Monday, November 07, 2005


For over ten nights running, housing projects throughout France have been the scene of spectacular rioting. The civil unrest is the worst since that which took place during the bad old days of the Algerian War in the early 1960s, and outstrips by far the highly political May, 1968. Thousands of cars and buses (4700) have been torched. Public buildings such as schools, daycare centers, libraries, city police stations, gyms, unemployment offices, cultural centers and bus stations have been burned - along with automobile dealerships, entire small shopping arcades, warehouses and dozens of shops and bus stops. Approximately 1200 rioters have been arrested.

The rentrée has turned out to be unexpectedly chaude, indeed.

So far only there have been few fatalities: two immigrant youths (they were not French citizens: the French press is quite clear about it - as are the laws concerning French nationality. Amerloque keeps up with such things.). It was their deaths which set off the initial rioting. Living in a housing project northeast of Paris, the young men were on their way home from playing soccer. Apparently they fled alleged police pursuit by hiding in an electrical substation … where they were electrocuted. A third youth accompanying them was seriously burned. A week into the rioting, a 61-year old man in front of his own house was attacked without reason by a hooded rioter. The oldster is now in a coma, and is not expected to survive.

Initially the rioting was sparked by rage and anger, a spontaneous protest against the useless, accidental deaths of the youths, who had ignored or simply not seen the huge Danger de Mort signs posted on the fences – and, sadly, paid the ultimate price. After several nights of increasingly violent and spreading unrest Nicolas Sarkozy, the Minister of the Interior and a man known to call a spade a spade unhesitatingly, stated that the rioters were "scum" (racaille) and that they would be "dealt with".

Sarkozy has stated many times that he is "a man who says what he means and means what he says". Himself the son of an immigrant, he did not use the word racaille by accident: he knew full well that in the project communities themselves the word racaille has for many years referred to those youths in the projects who everyone is frightened of: the serious troublemakers, the criminals, the drug dealers, the gang members. In verlan, a type of French slang based on inverted syllables (a flic becomes a keuf) spoken in the projects, such delinquents are called les cailleras. This is common knowledge. Even the current Minister for Social Promotion and Equality, Azouz Begag, a sociologist born in France of Algerian parents, used the term in an article in Le Monde in May, 2002.

This "scum" remark (in addition to sundry comments made by Sarkozy over the summer) was allegedly the oil on the flames, one of the putative reasons that the rioting has now multiplied uncontrollably allover France. Interviews with rioting "youths" in the media invariably reference the "scum" remark. Sheeplike opposition politicians on the left point at the term and bleat for Sarkozy's resignation.

The foreign media have jumped with glee on racaille, rendering it variously as "scum", "yobs", and "riffraff". Moreover, with hyperbole and embellishment ("France Burns", "France in Flames", "French Arson Rampage") they depict the riots as the failure of the "French model of integration". Quite frankly, Amerloque's eyes boggled as he read some of the reports, which at times bordered on science fiction. CNN (that most anti-French station: one wonders about their recruitment policy) even went so far as to telescope the events of several days into a demonstrably false one liner:

The rioting began with the accidental deaths of two teenagers, who ran from police after a tear gas grenade went off in a neighborhood mosque during prayers.

designed to mislead, misinform and denigrate.

Over at the IHT, Katrin Bennhold (a journalist who should know better but who appears recently to have thrust her remaining objectivity aside in favor of outright sycophancy vis-à-vis people and institutions) wrote:

Talk to people outside the Bilal mosque in this rundown suburb north of Paris and they will tell you what has gone wrong: why rioters for the past week have confronted the police in overnight bursts of anger in the streets, torching cars, hurling rocks and even firing bullets in the worst civil disobedience in France in more than a decade.

Molotov cocktails are "civil disobedience" ? Find yourself a good dictionary, Bennhold. Failing that, locate a few former 1956 Hungarian freedom fighters and ask them about their "civil disobedience" !

In France, individuals on the right and left call publicly for deployment of the army in the affected areas. Anyone who is familiar with modern France understands that the government will not shoot down rioters in the streets, although the force to do so exists. The times of the Paris Commune and its bullet-riddled execution walls are long gone. Nor is it the Wild West, here, by a long shot - the shoot-from-the-hip cowboy or Schwartzie action hero is most definitely not a French role model. Gunning down its children - the future of the country - is not the French way. Moreover, the discipline and lack of shoot'em-up mentality of the French riot police, at least up to now, should quite frankly be a matter of justifiable national pride - and not foreign opprobrium.

Given that the majority of rioters (not "youths" but "criminals", as Sarkozy and others have repeatedly pointed out) are immigrants and/or of immigrant origin, a lot of hard, brutal questions about immigration are going to be asked by many heretofore silent, well-meaning citizens. As an immigrant here himself (with both duties and rights), Amerloque feels perfectly entitled to bring up the subject. If thirty years ago, in 1975, say, the French people had been asked "Do you approve of the current immigration policy, which ensures that twenty-five years from now 11% of the French population will be immigrants, including 10% from Africa ?", what would the answer have been ? No prizes for guessing "No", given recent French history. However, the question wasn't asked, and today the French are presented with a fait accompli, which many citizens have found unpalatable. The fact that an enormous number of immigrants are Muslim is just another ingredient, albeit an important one, in the cauldron of witch's brew bubbling merrily in this France of November, 2005 CE.

Other European countries are observing events with interest and varying degrees of private and public alarm, while fervently hoping that copycat rioting doesn't spread to their nations. Foreign security forces are certainly examining evolving French tactics when dealing with highly mobile and cellphone-coordinated groups springing into action, torching one or more soft targets, and vanishing into the shadows. Paramilitary forces will appreciate the use of searchlight-equipped helicopters to follow and photograph fleeing groups. (One helicopter assault in association with ground-based riot containment forces on a multistory apartment block, to capture rioters fleeing from the roof after being teargassed and subsequently hiding out in apartments, was an exemplary exercise which broke new ground here, although those inhabitants who refused to open their doors and had them smashed down by battering rams might feel a bit differently.)

When the last glowing embers are extinguished, as they will be, three main courses of action are to be feared. The first is that the government might err on the side of caution and refrain from requesting tough - but fair - sentences for both adult and juvenile rioters caught in the act. Walking the tightrope between overreaction and underreaction is a difficult exercise for the French judicial system ... but torching a bus full of passengers with a Molotov cocktail is not quite the same as heaving a brick at a line of riot police or tagging a subway car, either. From past observation, Amerloque feels that the system will probably lean toward leniency, handing out sentences involving "works of public interest" (e.g., cleaning graffiti, cutting weeds) when possible, rather than coming down on the side of firmness and real jailtime. This is meritorious ... but it could turn out to be a path fraught with risks, since the message being sent might be misinterpreted by those receiving it.

The second is that basic questions (what the French call les questions de fond) could remain unasked and hence unanswered - questions including but not limited to the nature, desirability, role and activity of immigrants in French society. Should, for example, doctors and nurses and teachers from Third World countries be actively recruited to France, thus depriving the developing world of people it requires to … develop itself ? Should immigrants be allowed to import, apply and teach traditions and customs for the "home" country that are inimical to human rights as practiced in the "host" country ? Should immigrants be allowed to export any and all earnings to the home country, to the detriment of spending earned monies in the host country ? How much and in what form and for how long should French citizens (whether native born or naturalized) be asked to sacrifice to ensure immigrants' integration into French society for the benefit of the commonweal ? Are there any guarantees that integration will in fact take place ? What are the yardsticks ? Asking such questions should be encouraged because the answers should be a matter for national debate and not the province of self-serving politically correct politicians vying for votes. Based on past performance observed here, however, Amerloque does not advise the reader to hold her/his breath on this one.

The third is that the thread of solidarity running through French society might be stretched to the breaking point – or broken altogether. In these times of economic difficulties, it might be hard - or well-nigh impossible - for many French people to feel solidarity … with someone living nearby who might have been out there a few nights ago torching schools, buses and daycare centers. This is bad news for everyone - and no matter what happens this week, this massive threat to French solidarity won't be going away in the foreseeable future.


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque


Blogger Moms' Style said...

Thank you for your analysis and insight. I have been waiting for you to post on this topic and you did not dissappoint.

8:32 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi mom's style !

... you did not dissappoint.

I'm glad of that. (smile)

This Wednesday morning it looks like things are calming down. (The man in a coma passed away, unfortunately. That makes at least three deaths directly connected to the riots.)

M. de Villepin appears not to want to pour more oil on the flames. Reactivating the 1955 curfew law means that the situation is probably far more serious than what we see on TV and read in the papers.


4:08 AM  
Blogger jean said...

I echo mom's sentiment. It's good to have your thoughtful take on the situation. Merci.

4:40 PM  

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