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Book Review: Fixing France: How to Repair a Broken Republic

05 Jun 2024
Reviewed by Dr Fraser McQueen

Nabila Ramdani’s Fixing France explores the paradox of a nation that claims to be egalitarian yet is profoundly divided along racial and religious lines. Through ten thematic chapters, Ramdani examines these divisions and suggests solutions to address France’s entrenched structural problems, making the book valuable for both general readers and students.

Early in Fixing France the author notes that “as with numerous young French people in recent years, I had to go abroad to further my life chances.” More specifically, Ramdani left her homeland for the UK and US, studying and teaching at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, London School of Economics, and Oxford University, before her award-winning career as a journalist and broadcaster. At first glance, it may read as paradoxical that a highly educated person of colour would escape marginalisation by leaving the land of liberté, égalité, fraternité for two nations with their own chequered histories of racist exclusion. And yet, Ramdani’s story is not unusual: both anecdotal evidence and recent research underline that there is a widespread perception among French people of colour that they must leave France, often for the Anglosphere, to receive equal consideration to their white peers.

These experiences speak to a central paradox of contemporary French politics, which Ramdani sets out to explore: how did a nation that proudly asserts, in the first article of its constitution, its refusal to differentiate between citizens based on race or religion, become so profoundly divided along those exact lines? Not only does the prospect of a far-right Rassemblement national (previously Front national) government under Marine Le Pen look all too feasible as the presidential election of 2027 approaches, Éric Zemmour, who outflanked Le Pen on the right, took seven percent of votes in the first round of the 2022 instalment. Meanwhile, the current self-styled centrist administration has embraced discourses almost indistinguishable from those of the far right, most notably around the putative harm being done to French society by a so-called “‘Islamo-leftism.” As debates rage around these issues of race and identity, rising socio-economic inequalities generate similar levels of discontent, as evinced in the mass protests against the current government’s recent reforms to state pensions.

Ramdani both probes the underlying causes of these problems and suggests solutions: ways in which the French state could start to tackle its entrenched structural problems. Her personal and professional background make her uniquely well positioned to do so; Ramdani has covered French politics for outlets including Sky News, Al Jazeera, and CNN, and has written for outlets such as The Guardian, The Daily Mail, and The Washington Post. She has met and interviewed the protagonists of the events she describes, including presidents and opposition leaders like Marine Le Pen and her father, Jean-Marie. She is also a French person of Algerian heritage, raised in the neglected banlieues of Paris. Ramdani’s perspective thus brings together professional expertise and lived experience.

The book is divided into ten thematic chapters, each exploring the fault lines dividing contemporary France through its own specific lens. These include hot button issues like the rise of the far right, terrorism, or France’s problematic relationship with feminism. France’s national education system, economy, and foreign policy are also all duly considered. Although there is some overlap between chapters (inevitably so, given that subjects like Politics, Society, and Identity do not exist in a vacuum), the clear thematic structure is one of the book’s strengths. While it rewards a cover-to-cover reading, each chapter is sufficiently self-contained to be read in isolation. In conjunction with Ramdani’s accessible prose, this enables readers to home in on areas of particular interest to them, a feature that will appeal both to a general readership and to undergraduates (I have added the book to several of my reading lists for students in French Studies and Comparative Literature, but sections will also interest students of other subjects including Politics, Sociology, or International Relations).

Several factors that Ramdani diagnoses as underpinning France’s social divides are familiar to French studies scholars, but less so to students or lay audiences. These include, for example, a putatively “colour-blind” republican model and its inability to support discussion of structural racial inequalities (particularly given the legal impediments that it places before attempts to gather so-called “ethnic statistics”); the joint role of French state secularism (laïcité), and a white (pseudo-) feminism in generating the structural exclusion of Muslim women who wear a veil or headscarf; and the militarisation of policing. Ramdani also highlights little-discussed issues that help to illuminate the position in which France finds itself—that the current constitution was written in 1958 following a military coup d’état during the Algerian War of Independence; that until 2015, the deadliest terror attack on French soil was perpetrated by the far-right Organisation de l’armée secrète, again during the Algerian War of Independence; and that French police are permitted to, and regularly do, wield against civilian protesters tear gas that international treaties regulating the use of chemical weapons prohibit on the battlefield.

To Ramdani’s credit, rather than merely lamenting the problems of contemporary France, she proposes solutions. These include the installation of a sixth Republic with an elected prime minister; the abandonment of “colour-blind” policies like those preventing the gathering of statistical data pertaining to race; and the replacement of paramilitary police units with community officers. Readers may question both the likelihood of such measures to be implemented and how effective they would be if they were applied. Nonetheless, the book provokes reflection on these issues rather than making the all-too-easy slide into fatalism. Similarly, readers in the UK or US may object to Ramdani’s positive descriptions of race relations in each nation, objecting that even if their problems differ from those of France, entrenched structural inequalities persist in both. It bears repeating, in this context, that Ramdani is far from the only French person of colour to have favourably compared her experiences in the Anglosphere with those in her homeland.

The reformist, rather than revolutionary, nature of the solutions noted above points to another important element of the book: despite her scathing critiques of the French political establishment, Ramdani’s arguments are moderate. At a time when progressive discourses are habitually dismissed by mainstream French politicians and commentators as “Islamo-leftism,” Ramdani calls not for police abolition but for restrictions on the use of force; for greater state investment in deprived suburban banlieues, to be financed partly by an inheritance tax; and that bloated state spending should be reduced. She describes not only Marine Le Pen, but also leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, as “extremists.” While highly critical of Emmanuel Macron, Ramdani reads as someone who could have been won over had he kept the socially and economically liberal promises of his 2017 election campaign, alienated by his swift hard-right turn. Again, readers may agree or disagree, but the moderate nature of Ramdani’s arguments further highlights that one need not be a radical to be deeply concerned by the reactionary turn of contemporary French politics.

Overall, Fixing France provides a valuable overview of the problems facing France. It is accessible and engaging enough to appeal to lay readers while retaining the rigour to be used in educational settings. Moreover, the book possesses the merit of not only diagnosing problems, but proposing solutions, stimulating readerly reflection. It thus constitutes a strong addition to scholarship on the fault lines dividing contemporary France.

This is a review of Nabila Ramdani’s Fixing France: How to Repair a Broken Republic (Hurst Publishers, 2023). ISBN: 9781805260998

Fraser McQueen is a lecturer in French Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Bristol.

This review article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.