This essay originally appeared on TomDispatch.com, a project of The Nation Institute.
Although we have seen countless images of cars burning in the poor and segregated suburbs of France, we have not heard much about the war of words that has accompanied them. Yet when you pay attention to the words, you begin to realize that the second- and third-generation French-African and French-Arab youths burning cars are a lot more French than they may be willing to acknowledge. As true Frenchmen, they understand the importance of discourse. Maybe to their detriment, they seem to parse the fine nuances of every word; then they fight back bitterly–especially over having the last word, le dernier mot.
Facing off against them in the prolonged verbal sparring are three hommes d’état (statesmen), each using a very different verbal strategy. The president, Jacques Chirac, may have acknowledged early on that “the absence of dialogue could lead to a dangerous confrontation,” but then he neither spoke nor encouraged his minions to speak. The haughty silence Chirac’s government dispensed in response to night after night of provocative TV images was received as the ultimate affront by the “nine-three”–the poor inhabitants of the Parisian department of Seine Saint-Denis, where it all started. They clearly got the message: They were not even worthy of being talked to.
Chirac could afford to say nothing: After leading the French right-wing Gaullist party for the past thirty years and being president for the past ten, he will finally step down in time for the 2007 presidential election. This has created a heated contest between his two presumptive heirs, Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. Although all three players are on the right, only Sarkozy is an economic neoliberal who advocates “openness, suppleness and letting citizens make their own choices.” A second-generation immigrant with a Greek-Jewish mother and a Hungarian father, Sarkozy openly admires American neoliberalism, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Rudy Giuliani. He regularly counteracted the lofty pronouncements of the patrician Chirac with comments like “I do what works.” As one French ghetto kid put it, “He acts and speaks like a gang leader.”
Earlier this year, as Sarkozy’s popularity soared, many predicted he would replace Chirac in 2007. (At the moment, the French left, with no viable candidate, seems to prefer to remain in opposition.) That was before Chirac brought de Villepin into the picture by appointing him prime minister. Besides being handsome, polished and using the optional “de” in his last name (hence pegging himself as landed gentry), de Villepin, who was born in the former French colony of Morocco, is the consummate politician, a man who went to all the right schools and played by all the right rules. By September polls were indicating that, though Sarkozy’s brash “I’m telling it like it is” approach still appealed to working-class supporters of the extreme right-wing Jean-Marie Le Pen and his Front National, the electoral pendulum had abruptly swung toward de Villepin.