who has worked with Muslims in France for many years and who asked to keep his identity confidential to protect the Muslim converts he ministers to, adds that evangelicals "don't like to live in the cites, to do evangelism there, to locate new churches there, or to engage in social ministries there." Instead, they rely on the government, which "is very active funding federally controlled social work."
But the government, he says, "has no answers for the deeper problems that only the gospel can provide. Meaning: identity and acceptance, values, belonging, goals and objectives for life that have an eternal significance, solidarity, and love experienced in the community of the church."
What the missionary doesn't say is that he himself is the answer to these problems. He is one of the followers of Christ who do care, who do have tea with immigrants, who visit with the poor, who befriend the brown-skinned. He, Pownall, and so many others Christianity Today heard from on the eleventh day of violence.
Pastor Jean-Christophe Bieselaar's idea for quelling the unrest is simple: Churches must become multicultural. Notice how he speaks of "becoming" churches, not "building" them. "If a church lives the unity that Christ called us to live," he says, "we will be healing communities of ethnic and religious tensions the church that Jesus prayed for."
The white Frenchman heads up La Défense Alliance Church in the progressive business suburb of Paris. The faces of his congregation foreshadow the ethnic mix of heaven. The mostly immigrant community, representing at least 20 countries, started a social ministry two months ago.
"Once a month, people can meet for free with two professional social workers, both members of the church, to explain their problems," says Bieselaar. "We try to help solve problems and redirect the persons to the right administration and social work. We listen, give advice, and sometimes assist in a very practical way. We have been dealing so far with people who have been financially bankrupt and those who have been looking for a job but did not know where to start. Our church is then becoming a resource center, both spiritually and socially."
Other group do similar ministry in the seething suburbs: the Salvation Army, some Baptist groups, and others, which prefer to work quietly by making friends with the immigrants, one by one.
Of course, evangelicals can only do so much (thank God some other Protestants and Catholics are also involved in reaching out to Muslims). There are 350,000 of them and 5 million Muslims among the 60 million people who live in France.
But even France's half-a-percent evangelical population can be "a helpful, salutary safety net for some," says Henri Blocher, a well-respected Parisian pastor who also serves as adjunct professor at Wheaton College.
"Maybe," he ventures, "no better tool for integration into an old European nation could be found, if one sees things from a sociological-political angle." Christian parachurch organizations and churches provide immigrants with "family-like warmth," he says. "That is most wanted." They also hook people up with jobs, living quarters, and a way to navigate through the French bureaucracy.
The French Christiansthe real ones, who make room for Christ in their heartsmay be few and far between. But when the few of them reach out to a Muslimlike a minority to a minority, like one son of Abraham to anotherthen it warms the heart. And takes away from the ire and fire.
Then the true liberté, egalité, fraternité takes hold, little by little.
Agnieszka Tennant is senior associate editor of Christianity Today. In March, she reported on the growth of French Christianity in "The French Reconnection."
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Agnieszka Tennant is also author of our March 2005 cover story, The French Reconnection.