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Civil Unrest in France


Jonathan Freedland
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Paris is in flames and it's more than a city which is burning. The presidency of Jacques Chirac, already battered, is being consumed before our eyes. The French political class, shaken by the No vote in May's referendum on the European constitution and the rejection of the Paris bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, is feeling the ground tremble. Not since 1968 has there been such a widespread and sustained challenge to the French state.

But the greatest threat of all is to an idea, one that has held firm since the first days of the Republic. If that idea is now shrivelling in the flames of Lille and Toulouse, the heat will be felt far beyond France: it will reach even here.

The riots themselves are not hard to fathom; several French commentators have said the only mystery is why they didn't break out 15 years earlier. If you corral hundreds of thousands of the poor and disadvantaged into sink estates and suburbs in a misery doughnut around the city, expose them to unemployment rates of up to 40%, and then subject them to daily racial discrimination at the hands of employers and the police, you can hardly expect peace and tranquillity. Cut public spending on social programmes by 20% and you will guarantee an explosion. All you have to do is light the fuse.

And this fire has been building for decades. It was after the second world war that - just as health minister Enoch Powell went recruiting for NHS staff in the Caribbean - France went shopping among its foreign colonies for labourers and factory workers. It brought these mainly Arab migrants in, then dumped them on the outskirts of the big cities. It did the same to the Harkis - Algerians who had collaborated with the French colonial authorities - and the next waves of North African immigrants, warehousing them like an unwanted commodity in high-rise ghettoes on the périphérique, out of sight of the white folks of the city. And there they have stayed for a half century.

Their anger could not stay pent-up forever. And the official reaction to the first outbreak of violence clearly inflamed it. Interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy promised to "Karcherise" the "scum" who were burning cars and torching buildings: Karcher is the brand name for a kind of sand-blaster, the sort of machine one might use to remove bird droppings from a wall. According to former Libération columnist Doug Ireland, to speak of Karcherising the North African youth on the streets was "as close as one can get to hollering ethnic cleansing without actually saying so".

The motives of the man they call Sarko are not hard to divine: he wants to run for president in 2007 and has clearly decided his constituency is the white right nurtured by Jean-Marie Le Pen. His hardman language during these last 10 days has been a nakedly Powellite bid for those National Front votes.

Now his rival, prime minister Dominique de Villepin, has taken the initiative, reviving a 1955 curfew law which allows local authorities to impose a state of emergency. He may succeed where Sarkozy failed, restoring a semblance of calm. But the move itself has caused disquiet. For the 1955 law was passed to quell Algerian unrest at the height of the independence struggle. That the same legislation should now be used to put down the children and grandchildren of the Algerian rebels has prompted some glum reflection in France - as if that bitter war never really ended.

It's this sentiment which gets close to what is really at stake. Yes, these riots are rooted in economic deprivation and urban decay. But they also have an ethnic, racial dimension. And France's key problem is that it cannot face that fact.

That is a less polemical statement than it sounds. For it is a matter of bald fact that France does not officially recognise the concept of ethnic difference at all. It is literally illegal for anyone compiling an official census even to ask about someone's ethnic origins. There are no figures showing the rate of French-Algerian unemployment or school enrolment or hospital treatment. French official texts speak of integration as resting on the "refusal to distinguish citizens according to their origins and their particularities". In other words, there can be no Algerian French or French-Moroccans or any other such combination. There are only the French.

This is a defining republican value. Tim King, who writes the excellent France Profonde column for Prospect magazine, says the idea is rigidly enforced. "When an immigrant comes to France, he must drop everything he has ever learned of his previous culture; he has to leave it in his baggage."

The doctrine was doubtless perfectly well-intentioned. There shall be no categories of citizen in France, it declared. The law shall view everyone equally.

The trouble is, it is not the law that decides every aspect of daily life: people do. And they do not always have the pure, colour-blind outlook presumed by the French notion of integration. On the contrary, racism of the overt, gross variety persists in France. One study last year found, for example, that a man with a classic French name applying for 100 jobs will get 75 interviews. A man with the same qualifications, but with an Algerian name, will get just 14. The trouble is, according to the law, that is a mere coincidence. After all, both Francois and Abdul are French citizens.

France's refusal to see the ethnicity of some of its people as relevant translates into de facto racism. If human beings were free of prejudice, the French republican ideal would work beautifully. Because we are not, it allows racism a free hand.

It is a classic example of what happens when an idea designed for one era remains unchanged for a later one. As Neil Kinnock might have put it, a once decent value becomes pickled into a dogma - enforcing the very opposite outcome of the one it intended.

The French do not face this problem alone. The US has a model of integration which is the reverse of France's: it positively encourages new migrants to hold on to their first culture, happy to let them hyphenate as Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans.

But that model is not perfect either. As we saw after Katrina, there are still plenty of Americans who feel excluded by their race. That's partly because the US model applies to immigrants, those who chose to make their life anew in America. It does not apply either to those who were already there or those who were dragged to the country in chains, in the holds of cargo ships. Which is why Native Americans and African-Americans both argue, with justification, that they are shut out of the American dream.

Britain has an emerging model too, one we call multiculturalism. It did not arrive from nowhere, but partly came out of our own experience of race riots in the 1980s. Unlike France's, it recognises difference and has passed legislation to protect it. But it also yearns for some affirmation of common identity. It knows there are differences between us - but it wants there to be ties that bind. What those ties should be, what notion of Britishness might hold us all together, nobody seems quite sure.

Indeed, the problem of racial cohesion in Britain is far from solved, as we saw last month in Lozells. But multiculturalism is still the best model we have. And, after the last 10 days, it may be the only one left.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Colum...1637189,00.html

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I have observed the news from France this week with dismay but not surprise. I hope that something positive can come out of it and that it does not become further fuel for the racist rhetoric of LePen and others.

Another interesting point of view is that of French film director and actor Matthieu Kassowitz (http://www.mathieukassovitz.com). He made the excellent film "La Haine" about rioting in the Parisian suburbs 10 years ago, which I would urge people to see if they have not already- it is compelling viewing.

Working Class France...

For some days now, radio and television stations from around the world have been contacting me requesting interviews regarding the events that have been shaking up the suburbs of France.

Unfortunately, I cannot honor all of these requests and so I have decided to express myself through my website.

As much as I would like to distance myself from politics, it is difficult to remain distant in the face of the depravations of politicians. And when these depravations draw the hate of all youth, I have to restrain myself from encouraging the rioters.

Nicolas SARKOZY, who has appeared in the French media like a starlet from American Idol and who for the past years has been showering us with details of his private life and his political ambitions, cannot help himself from creating an event every time his ratings in the IPSOS polls go down. This time, Nicolas SARKOZY has gone against everything the French Republic stands for. The Liberty, the Equality and the Fraternity of a people.

The Minister of the Interior, a future presidential candidate, holds ideas that not only reveal his inexperience of politics and human relations (which are intimately linked), but that also illuminate the purely demagogical and egocentric aspects of a puny, would be Napoleon.

If the suburbs are exploding once again today, it is not due to being generally fed up with the conditions of life that entire generations of “immigrants” must fight with every day. There is not, unfortunately, anything political in the combat that is pitting the youth of low rent housing projects against Nicolas SARKOZY’s police forces. These burning cars are surface eruptions in the face of the lack of respect the Minister of the Interior has shown toward their community.

Nicolas SARKOZY does not like this community, he wants to get rid of this “these punks” with high pressure water hoses and he shouts it out loud and clear right in the middle of a “hot” neighborhood at eleven in the evening.

The response is in the streets. “Zero tolerance” works both ways.

It is intolerable that a politician (but is he really one?) should allow himself to upset a situation made tense by years of ignorance and injustice and not refrain from openly threatening an entire segment of the French population without addressing the real problems.

By acting like a warmonger, he has opened a breach that I hope will engulf him. Hate has kindled hate for centuries and yet Nicolas SARKOZY still thinks that repression is the only way to prevent rebellion. This desire to impose his way of thinking at any price reminds me of other great leaders of our times. It gives me chills down the spine.

History has proved to us that a lack of openness and philosophy between different communities engenders hate and confrontation. The Intifada of different Parisian suburbs rather resembles the confrontations that opposed the children of Palestine armed with stones against the soldiers of Israel armed with Uzis.

History confronts itself again everywhere.

Sound and fury are the only means for many communities to make themselves heard. The attacks of terrorists on the front pages of newspapers around the world are the result.

And the repression of terror by terror never won wars; it only helped to sustain them.

Nicolas SARKOZY is an admirer of George Bush’s communication machine. He uses it to glorifies his image and to manipulate the population.

Like BUSH, he does not defend an idea, he responds to the fears that he himself instills in people’s heads.

He would have engaged France alongside the Americans in Bush’s “fight against terror”. I’m convinced of it.

Nicolas SARKOZY wants to become the President of our republic and “nobody will get in his way” as he dramaticaly puts it.

If this man does not fail at least once in his initiatives to win the presidency of this country, nothing indeed will get in his way, and his desire for absolute power will finally be fulfilled.

Does history repeat itself? Yes. It always has done. A desire for power and the egocentricity of those who think they hold the truth has ALWAYS created dictators.

Nicolas SARKOZY is certainly a little Napoleon, and I do not know if he has the potential of a real one, but it will be impossible to say tomorrow that we didn’t know.

Mathieu KASSOVITZ.

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The French do not face this problem alone. The US has a model of integration which is the reverse of France's: it positively encourages new migrants to hold on to their first culture, happy to let them hyphenate as Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans.

But that model is not perfect either. As we saw after Katrina, there are still plenty of Americans who feel excluded by their race. That's partly because the US model applies to immigrants, those who chose to make their life anew in America. It does not apply either to those who were already there or those who were dragged to the country in chains, in the holds of cargo ships. Which is why Native Americans and African-Americans both argue, with justification, that they are shut out of the American dream.

Britain has an emerging model too, one we call multiculturalism. It did not arrive from nowhere, but partly came out of our own experience of race riots in the 1980s. Unlike France's, it recognises difference and has passed legislation to protect it. But it also yearns for some affirmation of common identity. It knows there are differences between us - but it wants there to be ties that bind. What those ties should be, what notion of Britishness might hold us all together, nobody seems quite sure.

Indeed, the problem of racial cohesion in Britain is far from solved, as we saw last month in Lozells. But multiculturalism is still the best model we have. And, after the last 10 days, it may be the only one left.

I have some sympathy for what France has been trying to do. I suspect that in the long term assimilation is the best approach to this problem. However, for it to work, equality has to be achieved. This is clearly not the case in France. The French model of social inclusion has not been delivered. The UK’s policy of allowing a growth in religious schools (this is also being encouraged in Blair’s new Education Act) is a far more dangerous strategy.

It is important to appreciate the scale of the problem in France. There are 5.98 million Muslims living in France (compared to 1.4 million in the UK).

One of the things that must disturb governments all over Europe. If groups of young people decide to take such action, there is little that the police can do. It is a fairly low risk strategy for the rioters.

I heard last night that the rioters set fire to a primary school in Toulouse. I hope our friends at the International School of Toulouse have not been affected by these events.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Here is an article by Immanuel Wallerstein that maybe we all should consider:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1656654,00.html

Last month France had a rebellion of its underclass that lasted for about two weeks. Groups of young people, mostly of north African or sub-Saharan descent, set fire to cars and hurled rocks at police. In some ways, this was the kind of uprising that has been occurring throughout the world in recent decades. But it also had particular French explanations. It emerged violently, like a phoenix. It has been suppressed by the force of the state. It is far from over.

The immediate story is very simple. Three young men saw police stopping other youths and asking for identity cards. This happens routinely in France to young people of colour who live in the de facto segregated high-rise, dilapidated housing of the banlieues (where France's ghettoes are located). These housing complexes are home to largely unemployed, undereducated youths who have few prospects for jobs, for upward mobility, or even for non-work activity (sport, or cultural centres). These young people run away from identity checks primarily because they are often pointlessly taken into custody in police stations, where they are often harassed, and where they remain for hours until their parents come to take them home.

In this particular case, the youths jumped a wall and landed in an electricity substation, where two of them were electrocuted. This was the spark to the rebellion. It was a rebellion against poverty, joblessness, racist behaviour by the French police and, above all, lack of acceptance as the citizens they mostly are and as the cultural minority they feel they have the right to remain. The French government seemed primarily concerned with repressing the rebellion, and eventually succeeded in this. The fact that the prime minister and the minister of the interior are fierce rivals for the future candidacy for the presidency ensured that neither was going to seem soft on rebellion and thereby give an advantage to the other.

It amazes me that people are surprised when underclasses rebel. The surprising thing is that they do not do it more often. The combination of the oppressiveness of poverty and racism and the lack of short-term, or even medium-term hope is surely a recipe for rebellion. What keeps rebellion down is fear of repression, which is why repression is usually swift. But the repression never makes the anger go away. Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister, says that this uprising was not as bad as those of Los Angeles in 1992, when 54 people died and 2,000 were hurt. Perhaps not, but that's hardly a basis for boasting.

Throughout the world today, metropolitan areas are filled with people who match the profile of the rebels in France: poor, jobless, socially marginalised and defined as "different" - and therefore angry. If they are teenagers they have the energy to rebel, and lack even the minimal family responsibilities that might restrain them. Furthermore, the anger is reciprocated. Those in the more comfortable majority fear these young people precisely for the characteristics they have. The better-off feel that the poor youths tend to be lawless and, well, "different". So, many of the better-off (but perhaps not all) tend to endorse strong measures to contain these rebellions, including total exclusion from the society, even from the country.

France is in some ways an exaggerated version of what we find everywhere, not only in North America and the rest of Europe, but throughout the south in countries such as Brazil, Mexico, India and South Africa. Indeed, it is hard to think of a country where this issue does not exist. The problem with France is that too many of its citizens have long denied to themselves that this is a French problem as well.

France defines itself as the country of universal values, where discrimination cannot exist because everyone can become a French person if they're ready to integrate fully. The reality is that France has always (yes, I said always) been a country of immigration. In the days of the ancien regime, and even in the first half of the 19th century, the non-French speakers (50% up to the French revolution) migrated to Paris and other northern cities. Later it was the Italians, the Belgians and the Corsicans. Then came the Poles, and then the Portuguese and Spaniards. And in the past 40 years or so, massively, north and sub-Saharan Africans and immigrants from what was French Indochina.

France is a multicultural country par excellence still living the Jacobin dream of uniformity. The number of practising Catholics is zooming down while the number of practising Muslims is increasing daily. The major consequence of this has been a hallucinatory debate for more than a decade on what to do about Muslim girls who wish to have their hair covered when they go to school. The racist right saw the wearing of the foulard (headscarf) as an affront to Frenchness and, if truth be told, to Christianity. The classical left (or at least a large part of it) saw it as a challenge to sacrosanct laïcité. Both sides combined to outlaw the foulard (and, in order to be balanced, Christian and Jewish "large" symbols too). So a certain number of Muslim girls were expelled from school. And the matter was thought to be solved somehow.

What was remarkable about the rebellion in France this time is that it did not focus on religious issues. For example, it did not result in anti-semitic tirades. Because France has a large number of poor Jews who live in the same housing complexes, there have been Muslim-Jewish, or rather Palestinian-Israeli, tensions for the past two decades. But that issue was shelved. The French rebellion was a spontaneous class uprising. And like most spontaneous uprisings, it could not be sustained for too long.

But also, like most rebellions, the possibility of recurrence will not disappear unless the gross inequalities are overcome. And it does not seem that too much effort is being made by the French authorities (or, for that matter, by authorities elsewhere in the world) to overcome inequalities. We are in an epoch of accentuating, not alleviating, inequalities. And therefore we are in an epoch of increasing, not decreasing, rebellions.

Immanuel Wallerstein is a senior research scholar at Yale University and the author of The Decline of American Power: the US in a Chaotic World.

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