Liberté, Égalité, Stupidité
Why can't the French government stop the rioting?
Posted Monday, Nov. 7, 2005, at 6:44 PM
For the last 11 nights, riots have spread across France, becoming more intense over the weekend; today came news of the first death related to the violence. The riots began after two young men were accidentally electrocuted at an electricity substation in the impoverished Parisian suburb (known as a banlieue) of Clichy-sous-Bois. Residents say police were pursuing the boys, which officials deny.
The French press offered few surprises in its coverage this weekend. Both the left-leaning Le Monde and the solidly right Le Figaro led with similar headlines—respectively, "Jacques Chirac: 'The Priority Is the Re-Establishment of Public Order in the Suburbs' " and "Chirac Makes Re-establishing Security Priority"—and quoted Chirac's statement after meeting with officials about the violence Sunday: "We made a certain number of decisions" to deal with the crisis. The papers' responses to the president's remarks revealed their political differences: While Le Monde noted, "Mr. Chirac did not clarify these measures," Le Figaro assured readers that he would outline his policies Monday.
Le Monde quoted no end of hot air from France's fearless leaders. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin proved that even published poets can repeat banalities when he observed that "violence is not the solution." President Chirac noted that "the absence of dialogue and the escalation of disrespect lead to a dangerous situation." And in an op-ed in the paper, interior minister and likely presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy soothed readers by promising that "the French can count on the total determination of the government."
In an article titled "The Suburbs Ablaze, the Government Consults," leftist Libérationcited poll numbers rating the performance of Sarkozy, who has come under fire for calling the rioters "scum" early in the disturbances. Despite the violence, 57 percent still think that Sarkozy has a "positive image"; 63 percent think he "sometimes uses shocking terms"; and 66 percent say he puts "too much of an accent on suppression and not enough on prevention."
Back at Le Figaro, an op-ed sang the praises of former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani's zero-tolerance policies, which, it claimed, remade the city: "Harlem is no longer the territory of rival gangs that maintained a veritable climate of civil war. In France, the New York miracle is also possible."
Le Monde was a little more circumspect, remarking in an editorial that, "The explosion in the suburbs shows a complex situation where everything that can be said or written, in one sense or another, is partly true." The upshot? If the government doesn't deal with the root causes of the riots, the next presidential election risks being a repeat of 2002, when far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen—who has called the Holocaust a "detail of history" and says that France is in danger of being "submerged" by immigrants—won an unprecedented 20 percent of the vote.
All the papers save one ignored the rioters themselves. In a detailed and thorough piece, Communist newspaper l'Humanité traveled to "the cradle of the riots," Clichy-sous-Bois, and interviewed residents, delving into the poverty, unemployment, and violence that are part of everyday life there. Twenty-one-year-old Vincent feels "an immense despair," he said. "I don't approve of this violence, but I understand it."
In an editorial titled "The Suburbs, It's France," l'Humanité raged that "provocation, contempt, lies, intimidation, [and] disorder are the weapons that [the right] will not hesitate to use to achieve its ends," the continuation of "an authoritarian and discriminatory policy." The paper concluded, "The young people in the suburbs are for Nicolas Sarkozy and his friends … the perfect scapegoats for eluding the debate over their responsibilities."
Most of the foreign press coverage of the French rioting focused on France's immigration policies, which do not provide immigrants and their children with a path to the middle class. Britain's Guardian wondered how the French could think "that the incantation of 'liberté, égalité, fraternité' would somehow mask the réalité of life for non-white French men and women: repression, discrimination, segregation." The Timesof London, in a report from Paris-based correspondent Charles Bremner, accused the French of disregarding immigrants, "shunting them into suburban cités denying access to the so-called ascenseur social (social elevator) that was supposed to lift immigrants into the mainstream."
The Australian's Emma-Kate Symons declared that the French need to get past their rampant nationalism and figure out, after 30 years of benign neglect, how to integrate "an estimated 5 to 7 million immigrants from Africa into the mainstream of French society, by offering them genuinely equal treatment, jobs, and a sense of belonging in a country that is elitist, overwhelmingly white in its upper echelons and hypocritical to the core." An editorial in the Observer couldn't resist spanking the United States: "Both France and the US lay claim to civic, inclusive national identities, based on republican values instead of race, religion or creed. But as events of the past weeks have shown—in Paris and New Orleans—that can be a mirage."
Others in the fourth estate point to Nicholas Sarkozy as the reason for the length and the severity of the riots. A Guardian op-ed, saying his "tough talk" egged on rioters, demanded his dismissal: "He called rioters 'vermin,' blamed 'agents provocateurs' for manipulating 'scum' and said the suburbs needed 'to be cleaned out with Karsher' (a brand of industrial cleaner used to clean the mud off tractors)." A commentary in Poland's Gazeta Wyborcza claimed that "many dream of using the [riots] as an occasion to seek the sacking of the once popular interior minister, since the leftist opposition rarely passes up an opportunity to attack the governing center-right coalition. However, it's hard to imagine any French government coming up with a quick and easy prescription to prevent the current situation."
Could the riots be the handiwork of Islamo-fascist instigators? An op-ed in Britain's Daily Telegraph noted that rioting in France's ghettos is not uncommon but said that many of the young Muslim residents might find the allure of fundamentalism hard to resist. "The gravest fear for French ministers is that the trouble of the past 10 days has been orchestrated by Islamists bent on exploiting the grievances of impressionable youths." A Q&A with an Independent reporter on the ground dismissed such conspiracy theories. All these kids want is "to be left alone by police and … Sarkozy, to continue with their life of low-level violence and drugs trading." However an article in Gazeta Wyborcza suggested that, as young Muslims increasingly fail to believe in the "French Model" of life, many are turning to Islamic fundamentalism, "which further prohibits integration."
In the Telegraph, expat Scottish academic Niall Ferguson weighed in on the riots from his perch at Stanford's Hoover Institute by applauding America's integration of immigrants. He concluded, "I tend to worry much more about Europe. For Mexicans are not Moroccans (think religion). …. Nor are the fires of disintegration already burning—as they are in Sarkozy's France."
Zuzanna Kobrzynski is Slate's executive assistant.
Amanda Watson-Boles, a former Slate copy editor, teaches at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Fla.
Photograph by Lionel Bonaventure/Agence France-Presse.