Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Roots of French Disorder

What if there’s nothing the country could do to unalienate its restless, riot-ready ethnic youth?

(Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)

As France awakens, shell-shocked and ash-strewn, from a nearly week-long hexagon-wide blitzkrieg against the Republic’s symbols and sanctuaries, readers intrigued by what’s next should pick up The Geometry of Despair (2006). The title could resonate with any number of Houellebecqian themes, but this particular bildungsroman stands thematically apart from anything else the enfant terrible of French literature has produced in his 30-year career. 

The main character’s “despair” is not so easily assuaged with Houellebecq’s usual dose of antidepressants and pornography in a France increasingly submerged by both—the therapy involves leaving France altogether in search of a new identity. David Behaim, a Sephardic Jew born into an Algerian family, has poured his soul into becoming French, only to find out that France’s stubbornly naïve indulgence with mass migration leaves him no other option than making aliyah to Israel. 


As you would expect, David’s “despair” has a particular geometry. When his family moved to a habitation à loyer modéré (HLM) in Montreuil, in the infamous 93rd county north of Paris, his HLM’s stature—reaching for the sky higher than the Eiffer Tower—allegorized the family’s hopes of upward assimilation. Ultimately, the family’s dreams and aspirations, shrouded in suburban quietness, atrophy into a noisy and horrendous nightmare that epitomizes what France is fast becoming.

David is born in 1963 into a Jewish family that, the year before, had fled Algeria before the looming anti-colonialist victory in the country’s bloody civil war. The Front de libération nationale (FLN) was threatening to drive out all pied-noirs, Jews and gentiles alike, but the Benhaims trusted that General de Gaulle would emerge with a plot-twisting defense of France’s overseas territories that didn’t happen. If the Benhaims had previously prospered as outwardly secular French patriots, all too happy to subordinate their faith to the imperative of assimilation, their move across the Mediterranean further tightened the secularizing corset. 

David recalls his mother yelling at him one Shabbat when he forgot to take off his kippah (a name his family de-Hebraized into “calotte”) upon leaving synagogue. At his bar mitzvah (another name Christianized into “communion”), David’s parents asked for a half-gentile guestlist (and preferably half-Christian). The Benhaims worshiped the God of Israel at home but eagerly replaced Him in public with the godly French Republic, a kind of secular deity. This god had its own mandates and strictures: honor the flag, speak the language, aspire to move up the social ladder through sheer hard work, and assimilate. They asked not to be referred to as “Jews” but as “Frenchmen of Judaic faith”. Had they been asked to change their sons’ name to something Christian, they would have gladly assented.

But the Benhaims’ idyll of Francization began to unravel toward the end of the Trente Glorieuses in the late 1970s, as waves of Muslim migrants followed in their footsteps with a wholly different appraisal of what a first-world country’s welcome demanded in return. Renault had built an assembly plant in nearby Rosny-sous-Bois, turning Montreuil into its dormitory. When the plant’s workers began petitioning for family reunification instead of heading back south, Montreuil wasn’t revitalized by the new Arab blood in quite the way the Benhaims expected. 

Symptomatic of what sociologists at the time called “le malaise des grands ensembles”, David’s new Arab classmates—and those born in France in their wake—lived in crowded, single-earner homes in the architecturally brutal HLMs the city’s socialist mayor kept erecting. In a scene likely inspired by the death of Ilan Halimi, David is once robbed on his way back from school by three youths who thought they could extort any Jew for riches. Montreuil’s only synagogue is vandalized in a riot triggered by the death of a 16-year-old in police custody, a fictionalized version of what became a frequent occurrence through the 1980s and 1990s.


Once on weekend leave, David finds a posse of his former classmates loitering in his HLM’s front yard. They deal hard drugs and taunt him with antisemitic slurs. David, who had forged an overpowering identity out of his instinctive Frenchness, begins feeling out of place amid these French-born cast outs who revile not just France, but French Jews specifically. He finds little succor in the political class that he once admired, which had proudly hailed the country’s post-war immigration as a win-win model but which seemed befuddled when the model earned the bile of its intended beneficiaries. 

The left refuses to admit the problem’s ethnic and religious undertones in a senseless bid to avoid “amalgamating” the outlaws with what few law-abiding Arabs live in their midst; thus it reduces the integration quandary to a socio-economic glitch solvable through investments in public services and state-subsidized employment. The right, meanwhile, is more willing to speak plainly, but nevertheless offers little to David’s family besides moving out of the town that saw him grow up, as other wealthier Jews have done, which they can’t afford. Together, both socialists and Gaullists seem unable to see the ineffectiveness of the solution they’ve been cowed into, namely, expensive plans for urban renewal and pouring billions into the very institutions and public services these thugs abhor: public schools, police stations, sport facilities, and town halls.

Meanwhile, and largely as a response to rising antisemitism, David begins to witness—and later partakes in—an identitarian regression within the working-class Sephardic community, which has all but lost patience with republicanism. At the risk of even viler taunts and attacks, David and his cousins rebel by donning the kippah outdoors and hanging in their rooms a flag not of France but of Israel. David even hesitates to drop out of his mathematics doctorate at École Polytechnique to seek rabbinical ordainment. He sours on the country’s Jewish bourgeoisie as he gets drawn into the dragnet of an ever-deepening gulf within the community. 

On one side lies the elite of mostly secular, Parisian, Ashkenazi Jews whose grandparents arrived from eastern Europe in the interwar period and survived the Holocaust. They’re left-leaning and wield considerable influence through the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF). They’re absorbed in a war against all discriminations—even imaginary ones—and refuse to single out Arab antisemitism for fear of typecasting the entire community. On the other side lie the suburban, religiously observant Jewish grassroots abandoned by that elite, made up of Sephardic families from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Having coexisted within Arab society before immigrating to France, they know that antisemitism’s roots are sunk deep within Arab culture, and they’re not afraid to say so.

David ultimately abandons hope in a multiracial but cohesive France, moves to Netanya (Israel) and becomes a successful tech entrepreneur. His story fits into what scholars call “triangular migration”, referring to Jewish families who left the Maghreb in the 1960s, lived in France for a generation, but ended up in Israel by the 1990s. It is a story so common and plausible that you likely haven’t checked whether Houellebecq did indeed write The Geometry of Despair. He didn’t; the story is made up, our own invention. Not that the author isn’t inspired by the slide of the banlieues into crime-infested hotbeds of Islamism; he’s simply not interested in the Jewish experience of that degeneration. 

Houellebecq’s only Jewish character is the girlfriend of Submission’s (2015) protagonist, François, who leaves him heartbroken when she makes aliyah (“there’s no Israel for me”). Houellebecq is in fact more inclined to fictionalize the tearing up of France’s social fabric through a lens that is both Catholic and rural. Serotonin (2019), Houellebecq’s second-to-last novel, provides a window into a rotten, depopulated campagne where farmers use their own pesticides to commit suicide. Contrary to the oft-peddled narrative, banlieues have not been forgotten—they’ve been showered with a gravy train of public money to the tune of €10 billion a year. David’s made-up story points to the purposelessness of those investments—and, indirectly, to the abandonment of rural France.

Why is a Jewish lens relevant in grasping the profound drivers behind the mayhem that French society is now waking up from? Put simply, the French Sephardic experience is living proof that the country does not seek to integrate immigrants and their offspring in some cruel, discriminatory manner—the problem, rather, are the migrants themselves who wish not to be assimilated. Jews in banlieues like Montreuil were working-class, too, sometimes even poor. Most had owned small businesses in their countries of origin but had to forfeit them in favor of a life where the only energy propelling them forward was their sheer grit and willingness to become French. 

French Sephardim were just as vulnerable to the so-called “systemic racism” that allegedly plagues the French state; not only are they physically indistinguishable from Arabs, but French police are often unable to distinguish Jewish family names from Arab ones. They rarely ended up in trouble quite simply because they chose to play by the rules, respect their neighbors, stay out of trouble, and get ahead lawfully. Their experience is a living testament that “systemic racism” is a hoax, that criminality is a choice, and that the only reason why French blacks and browns end up in jail more often is because of individual moral failure. This in turn skews the statistics of proneness to crime within their communities, thus leaving the police with no other criteria to crack down on it than by skin color.

What has changed, as of 2023, since David’s fictional journey from his deliberate and overt French identity to the identitarian Zionism of his adult years? For one thing, new groups have altered the political arithmetic every time some alleged instance of “police abuse” triggers a restless youth into ruthless vandalism. Granted, the restrictionist camp—better incarnated by Éric Zemmour’s upstart Reconquête party than by Marine le Pen’s Rassemblement National—is reaching new heights of support, with even far-right groups emboldened to self-organize into protecting their neighborhoods and towns from the rioters. 

But the latter are also given unprecedented cover by the far left, which justifies riots as a just and proportional response to alleged police abuse (Because of this rhetoric, Zemmour is calling for a trial of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Islamo-leftist La France Insoumise party for sedition). Upon oscillating between the two, Macron’s response to the riots is now markedly tilting left, with ceaseless calls to “avoid amalgamating.” He also seems on track to double down on the same failed formula of yore: urban renewal as a pathway to unalienate youths who wish to remain alienated. 

The Sephardic community’s alienation toward the 1990s was, in this respect, the canary in the coalmine that all but a few refused to see. Instead, France keeps wishfully thinking that the riots can be dealt with as a law-and-order problem, rather than an immigration one. But what if even that was hopeless too?