When rioting broke out two weeks ago in Clichy-sous-Bois, an impoverished Parisian suburb with a largely Arab and African population, France turned as usual to its triumvirate of top government officials: President Jacques Chirac, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Chirac, still chastened by last summer's defeat of the EU constitution, provided little solace. On Sunday, ten days after the unrest began, he finally addressed the country, only to offer a rather toothless warning that "those who sow violence or fear will be apprehended, tried, and punished." (Le Monde immediately editorialized that his speech was "vague and abrupt in tone.") De Villepin and Sarkozy have acted more decisively, but still clumsily: Their shows of statesmanship have consisted mostly of awkward visits with young people and policemen in the inflamed neighborhoods, and talking up the durability of the Fifth Republic.
But while Paris's three political superstars occupy center stage, it's a lesser-known official who best embodies the ineffectiveness of the French government's response: Minister for the Promotion of Equal Opportunity Azouz Begag. A first-time public servant, Begag has only been on the job since last June, when de Villepin and Chirac lured him away from academia. Already, though, he's come to serve as the political face of France's maghr?bin (North African) community. Begag, who was born in France to Algerian immigrant parents, is a sociologist known for his writings on multiculturalism. He's a natural pick for a position that involves reaching out to France's legions of disgruntled first-generation ethnic minorities. He's an accomplished novelist who is well respected by France's native intellectual elite. And with his pedigree, he would seem to be the ideal figure to bridge the rarefied Palais de l'Elys?e and the hard-scrabble banlieues. Unfortunately, he's done little so far to bring those two worlds together.
When Begag accepted his ministerial post, he could hardly have predicted the recent riots. In fact, he most likely thought his job would be a series of public relations stops--visiting France's ethnic enclaves, speaking to university students, and defending Chirac and de Villepin's weak-kneed strategies for racial harmony. His first few months on the job proceeded according to this script: Mostly, he granted interviews in which he called for more people of color to get involved in television, business, and government. And while Begag was once a strong believer in discrimination positive (the French term for affirmative action) he has since come around to a blander program of republican egalitarianism. This puts him in direct opposition to that other son of immigrants, Sarkozy, and in line with the current status quo. So far, Begag's greatest contribution to a stable and racially diverse France has been semantic: Eschewing the French ideal of "integration," he suggested the term "equal opportunity" in a 2004 report, and was later rewarded with a ministerial department of that name.
Begag's response to the riots has been similarly underwhelming. On October 27, two teenaged boys were electrocuted as they hid from police in a power substation. This was the event that precipitated the subsequent violence. Begag seems to have remained silent until October 30, when he emerged to comment, and then only indirectly. "We must not call these young people 'scum,'" he told a French television station, referring to an outburst by Sarkozy. Begag later elaborated his critique of his colleague to a local newspaper, complaining that "when Sarkozy made those comments ... he neither warned nor consulted me." The interior minister's statement may have been intemperate, but Begag has hardly countered with inspiring words of his own. He reliably appears in photographs beside de Villepin at emergency meetings, tacitly endorsing the government's bumbling implementation of curfews and calls for calm. More recently, de Villepin announced plans for a large government agency devoted to "social cohesion and equal opportunity." Begag is almost certain to play a significant role; he has not been dynamic, but he has certainly not been disloyal.
It's true that Begag has made some useful contributions to the French discussion of race. The 2004 report that earned him his current post contained reasonable suggestions, such as a recommendation to add more minorities to the police force. And since his appointment, he has served as a symbol of how the country's long-standing egalitarian institutions can accommodate, even benefit, a person of African or Arab descent. He has been particularly careful to honor the country's tradition of complete separation of state and religion. "We have to take the 'Islam question' out of the public square," he told Le Monde in July. "It completely contradicts our efforts to integrate people into a secular space." But, as these past few weeks of violence have revealed, just because the government of France can ignore issues of race and religion does not mean that its citizens can as well. Begag is rightly weary of identity politics taking over his country. But if he doesn't start discussing them, someone much worse will.
Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.