French Elite Are from Mars, Youth Are from Venus

France is Witnessing a Clash of Generations Rather than Identities

Protests on Labor Day in Paris, France. (Getty)
Protests on Labor Day in Paris, France. (Getty)

French Elite Are from Mars, Youth Are from Venus

It is seemingly possible to borrow the famous headline of the well-known John Gray book “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” to describe the current French political/cultural situation. While the general atmosphere is charged with myriad identity debates, statistics show that France is preoccupied with greater significant and more crucial concerns. While vast circles of the French elite are engaged in “Byzantine arguments”, the young French generation has transcended them. Amid the widening gap between both camps, a significant protest movement grew represented by the Yellow Vests Protests, which were dispersed but their reasons still exist.

Search for Imagined France

A key factor in the widening gap between France’s youth and elite is the imagined reflection of France which was not attained during the past half century. When the country abounded with revolutionary culture which almost completely embraced its elite in the 1960s, the French society tended to be conservative in way that religion was obviously present in statistics but not in the elites’ political and cultural discourse. In 1966, 89% of the French people stated that they belong to a religion as opposed to 10% who said they don’t believe in any religion. Thirty-two years later, the ration became 55% to 45%. Since September 11, 2001, the French society has witnessed an unprecedented rise of Islamophobia in media and political discourse. A polarization between Islam and Laïcité resulted in a percent of Muslims to be reckoned as taking a defensive position. Statistics showed that 45% of Muslims below 25 years think that Islam is not compatible with the values of French society. One poll revealed that French Laïcité extremism has led to intensifying demands by French Muslims to open the public sphere while confirming that the price would not be abandoning the Sharia law, which most of them view as more important than the values of the Republic, according to the poll.

Therefore, the political rhetoric of a large segment of the elite has triggered a battle between France’s Muslims and elite, as the later insists on living the bubble of the imagined France: blonde, Laïcité, free of migrants… in addition to other features of the stereotypical excluding image around which extremists of both sides are entrenched. The French people, meantime, are left outside the field of debate, preoccupied with deteriorating economic conditions, escalating demographic crisis, and future risks coming from Europe’s borders with Russia, not from Muslims nor their different identity.

Shock of February 2022

The Russian invasion of Ukraine came as a shock to the French citizen and has become linked to its date of February 2022. However, the French elite, which has been engrossed in a heightening rhetoric against Muslims for years, received another blow by a wide-scale poll which confirmed that the French elite and the French youth have totally different preoccupations. It seems that the threatening rhetoric against Muslims has become a tennis table game between French Muslims and political extremists among the elite, while most French youth, according to the poll, don’t trust the parties nor understand the Laïcité!

In a recent wide-scale survey of French young people (18 to 24 years old) conducted by Institut Montaigne and published on February 10, results have shown a transformation of priorities and choices between both generations, even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It was necessary that someone stops the “identity cockfight” and asks French youth about “real France” that is hidden behind the dust of Islamophobic battles. According to the website of Monte Carlo Doualiya (MCD), there is a projecting tendency towards a lack of political affiliation and a deteriorating political culture. According to the survey, 55% of young participants indicated that they don’t have any political or party preference, while 61% of them felt they are under-represented in politics. The first shocking result was the declined interest in democracy by 20% compared to their parents’ generation, while only 51% believes that the existence of a democratic government is vital.

In addition to the diminishing interest in democracy, results have unveiled alarming levels of lack of confidence in the entire political elite. 69% of young people surveyed think that politicians are corrupt, not only the regime of the fifth Republic, but literally the whole political elite. Disturbingly, according to MCD report, 25% of young people said that it’s possible to use violence against elected officials, while 37% of them support “the yellow vests”. As for the principles of the French Laïcité that the far-right extremists have been using as a fuel to their battle against Muslims in France, the survey uncovered that French youth in general do not understand it.

In March 2021, the same MCD published report showing the results of a similar poll under the headline of “A Survey that Shook French Schools”. The survey was conducted by The Institut Français d'Opinion Publique (IFOP) for International League Against Anti-Semitism (LICRA); it included 1006 French high school students and was published by Le Point magazine. The survey’s results highlighted the students’ special perspective of secularism. The report state, “the results are shocking for defenders of secularism”. One of its results was that 52% of the students opposed the right to criticize beliefs and religious symbols. The number rose to 79% among Muslim students, while it didn’t exceed 45% in Catholic students and 47% in atheist students. In addition, 10% of students surveyed said they did not condemn or show interest in the 2015 attacks, up from 4% in 2016!

A percent of 52 of surveyed students agreed to wearing or displaying obvious religious symbol (hijab, cross, kippah) in public schools; this is double its corresponding percent among the general French people which don’t exceed 25%.  Also, 49% of the students don’t object that public workers show their religious affiliations. Another 38% of participants agree that a law be issued to permit burkini (the Islamic swimming attire for women), while the percent rises to 76 among Muslim students.

The most surprising and shocking number was that 37% of surveyed students view that laws aimed at implementing secularism are discriminatory against Muslims, with 81% of Muslim students viewing the same.

Threats to Identity

The aforementioned statistics reflect a major transformation in France, with significant changes in the younger generation’s perspective. Consequently, the crisis has to do with generations not with identities, at least in a considerable part of it. Given its far-reaching impact, globalization has contributed to the rise of generations that are less interested in issues of “communitarianism”, atop of which are the identity and its signs. While attempting to expand their individual freedom of choice – an old/new conflict, these new generations, affected by the logic of pleasure and consumerism, don’t mind that “globalized” freedom can include freedom of faith without discrimination. This means that the “Laïcité” is paying the price of globalization’s expansion in western societies, just as southern and eastern ones. In fact, the issues of the present generation are not decided nor prioritized by ideologies that deprive individuals from their right to choose or make choices in their behalf.

Perhaps the experience of Ayachi Ajroudi, the French presidential candidate of Tunisian decent, is an example of the change that the far right doesn’t want to see, just as some Muslims would deny or justify the existence of terrorism. Ajroudi’s candidacy, even if he couldn’t make it to the end of the race, is highlighting the presence of migrants which can not be omitted by racist fancies of an election bid. The man who is born in the Tunisian city of Gabes has been successful in such a competitive climate and in an atmosphere of unofficial discrimination against migrants. When he had the opportunity to join the public field, he has been able to think as a French and talk as a French without abandoning his Tunisian origins. Moreover, he didn’t slide into “the conflict of identities” which didn’t yield positive results neither for its creators nor its random targets. Ajroudi’s “futuristic” rhetoric transcends the imagined maps of polarization, and envisage an expandable horizon for France towards peace and harmony.

Will the near future witness the building of a bridge between “Mars” and “Venus”, so that French factions will reach an intellectual and generational agreement?


* Sama Mamdouh El-Sheikh is a researcher in political sciences from Egypt.

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