Self-Immolations in France: What Do They Mean?

After years of record-high unemployment, the country has seen at least a dozen men and women who have either set, or tried to set, themselves on fire since 2011.

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A flower lays on the pavement near the entrance at a branch of the Pole Emploi national employment agency in Nantes on February 14, 2013, the day after a jobless man self-immolated there. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

Fifty years ago, the Tibetan monk Quang Duc set himself ablaze in Saigon to protest the repression of his fellow Buddhists--an act that not only shocked the world, but also set a harrowing precedent. Since Quang Duc set a match to his gasoline-soaked robe, as many as 3,000 men and women, mostly in Asia, North Africa and the Middle East, have sought to turn themselves into human torches.

But the stage for this drama of extreme protest stretches beyond these regions into Europe, where a number of nations, ranging from Greece to Romania, now confront instances of self-immolation.

And then there is France. In the realms of cultural, diplomatic, linguistic or economic policies, the French have long and eloquently insisted on their nation's "exceptionalism." Yet a new form of exceptionalism, no less eloquent, though far more brutal, now burdens them: since 2011, France has seen at least a dozen men and women who have either set, or tried to set, themselves aflame.

The cradle of the Enlightenment, France now glimpses a very different light, one that makes visible the darkness of its economic and social malaise.

The series of self-immolations has ranged across the country, from Flanders in the north through the suburbs of Paris to the Pyrenees in the south. No less varied are the workplaces to each of these suicides: a lycée teacher, a carpenter, a company manager. Moreover, there is a mix of class and ethnic backgrounds: among the victims are so-called "français de souche" (white and native born French) as well as foreign nationals who had lived for years in France.

Beyond the static of differences, though, one can see common and disconcerting themes. In all of these cases, the victim was either unemployed or employed in a position whose pressures ultimately grew intolerable. In the town of Beziers, a mathematics teacher slightly more than a year ago set herself on fire in the school's courtyard--an "act of desperation" that investigators attributed to "professional reasons." Last summer in the Parisian suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie, an unemployed man, learning his welfare benefits had come to an end, immolated himself outside the local unemployment office. In 2011, a France-Telecom employee in the southern city of Orange set a match to his gasoline-drench clothing in a parking lot near his office building--one among several suicides at the company since it began to lay off employees in its effort to restructure.

These cases reflect another commonality: they are committed in public. Though isolated cases of self-immolation have occurred in homes, they are most often executed in front of spectators. Though the audience is taken unawares, the actors take great pains to choreograph their final gesture. Djamal Chaab, who set himself aflame outside an unemployment agency in the western city of Nantes last month, sent a series of messages to the agency, warning them of his plans. Yet neither the firemen nor police arrived in time to prevent Chaab, who arrived at the building with his clothes already aflame. The final straw to Chaab's tinder was not only that his benefits run out, but that due to an administrative oversight, he also had to repay the agency several hundred euros.

President François Hollande declared Chaab's suicide a "personal drama." No doubt--just as personal dramas partly explain why several individuals attempted self-immolation in the aftermath of Chaab's death. But these acts are also public dramas. In the late 19th century, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that the decision to kill oneself does not result from an individual psychopathology. Instead, it is a social fact--one that reflects the health and stability not just of the individual, but her society as well.

A century later, this particular social fact is piling up in France at a dizzying rate. Michel Debout, a noted psychiatrist, estimates that France's declining economy and rising unemployment have triggered 750 suicides and more than 10,000 attempts over the last three years. Most of these acts unfold in private and pass largely unperceived by the public. This is not the case, though, for self-immolation. In fact, private self-immolation borders on the oxymoronic. As Quang Duc understood, no chosen death is more public. As one of his fellow monks observed matter-of-factly:

"To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself."

No one can pretend to plumb Djamal Chaab's mind, or the minds of the many others who have, like him, burned themselves to death. But the sheer visibility, unprecedented nature (France never had a tradition for self-immolation) and unspeakable suffering entailed by the act make nonsense of Hollande's claim. To insist self-immolation results from problems particular to the individual is akin to insisting that an asthmatic individual has only his lungs to blame.

To echo the Tibetan monk, what are Chaab and the others saying that is of the utmost importance? Perhaps what Muhamed Bouazizi announced with his fiery suicide in December 2010. His death not only upended Tunisia's corrupt and repressive regime, but also set aflame all of North Africa. Great differences exist between the political and economic situations in France and its former colony, but they may well blur from the vantage point of France's unemployed, especially its youth. While unemployment rates in France have not reached Tunisia's suffocating heights, the most recent figures are nevertheless shocking: nearly 11 percent of the French are unemployed. Even more stunning is the revelation that nearly 26 percent of French youths are out of work--a high (or a low) that has not been seen since 1975 when INSEE, the national statistical center, first began to measure these numbers.

Obviously, no comparison can be made between Tunisia's former rulers and France's current government. Yet not only have the Socialists been unable to reverse these trends, but they have been singularly inept in presenting their case to the nation. Hollande is already backtracking on his promise, made just two months ago, that he would lower the unemployment rate by the end of 2013--an about-face prefigured by his concession last month that, despite his campaign promise, France will not succeed in lowering its national deficit to 3 percent. When these failed promises and flailing economy combine with a political and intellectual class that seems preoccupied with issues like gay marriage, Gérard Depardieu's peregrinations and Dominique Strauss-Kahn's never-ending saga, the disconnect between Paris and the provinces only deepens.

Deprived by local officials of the means to make a living, Bouazizi followed the situation's logic to its end: he killed himself. He did so outside the government office that took away his vendor's license and destroyed his fruit cart. Despair drove Bouazizi to this act, but by making it public, he also meant his death as a sacrifice on behalf of others. If this is the case with Djamal Chaab, it gives an ironic and ashen twist to the ideal of "fraternité" in France.