Could it happen here?

Could we have race riots in west Dublin, Parnell Street or Shandon?

What lessons should we learn from France, and what does the violence in the French suburbs tell us about Europe, Ireland and the future?

In the past week, three broad explanations have been advanced to rationalise the chaos raging in France. The first is the �official’ line, which borrows heavily from soft-focus economics and sociology. It can also be described as the left-liberal analysis, and claims that the problem is one of social exclusion. The solution therefore, is fairly straightforward – more jobs, more income and a greater stake in France. The only debate is how you achieve that.

The second explanation could be termed the mainstream, right-wing, �nationalist’ view. It postulates that these (mostly Muslim or black) teenagers have not been forced out of French society, but rather have opted out. They are challenging the authority of the French state in France.

This nationalist analysis has been gaining currency for some time. For example, in 2002 at a France-Algeria football match in Paris, many of the 70,000-strong crowd were young North Africans from the Parisian suburbs who booed La Marseillaise.

France’s star player, Zinedine Zidane, who is of Algerian descent, is a role model for success in the �official’ left-liberal way of looking at things, an example of how poor immigrants can make their way out of the ghetto. Yet, on the night, instead of being celebrated for his successes, he was castigated for having �sold out to France’�.

Therefore, the nationalist conclusion is that the rioters are the “enemy within”.

They are threatening the state and, as French citizens, they have to be brought to heel like anyone else.

Then there is a third idea doing the rounds. Let’s call this the extreme-right or McCarthyite view, which sees al-Qaeda behind everything. Like McCarthyism in the US of the 1950s, which saw “reds under the bed”, these cultural/religious commentators see a vast orchestrated Islamic conspiracy every time a person of Muslim origin expresses a view on anything.

As far as this view is concerned, the French riots are just another installment of a “clash of civilisations”, which, if we are not careful, will culminate in our daughters going to school in burkas. The solution for the neo-McCarthyites is to weed out Muslim extremists, and they see this as part of the ongoing fight on behalf of the Christian tradition of France and Europe.

All these views have legitimacy in parts.

Yet possibly a more instructive way to examine France and Europe is through the broad brush of history, seeing events like the riots as punctuation marks.

Taking a bit of altitude and borrowing from the world view of the great British historian Alfred Toynbee, historical movements can be seen as the consequences of the challenges confronting a society.

The role of the elite is to analyse the challenge and find appropriate responses.

If the challenge is tackled successfully, the society progresses and finds a new equilibrium. If the answers are not the right ones, the challenge returns, until such a time as the elite can be replaced (revolution) or the society itself disappears (end of civilisation). This analysis was extremely relevant to Europe between 1860 and 1960, when the challenges were nationalism and Franco-German rivalry. After three wars failed to settle the problem, a new elite (Monnet, Schuman and Adenauer) rose to the fore and came up with European integration.

This tackled the old problems well, but today the obstacle is different. Europe’s problem is certainly not the old Franco-German rivalry with Britain arbitraging.

Today’s challenge is demographic and sociological. How do you make an old and rich society co-exist with young, poor and desperate societies in the same countries?

How do you do this in the knowledge that there can be no military solution?

How do you do this when you know that the white, ethnically European population is falling, relative to the non-white, immigrant numbers? The implosion of social welfare systems, immigration, internal troubles, deteriorating educational systems – all of these problems are rooted to some extent in the demographic collapse of western Europe.

Polishing up the old solutions of further European integration (as is now happening in Brussels) that worked for the purpose of keeping Europe at peace, will do little to solve today’s challenge.

The EU constitution is dead, not because it is wrong or bad, but because it does not ask the right question. It is irrelevant. So where do we go from here?

In the case of recent French and European history, it is highly likely that we are seeing a punctuation mark of the same magnitude as the 1968 student riots. The 68ers – as they are known on the continent – came to dominate intellectual, political and economic life in the EU with their cocktail of multiculturalism, individual liberty and collective economics. It is a �United Colours of Benetton’ world, with a big liberal state and high taxes.

This 40-year-old consensus is being challenged by the riots. The elite’s response can be more of the same, or it can revert to the very Gaullist response that the 68ers rallied against.

The evidence in France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria and Italy suggests that voters have had enough and want a traditional nationalist response of the sort General de Gaulle stood for. This means that, in the same way as the 68ers saw the old elite swept from power, they themselves will now be swept away and replaced by neo-conservative leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy in France, who will not tolerate a challenge to the authority of the state.

This may make the majority of people feel safer on the streets, but it still does not answer the big question posed by second-generation French teenagers booing Zidane for playing for France. How does France get these people to willingly sing La Marseillaise? You can’t make them love, or even identify, with France or Europe by beating them.

And this is perhaps where we in Ireland can learn something. We are absorbing immigrants at a breakneck pace, and most of them will stay here. There is more to a society than a labour market, so one of the great imponderables is how will we all get on at a social, emotional, philosophical and cultural level in 20 years’ time.

What will Ireland mean to them, and what will it mean to us? We can’t coerce someone into being Irish, so how do we ensure that everyone has a stake in it and a shared sense of a common project?

By far the most important gauge of this will be economic opportunity. Enough said. But what about adding to this free-market mix a little bit of state-directed national solidarity?

One very unfashionable idea that might help is some sort of national service. Not military service, but social service undertaken by all of us – not just teenagers. It sounds outdated, and could be seen in some quarters as an affront to personal liberty, but the idea is about simply giving something back to society. For the sons and daughters of immigrants, it could serve to construct an allegiance to the country that is not the land of their ancestors.

At the moment, what we are doing with young immigrant kids is what we did with the Irish language revival movement. We are putting the entire onus on the education system. The classroom is now the melting pot. This can be very effective, but it can also be highly divisive and, ultimately, primary teachers can’t be expected to teach easy sums and good citizenship at the same time.

Given that the biggest social issue we are facing is the one that has exploded on the French streets, a little bit of big thinking now when we have the chance might not go astray.

David McWilliams’ book The Pope’s Children, published by Gill and Macmillan, will be in the shops from Thursday, November 17.