Fixing France: France is broken, and it's far worse than you think
French-Algerian journalist and academic Nabila Ramdani, author of Fixing France: How To Repair A Broken Republic, published by PublicAffairs and Hurst, is a self-proclaimed unusual voice on France.
She’s not your 'typical white woman' who comes from privilege and has decided to pontificate on the state of France.
The journalist and academic was born to Algerian Muslim parents in France, grew up on a Paris council estate and has interviewed numerous politicians throughout her journalistic career including far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and President Emmanuel Macron himself.
In her book, Ramdani tackles the big issues facing the French Republic, even if she doesn’t offer all the answers.
“France is a very easy place to idealise,” writes Ramdani, in Fixing France, which reads like an anthology of essays that fall somewhere between memoir, political opining and history textbook on France.
She explores politics, society, the far-right, terrorism, education, identity, feminism, economics and foreign policy, offering views on each.
The premise of the book condemns the 65-year-old Fifth Republic and suggests “a radical overhaul,” and indeed “a progressive Sixth Republic.”
Ramdani discusses her early ambition to write a book and how she wanted to compete with more conventional writers.
“They say you should write about what you know, and I know masses about modern France, and all its problems," she explained to The New Arab.
"I was very conscious that the book market is dominated by a very privileged class who went to the right schools and universities, and who come from rich, very comfortable backgrounds. I wanted to prove I could compete with them, despite coming from a very modest, council estate background, where writing books was unheard of. This really drove me,” says Ramdani.
Ramdani says that she wrote her book to debunk the myths and to highlight a country where political institutions aren’t necessarily “fit for purpose.” Her analysis exposes corruption at the heart of the Paris establishment.
Ramdani goes on to write: “Teachers at my infant school, following the national curriculum, told me and my classmates that, no matter what our heritage, we owed a large debt of gratitude to fair-skinned, red-haired tribesmen from the Iron Age and the early Roman period.”
She says that when it comes to “being French… submission was encouraged” to values and beliefs that as a Muslim-Algerian she found difficult to adhere to.
Ramdani says, “One of the aims of my book is to cut through the myths and describe a country where there is mass dissent and where political institutions aren’t fit for purpose. While French elites are joining an increasingly powerful transnational global class, those left behind are becoming more and more dissatisfied. The world is changing rapidly, and France isn’t changing with it – institutions are in urgent need of reform.”
Despite the suggestion of a Sixth Republic Ramdani explains she doesn’t believe in a “utopia” or even a “near-perfect system”, adding: “I just think that reform is essential in any serious society.”
In Fixing France, Ramdani says moving abroad was an option for success; she has since taught both in the US at Michigan University and the UK at Oxford University.
“A perennial criticism of modern France is that it relies on its history, including its myths, and that it doesn’t move on. I’d like to see a more Anglo-Saxon work ethic, with people from every class and background given the chance to compete economically. Such opportunities should extend into the social system, with those from disadvantaged backgrounds incentivised to elevate themselves."
Ramdani’s suggestion of establishing a Sixth Republic on an Anglo-Saxon work ethic seems hollow. There’s no perfect system as she herself admits and she doesn’t make a strong enough argument to acknowledge the limitations of an Anglo-Saxon work ethic for it to be seriously considered in the user manual of a revolution for the Sixth Republic.
Ramdani attributes her success to the English language, and to academia in the UK and the US remarking that, “neither country let me down.”
She says that she was accepted for “Who I am, and not what I look like, or where I came from” but as a British Muslim woman in the UK myself, who was born and has lived here my entire life, I can say I have been discriminated against throughout my career because of how I look – especially because I wear a headscarf – and coming from a working-class background. In part, this is where Ramdani’s user manual on a new Republic reads like a memoir, her analysis led by her success.
She adds, “I wouldn’t say that my experience growing up in France was a complete failure – but I certainly experienced structural challenges including being held back by a system that is not designed for people like me. I kept my head down and worked hard, but for many from ethnic and religious minorities, the barriers are insurmountable because they are institutionalised. These range from discrimination to a woeful lack of opportunities.”
While advocating for an Anglo-Saxon approach, Ramdani qualifies that: “What may ultimately stop the modern French Republic from failing is for it to live up to its own once exalted reputation and motto of 'liberty, equality, fraternity.'"
Asked about the future of France and her optimism for change, Ramdani explains that, ultimately, change will come if action is taken.
“I’m generally an optimist about everything and don’t think any of us should ever give up hope. Yes, my book expresses anger and disappointment, but it isn’t an overly negative one. It highlights problems that need dealing with, and I hope that it can influence and motivate change for the better. We all need to talk to each other, to say what we think is wrong, and – ultimately – to do something about it."
Mariam Khan is a British writer and activist. She is the editor of It's Not About the Burqa, an anthology of essays by Muslim women
Follow her on Twitter @helloiammariam