Why Is France Burning?
The Chirac government's response to the rebellion has been tone-deaf. It's led by the hyper-ambitious, demagogic interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy--he's been openly campaigning to replace Chirac in 2007--who has only poured verbal kerosene on the flames by dismissing the ghetto youth in the most insulting, racist terms and calling for tough repression.
Sarkozy has been thundering that the spreading violence is centrally "organized." But on the telephone from Paris, the dean of French investigative reporters, Claude Angeli, editor of Le Canard Enchaîné, told me, "That's not true--this isn't being organized by the Islamist fundamentalists, as Sarkozy is implying to scare people. Sure, kids in neighborhoods are using their cell phones and text messages to warn each other when the cops are coming so they can move and pick other targets for their arson. But the rebellion is spreading because the kids have a sense of solidarity with each other that comes from watching television--they imitate what they're seeing, they've experienced the same racist police abuse that helped spark the riots and they sense themselves targeted by Sarkozy's inflammatory rhetoric."
"The rebellion is spreading spontaneously," Angeli adds. "It's driven especially by incredibly racist police conduct that is the daily lot of these children. They're arrested or controlled by the police, shaken down, pushed around and have their papers checked simply because they have dark skin, and the police are verbally brutal, calling them bougnoules [something like the American slur "towel heads," only worse], 'dirty Arabs' and more. The police bark, 'Lower your eyes! Lower your eyes!' as if they had no right even to look a policeman in the face. It's utterly dehumanizing. No wonder these kids feel so divorced from authority."
When Sarkozy wanted to make an appearance at the Catholic bishops' conference in Paris after days of rioting, they refused to let him speak; instead, the bishops denounced "those who would call for repression and instill fear" instead of responding to the economic, social and racial causes of the riots. This was an unusually sharp rebuke directed squarely at Sarkozy.
The left, in power for fourteen of the past twenty-four years, bears a large share of responsibility for failing to fight poverty, racism and exclusion. But the conservatives have made things much worse. Under the headline "Budget Cuts Exasperate Suburban Mayors," Le Monde's riot coverage reported how Chirac has compounded thirty years of neglect by slashing even deeper into social programs: 60 percent cuts over the past three years in subsidies for neighborhood groups that work with youths, and budgets slashed for job training, education, the fight against illiteracy and for neighborhood police who get to know ghetto kids and work with them. (After the first riots in Toulouse, Sarkozy told the neighborhood police there, "Your job is not to be playing soccer with these kids, your job is to arrest them!")
Budget cuts for social programs plus more repression is a prescription for more violence--but a poll released on France 2 public TV showed that 57 percent of the French support Sarkozy's hard-line approach to the ghetto youths' rebellion.
Chirac's government--with no Socialist opposition--has now declared a state of emergency, using a 1955 law passed during France's colonial war in Algeria that permits the imposition of a curfew and suspension of civil liberties, including those of the press, and permits detention without trial, the use of military tribunals and bans on public meetings. The Syndicat des avocats and the Syndicat de la magistrature (the lawyers' and judges' unions) issued a cry of alarm, denouncing the "disastrous war logic" inherent in invoking the law. Pointing out that this law was not even used in the May 1968 student-worker rebellions, their joint statement said: "Stopping the violence and re-establishing order in the suburbs is a necessity. But must that imply submitting them to emergency legislation inherited from the colonial period? We know where the cycle of provocation and repression leads.... The ghettos have no need of a state of emergency. They desperately need justice, respect, and equality."
But the government's response means that what the French refer to as the "social fracture" can only get worse.