Posted by: sean | November 8, 2005

Popular emotion

After another night of rioting, which has spread to cities all over France and even to Belgium and Germany, and as the government is implementing a state of emergency and a curfew , it is important to take a serious look at the incidents instead of listening to news outlets that can’t get their geography right or those who are calling this the intifada in France based on a two hour layover at the Charles de Gaulle airport.

First of all, Paris is not burning. Certain suburbs throughout the country are at night, but if I didn’t read the newspaper or listen to the radio, I wouldn’t even know that there were any riots, because, for the most part, nothing has changed in the actual city limits of Paris.

Second, this is not a religious conflict. This is a socio-economic and a racial problem, much like the LA riots in 1992 (58 dead) and the Watts riots in 1965 (32 dead). Neither is it a question of one country occupying another, so the parallels of the Palestinian intifada are ludicrous at best.

The events of the last 11 nights are complicated and seemingly contradictory, but no more so than any other instance of collective violence: there is no real ideological underpinning, but the riots are more than just senseless violence; people are angry at a country that has provided poorly for them and put up barriers against their pursuit of happiness, so they burn their own neighborhoods; the state will punish those it catches in acts of lawlessness, but its attention has been grabbed in a way that peaceful protests and letter writing campaigns have not been able to accomplish.

Robert Darnton wrote an article called Reading a riot in the New York Review of Books shortly after the LA riots, in which he discussed a book about the Paris riots of 1750.

Despite their obvious differences, one can pick out plenty of similarities between Los Angeles in 1992 and Paris in 1750: the previous histories of rioting, the settings of poverty, the influx of immigration, the prevalence of homelessness, the influence of gangs, the resentment of oppression, and the provocation of police, who made a show of force and then, with the threat of confrontation, withdrew. If George Bush will not do as Louis XV, Daryl Gates would make a credible Berryer. And the folklore of the blood bath is no more extravagant than the myth about AIDS as an epidemic unleashed by whites to destroy blacks.

But even if they run parallel, the comparisons do not lead anywhere, because the past does not provide pre-packaged lessons for the present. The rioters of Paris inhabited a mental world that differed completely from that of the rioters in Los Angeles; and the history of rioting demonstrates the need to understand mentalités in all their specificity rather than to search for general models. Riots have meanings as well as causes. To discover what they mean, we must learn to read them, scanning across centuries for patterns of behavior and looking for order in the apparent anarchy that explodes under our noses. We have a long way to go; but if we ever get there, we may be able to make sense of what has seemed to be the most irrational ingredient of our civilization: “popular emotion.”

Likewise in Paris today, there are parallels to be seen. Nicolas Sarkozy, the current French Minister of the Interior, would probably empathize with Gates and Berryer (the chiefs of police in Los Angeles in 1992 and Paris in 1750, respectively). But we must be careful about blindly applying one historical event upon another similar one, and avoid at all costs forcing two dissimilar ones together to suit an ideology or a strained narrative, like so many American bloggers seem intent on doing with their imaginary clash of civilizations.

The problem here is a complex one, and it has no easy solutions. Second and third generation children of immigrants from Africa and Asia have not been integrated into French society, and many opportunities remain out of their reach, due to a vicious cycle of a lack of governmental integration efforts and communautarisme or ghettoization. At this point, it’s not really important which came first; they both feed on each other. This is illustrated in a lack of representation of a group of people that is French and makes up around 12% of France’s population. There are very few minority politicians and, besides comics and rappers, I can only think of one Arab who is regularly on television: Rachid Arhab, who is often referred to as Rachid l’Arabe.

France, like many other countries, has not done a good job of integrating the immigrants who were necessary for the country’s development and their French children. And in order to prevent things like this from happening again, it’s going to take more than quick fixes and band-aids. But in the end, that’s the problem: no one pays attention to these people until it’s too late; no one talks very seriously about reforming state housing, fighting against discrimination, bettering education and raising employment in these areas until they’re already ablaze.

So while the electrocution of the two boys in Clichy-sous-Bois and Sarkozy’s televised comments about taking out the trash probably ignited the riots, the fuel for them has been laying around dormant for a while.

In his article about the incidents in Aulnay-sous-Bois, Alex Duval Smith of The Observer quotes a youth of Algerian descent whose opinions are lucid and, unfortunately have a certain logic about them:

‘He [Sarkozy] should go and fuck himself,’ says HB, who was born in France of Algerian parents. ‘We are not germs. He said he wants to clean us up. He called us louts. He provoked us on television. He should have said sorry for showing us disrespect, but now it is too late.’

HB’s views are clear. ‘The only way to get the police here is to set fire to something. The fire brigade does not come here without the police, and the police are Sarkozy’s men so they are the ones we want to see.’

All the dustbins were burnt long ago. ‘Cars make good barricades and they burn nicely, and the cameras like them. How else are we going to get our message across to Sarkozy? It is not as if people like us can just turn up at his office.’ …

Jobs? ‘There are a few at the airport and at the Citroën plant, but it’s not even worth trying if your name is Mohamed or Abdelaoui.’ …

When asked if he considers himself integrated in France, HB claims that is not his aspiration. ‘I am not sure what the word means. I am part of Mille-Mille and Seine-Saint-Denis, but I am not part of Sarkozy’s France, or even the France of our local mayor whom we never see. At the same time, I realise I am French, because when I visit my parents’ village in Algeria that doesn’t feel like home either.’



  1. i knew i could count on you to plow a line of reason through this nonsense. on the other side of the pond, even in liberal as they want to be cambridge,MA the media montage is “paris! unrest! immigrants! terrorists!”

  2. Thanks. The American media coverage has been particularly disappointing. I’m not sure if they’re just lazy or malicious, but they seem to be fitting their coverage into a narrative of East v. West and Muslim v. Christian. They don’t even stop to do their homework and realize that many of the people rioting are from Chrisitan parts of Africa or the Carribbean, which is also mostly Christian.

    It suits the sensationalt story of the day to have evil Muslims attacking Judeo-Christian society, perhaps because they hate their own freedom? Yeah, that must be it.

  3. Sean,

    I fundamentally agree with you that the American media has been overly simplistic regarding the French immigration situation. American neo-liberals have exalted the “American Model of Integration” over the “Racist Model of French Assimilation”. As it goes, the cultural interfacing between the United States and France has been rather nationalistic.

    However, I have a daring question to ask: in the United States, immigrants tend to be VERY patriotic, does this in itself mean that Americans are more welcoming to foreigners? If one looks at US volunteer military enrollment, it has ALWAYS been the case that first and second generation Americans represent the highest percentage of any social group. In this respect, the “American integration model” IS effective, albeit cheesy and horrible as hell.

    In contrast, I cannot help but to consider that the “French assimilationist model” defines the national criteria of what is “French”, which in itself is highly questionable. Although both France and the United States believe in civic-republican ideals, I will immediately declare that there are very clear French ideals of what culturally constitutes a “French citizen”. Mr Villepin, for example, noted that the entire lesson was that France needs to make the attempt to “make” the Africans and Mulsims more like the French!

    In a similar sense, the French media absolutely loves to designate American problems as “peculiar”; “Hurricane Katrina” was a matter of the “peculiar” American institution of racism. As some global idiots say: “touche”.

    In response to Julie, my fellow “Cantabridgian”: you are oversimplifying the subtelties of cultural discourse. Yes, there have been some “clash of civilizations” rhetoric in the American media, but that’s only part and parcel to the entirety of debate. Read the following French media clips; it reveals the degree of openeess to address even the QUESTION of French racism, further reveals how utterly clueless French politicians are, and finally shows us the meaning of self-conscious French disgrace.

    French Racism, whether the French would like to admit or not, is indeed a “peculiar French institution”. Touche.

    L’Express du 10/11/2005

    Pourquoi la France brûle

    par Christophe Barbier

    Ainsi va la France: jamais elle ne produit les crises que l’on attend ou pronostique. On guettait l’humeur des syndicats tout au long de cet automne, et ce sont les banlieues qui ont sauté à la figure du pays. Un embrasement sans précédent, qui stupéfie le monde, ruine l’image de la France à l’étranger et devient de plus en plus dangereux pour ses habitants. Nul autre pays, il est vrai, n’est capable de basculer aussi soudainement dans un drame national. Parce que l’Etat y est plus omnipotent que partout ailleurs, les désordres y prennent vite une ampleur exceptionnelle et des allures de révolution. Rien ne s’y joue d’important sans que les gouvernants soient mis en cause. S’il est bien un fait politique majeur dans ces journées de révolte, au-delà de la fracture sociale, qui jaillit des cités comme un volcan de terre, c’est cette confrontation directe entre le pouvoir et des émeutiers parfaitement conscients de défier l’ordre public?

    Libération du 12 novembre 2005

    interview avec Trevor Phillips, président de la Commission pour l?Égalité raciale, institution britannique chargée de lutter contre les discriminations et la ségrégation

    Vous avez récemment expliqué que «l’incantation liberté, égalité, fraternité» masque, en France, la «réalité de la vie» pour les femmes et hommes «non-blancs». C’est-à-dire ?

    Il existe un silence en Europe sur les questions raciales, qui s’exprime de différentes façons. La classe politique, à droite comme à gauche, est terrifiée à l’idée que les questions de races et de cultures puissent être une ligne de division à travers leurs territoires. Or, et c’est en partie ce qui se passe en France, c’est bien une question d’origine qui se pose. En France, ces questions sont dissimulées. La gauche française concourt particulièrement à ce silence : à ses yeux, le problème des quartiers est une question de classes ou de pauvreté. C’est en partie vrai, mais pas seulement. Y-a-t-il, en ce moment, des jeunes, pauvres et blancs qui descendent dans les rues ? Ceux qui descendent dans la rue en ce moment en France réclament d’être traités comme des hommes et des femmes français de souche sans être identiques. L’establishment politique français est d’une absolue suffisance par rapport à la tradition républicaine, lorsque cela consiste à croire que vous pouvez imposer l’uniformité à chacun. Ça ne marche pas?

    Le Monde du 12/11/2005
    La sécurité a été renforcée à Paris pour le week-end du 11 novembre de crainte de “descentes” de casseurs.
    Le préfet de police a décidé d’interdire les rassemblements “de nature à provoquer ou entretenir le désordre” dans la capitale de samedi 10 heures à dimanche 8 heures, à la suite d’appels à des “actions violentes” sur Internet et via des SMS.
    Les lignes de transports en commun menant à Paris, en particulier le réseau RER, font l’objet d’une surveillance renforcée.
    Au total, quelque 3 000 hommes sont mobilisés dans la capitale pour ce long week-end qui fait figure de test pour les forces de l’ordre.

    Accalmie relative dans les banlieues, sécurité renforcée à Paris

    vendredi 11 novembre 2005, mis à jour à 21:51
    Accalmie relative dans les banlieues, sécurité renforcée à Paris

    Des incidents ont éclaté vendredi en fin de journée à Toulouse (Haute-Garonne), où dix véhicules avaient été incendiés à 19h00, selon la préfecture de Midi-Pyrénées.
    Une marche silencieuse est prévue samedi à Toulouse entre le quartier populaire du Mirail et le centre-ville.
    Par ailleurs, un policier a été placé vendredi en détention provisoire et quatre autres ont été placés sous contrôle judiciaire pour des violences sur un jeune homme lundi à La Courneuve (Seine-Saint-Denis), a-t-on appris de source judiciaire.
    Huit policiers avaient été suspendus pour cette “bavure”, filmée et diffusée sur France 2. Les trois autres policiers ont été remis vendredi en liberté.
    A Paris, les forces de l’ordre font montre d’une “extrême vigilance” dans l’éventualité d’incidents?

  4. […] by American coverage of the suburb riots in 2005, which did its best to portray what was clearly a socio-economic problem into some sort of Muslim uprising. (Mark Steyn, for example, idiotically wrote of the […]

  5. […] by American coverage of the suburb riots in 2005, which did its best to portray what was clearly a socio-economic problem into some sort of Muslim uprising. (Mark Steyn, for example, idiotically wrote of the […]

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