Friday, November 04, 2005

Paris Is Burning

Economically, politically and socially marginalized. Denied opportunities in higher education and decent-paying jobs because of their color, their names, their backgrounds. Housed in grim, high-rise ghettos cut off from the centers of society. Openly treated as second-class citizens and discriminated against by "mainstream politicians" and agents of the police and penal systems. Lacking almost no representatives in the national political structure, and rarely seeing themselves represented in the media, except in the popular culture they fashion for themselves. No, I'm not talking about the United States this time, but about France, where riots in the impoverished ghettos ringing its capital city, Paris, have raged for nine days, and have now spread to other parts of the country.

DendouneLast week, on October 27, the riots began in the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois after two young Frenchman of North African ancestry were electrocuted in a electrical substation they climbed into while fleeing what they thought were cops in pursuit; a third was badly injured but survived. The police have claimed they were not chasing the young men. Shortly after word of the young men's deaths spread, some residents of the suburb began violent protests, though community leaders led a peaceful protest last Sunday.

Nevertheless, the violent protests have continued, spreading to Aulnay-sous-Bois and other suburban towns in the Seine-Saint-Denis region (see the map above). Over the last week, angry youths have committed mass arson, torching shops, dealerships and more than 500 hundred cars, trucks and vans. The police have made more than 80 arrests. These social earthquakes, however, didn't just arise out of nothing. Decades of official and unofficial governmental cynicism, indifference, neglect, and racism towards the North and Sub-Saharan African immigrants from France's former colonies, who've been consistently warehoused in the ghettos, which White French people have increasingly abandeoned, and excluded from the mainstream of society since the 1960s, have created the immense reservoirs of frustration and rage that the youth's deaths unleashed. As Henri Astier says in his BBC News report, "French Muslims face discrimination":

Sadek, 31, has a secondary school education and aspires to something better. But he knows his options are limited: "With a name like mine, I can't have a sales job."

Telemarketing could be a possibility - his Arab roots safely hidden from view. Of course, he would have to work under an assumed name.

Sadek's story sums up the job prospects of the children and grandchildren of Muslim immigrants.

They may be French on paper - but they know that Ali and Rachid are much less likely to get ahead than Alain or Richard.

Racial discrimination is banned in France. But a quick look at the people working in any shop or office suggests the practice is widespread.

The impression is confirmed by official statistics.

Unemployment among people of French origin is 9.2%. Among those of foreign origin, the figure is 14% - even after adjusting for educational qualifications.

Or in the words of writer Nadir Dendoune, a native of the Seine-Saint-Denis region where the violence has exploded:

The main problem is that many French people do [discriminate], says writer Nadir Dendoune.

"How am I supposed to feel French when people always describe me as a Frenchman of Algerian origin? I was born here. I am French. How many generations does it take to stop mentioning my origin?"

And crucially, the suburbs are full of people desperate to integrate into the wider society.

Now the riots have begun to spread outside Paris's ghetto choker to Dijon, as well to areas near Rouen and Marseille. The ineffectual, right-leaning government of Jacques Chirac is split on how to respond, and appears to have no control over the unfolding crisis. It has condemned racism and racial disparities in the United States and the "failed" multiculturalism of Britain, yet its leading figures are split on how to address the problem on its home turf. Leading presidential candidate and Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy has taken the incoherent position of proclaiming a "war without mercy" against violence in the ghettos, condemning the rioters as "scum" and threats to France, yet he has also "affirmative action" to improve the dismal job prospects for the poor Arabs and Blacks. His chief opponent, the aristocratic fop, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who is closely allied to Chirac, has spent most of his time trying to undercut Sarkozy and gain legitimacy for his rule, since he was appointed to his post by Chirac after the collapse of the EU referendum and has no electoral base. Which is to say, he has no plan either.
In today's BBC News article on the subject, Sarkozy says that the problems will take time to solve, while Villepin holds meetings with government ministers and some of the youths participating in the uprising, dithers and fields criticism for his failure to stem the riots or propose a quick, even temporary solution. But there may not be one; as the New York Times reports, almost no one has any credibility with or authority over the young people, not even the Minister for Equal Opportunity, Azouz Begag, who himself is the descendant of North African immigrants. Meanwhile, as journalist Dendoune (at right) suggests, despite the country's vaunted ideals of "liberty, brotherhood, and equality" and its bans on racial discrimination, people of African ancestry and Muslim faith in France will continue to suffer from far higher unemployment rates, social exclusion and racism. And until France proposes a workable solution, the fires of rage and resistance will spread.

HateNote: Mathieu Kassovitz's 1995 film La haïne (Hate), starring Vincent Cassel (Irreversible), Hubert Koundé (The Constant Gardener), and Ahmed Abdel Ghili, provides a fine perspective, from a decade ago, on the events taking place right now.


  1. i was in my mom's belly during the detroit riots in 67...tanks going up the street

    same thing

  2. Thanks John. My stomach is churning with anger but I somehow feel that this is a cathartic watershed moment. I was born and raised in Germany, in precisely the same conditions: neglected urban satellite ghettos surrounded with nothing but poverty and disillusionment. It's only a matter of time for matters to escalate to this level anywhere in central Europe. While I don't endorse violence, I completely understand the anger and empathize with the rioters. Things could not help but explode in this tinderbox of social inequality and government-sanctioned racism. No surprises here at all, but I'm hopeful that, somehow, things cannot go back to the status quo ante.

  3. Jilly, you're right, the uprising is so similar to Detroit, only it appears the French government, unlike Michigan or the US, is unable to contain it. Zun, it's true that parallels exist throughout the west (and elsewhere too), and maybe this social explosion will change the standing order. I don't think the young people behind it will go back to the lipservice they and their parents have been receiving for years. I think it also will be the kiss of death for the right-wing government of Chirac/Villepin/Sarkozy, especially if they can't bring things under control. The French left was awful, but Chirac has been worse. Unless Le Pen steps forward, it may provoke political housecleaning as well.

  4. "How am I supposed to feel French when people always describe me as a Frenchman of Algerian origin? I was born here. I am French. How many generations does it take to stop mentioning my origin?"

    Hmm...sounds VERY familiar. Sad to say, if the US is any indication, the answer may be 'Never'. I hate to see the violence, but they are in the middle of an intolerable situation that had to end.

    And can we assume this is not getting extensive coverage here out of Fear of something similar happening here? I remember very well being gotten out of school in 1968, armed troops riding in trucks in the alley behind our house and in the street -- and walking across the rooftop across the street