Why Is France Burning?

Why Is France Burning?

Fires and rioting in France are the result of thirty years of government neglect and the failure of the French political classes to make any serious effort to integrate Muslim and black populations into the French economy and culture.


The tsunami of vandalism, arson and riot by young people of color that began in the suburban ghettos of Paris–now in its twelfth night as I write–has rolled right across France, touching 274 cities and towns, and shows few signs of abating. It should have surprised no one, for it is the result of thirty years of government neglect–of the failure of the French political classes, both right and left, to make any serious effort to integrate its Muslim and black populations into the French economy and culture; and of the deep-seated, searing, soul-destroying racism that the unemployed and profoundly alienated young of the ghettos face every day of their lives, both from the police and when trying to find a job.

The ghettos where festering resentment has now burst into flames were created as a matter of industrial policy by the French state. Why is France’s population of immigrant origin–mostly Arab, some black–today so large (more than 10 percent of the total population)? Because during the post-World War II boom years of reconstruction and economic expansion, which the French call les trentes glorieuses, the thirty glorious years, it was policy to recruit from France’s colonies laborers and factory and menial workers. These immigrant workers, primarily from North Africa, were desperately needed to allow the French economy to expand, by overcoming the shortage of manpower caused by the two world wars that had killed many Frenchmen and slashed the native French birthrates. Moreover, these immigrant workers were favored by industrial employers as passive and unlikely to join unions and strike.

This government-and-industry-sponsored influx of Arab workers was reinforced following Algerian independence by the arrival of the Harkis, native Algerians who fought for and worked with France during the anticolonial struggle for independence–and were horribly treated by France. Some 100,000 Harkis were killed by the Algerian National Liberation Front after the French shamelessly abandoned them to a lethal fate when the occupying army evacuated itself and French colonists from Algeria. Moreover, those Harki families who were saved (often at the initiative of individual military commanders who refused to obey orders not to evacuate them) were parked in filthy, crowded concentration camps in France for many long years and never benefited from any government aid–a nice reward for their sacrifices for France, of which they were, after all, legally citizens. Their ghettoized children and grandchildren, naturally, harbor certain resentments.

France’s other immigrant workers were warehoused in huge high-rise, low-income ghettos–known as cités–specially built for them and deliberately placed out of sight in the suburbs around most of France’s major urban agglomerations, so that their darker-skinned inhabitants wouldn’t pollute the center cities. Now forty and fifty years old, these high-rise human warehouses are run-down, dilapidated, sinister places with broken elevators, heating systems left dysfunctional in winter, dirt and dog shit in the hallways and few commercial amenities. Shopping for basic necessities is often quite limited and difficult, while entertainment and recreational facilities for youth are truncated and inadequate when they exist at all. Apartments and schools (frequently staffed by weary, cynical, indifferent teachers) are terribly overcrowded.

December 3 marks the twenty-second anniversary of the Marche des Beurs (beur is French slang for “Arab”). I was present to see the cortege of 100,000 arrive in Paris–it was the Franco-Arab equivalent of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Marche des Beurs’ central theme was the demand to be recognized as French comme les autres, like everyone else–a demand, in sum, for complete integration. But the dream of integration failed miserably.

For the mass of Franco-Arabs, little has changed since 1983, and the current rebellion is the anguished scream of a lost generation in search of an identity. When US cities burned in the 1960s, King said, “A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard.” In France it’s the language of adolescents, kids caught between two cultures and belonging to neither; of kids who, born in France and often speaking little Arabic, don’t know the country where their parents were born but feel excluded, marginalized and invisible in the country where they live.

In 1990 Socialist president François Mitterrand described what life was like for jobless ghetto youths warehoused in the overcrowded cités: “What hope does a young person have who’s been born in a soulless quartier, who lives in an unspeakably ugly high-rise, surrounded by more ugliness, imprisoned by gray walls in a gray wasteland and condemned to a gray life, with all around a society that prefers to look away until it’s time to get mad, time to FORBID?” But Mitterrand’s compassionate words masked a failed policy, and fifteen years after his diagnosis the hopelessness and alienation of these ghetto youths’ “gray lives” have only become deeper and more rancid still.

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.

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