Early sign of alienation was booing of 'La Marseillaise'

A football match between France and Algeria provided one of the first warning shots to the French political elite from the heart of the banlieues.

As the band struck up "La Marseillaise" before the friendly match in the Stade de France, in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, the national anthem was booed. But what shocked France was that those who booed were not Algerian fans but French-born second and third-generation immigrants with French nationality. The banlieues had spoken, and the catcalls from the suburbs were telling the government that the country's model of integration had failed.

That incident took place in October 2001, six years after President Jacques Chirac was first elected, having campaigned on a platform of healing the "social fracture" of poverty and exclusion that left millions of citizens out in the cold.

In Aulnay-sous-Bois last Saturday morning, a similar scene was played out in which the elected representatives of the republic were reminded that the "social fracture" is more serious than ever, and that the young Arabs on the estates still feel alienated from a mainstream society which has abandoned them to their own devices.

The mayor of Aulnay, Gérard Gaudron, had hoped that a march would mobilise the population against the violence on the estates and bring out a sense of solidarity. But as soon as a group of city councillors and shopkeepers began singing "La Marseillaise" there were noisy complaints from the crowd.

There has always been a broad consensus on "republican values" in France, based on the revolutionary slogan of liberty, fraternity and equality. Rejecting the US model of the "melting pot" and British tolerance of the customs of ethnic minorities, France officially dismisses any consideration of race, creed or colour that could undermine national unity. Indeed ethnic minority is not a recognised concept, where the theoretically colour-blind state does not distinguish between categories of citizens.

But it is that certainty which has been shaken by the debate over the banning of Muslim headscarves in France's officially secular schools and by the riots.

General de Gaulle established l'Ena, the top school for French administrators, after the Second World War out of the spirit of the Resistance: he aimed to provide a modern, neutral administration that would run the country according to republican values. Fifty years on the énarques, as they are known, still run the country, but have infiltrated all the political parties to become a kind of political aristocracy removed from everyday life. From Dominique de Villepin, the Prime Minister, on the right to François Hollande and Laurent Fabius on the left, top politicians are a product of l'Ena whose original aims have been perverted over time.

Needless to say, few of the seven million Muslims in France have gone through l'Ena and they are desperately under-represented in the corridors of power. France only has a few token blacks with a public profile: the government has an Algerian-born minister for integration, Azouz Begag, while a Togolese Socialist, Kofi Yamgnane, heads the Foundation for Integration. Mr Yamgnane called yesterday for a return to republican values.

The hardline Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, a non-énarque, is the only French politician to call for a break with the country's model of integration - and indeed with the broader French economic model of state intervention - by calling for affirmative action to ease ethnic minorities into work.

But so far, the rest of the elite on both right and left sees his ideas as an open challenge to the ideals on which the French state has been built since 1789.

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