The mainstream press has been telling Europeans that "riots" have broken out in the Parisian Suburbs (Banlieu) this week. In calling them "riots", the popular imagination likens them to fires and other sorts of largely uncontrollable disasters. It's as if the French are merely being faced with an outbreak of civil unrest, and that someone from the ranks of the government will most assuredly figure out how to weather the storm within the coming days.
These aren't "riots". This is social rebellion, directed at decades of French imperial rule, and ultra-capitalist and racist policymaking at home. After the "decolonization" process finished in Africa (oddly leaving the former colonies entirely dependent on the Banque de France for their monetary policymaking and at the whim of French military decision-making), the colonized were supposed to be offered life in France as a sort of reparation for the destruction that went along with the imperial era. This, predictably, has turned out to be nothing more than a bone that the French have thrown at their dependents to try to keep them quiet. The idea is this: give them cheap, shitty housing away from the beautiful Metropole of Paris, give them minimum wage paying work, and hope that they shut up.
Obviously, "they" haven't shut up. The largely immigrant population of the northern Banlieu has grown tired of being shut out. What's more, this is nothing new. Over the last decade or so, urban revolt has been a regular, if not common occurrence. Fires, car bombings, random acts of violence, and vandalism are all part of life in Paris' most neglected district.
Referred to as the "93 (neuf-trois)", after the first two numbers of the postal code, the northern suburbs have always been the destination of those too poor to handle the inner city or the more posh southern and western suburbs. Like similar districts in every major city of the world, it has also been the target of government attempts at wiping it off the map. Being from Chicago, I am quite familiar with the technique, employed by the totalitarian mayor Richard Daley, to clear out public housing structures, replace them with a monotonous string of overpriced yuppy condominiums, build public amusements to attract the yuppy inhabitants, and then advertise to the world that you have helped rebuild the city. In the north of Paris, this script has been followed almost exactly. The build up of superstores such as Ikea and The Gap between the "93" and Charles de Gaulle Airport began the process of encroaching on these poor communities. Then came the construction of the Stade de France in time for the 1998 World Cup in Saint-Denis (just on the border of the hot region). The last step was meant to score the 2012 Summer Olympics for the same venue, which would have paved the road for the completion of the great "urban renewal" project of the problem district.
Unfortunately for Chirac and Co., things have not gone according to plan. Perhaps the unexpected loss to London in the Olympic bid race can be seen as a fitting metaphor for the administration’s failure to kill the poor communities. However, France's frustration in losing the bid to host the games can't be anything compared to the frustration of those who have descended from three generations of French residents, only to still be entirely excluded from the main fabric of society and government.
Much of the frustration among the revolters has been aimed at Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, often called "Sarko" by disaffected youth. It is he who has provided the tough rhetoric that has easily fueled the fires of rage behind the current rebellion. Among other things, Sarko has been known to regularly refer to the 93's residents as racaille, or scum. He has threatened to clear out the streets of the neighborhood with power hoses, and blames the locals with instituting a depraved culture of petty crime and heavy drug use. This is the #2 man in the government behind Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, and so his rhetoric carries immense weight. While some within both major ruling parties in Parliament have begun to question Sarko's tough talk, it's all pretty moot at this point. By allowing Sarko to have his way for so long, the perception is that all of government and the elite populations that support it feel this way about the residents and citizens of the northern Banlieu.
The mainstream press, be it "left" or "Right", has done their best to falsely turn this story into another "Clash of Civilizations" bit. Without saying as much, they tend to interview people with obviously Arabic names on the scene, and then babble on about the history of Algerian and Tunisian immigration to the area. All one needs to do is read what the interviewees are saying to realize that this has nothing to do with any overarching West-East dilemma. They aren't talking about the death of the West, and their revulsion at the Judeo-Christian liberal democratic norms. They are talking about their revulsion at socioeconomic exclusion. This doesn't have anything to do with civilization: this has to do with Capitalism running buck wild over the human rights of thousands of members of French society.
Just listen to the voices of the revolt. Zaid, 20, quoted in the November 4th Independent of London, says: "It's hard to just sit here and watch the rich people driving past in their swanky vehicles. They have everything and we have absolutely nothing."
In the November 5th version of the Independent, Kamel, 16, says: "Ever since Sarko came into the government, life has been merde. He treats us like dogs -- well, we'll show him how dogs can react!"
I could draw up a list of dozens of such quotes, none of them using religious or cultural imagery to indicate a civilization clash.
While there is a heavy population of North African Arabs in the area, they aren't the whole story. The other half of the north Banlieu population is made up of Blacks, immigrants from other parts of the world, and the occasional poor white French families. This is a widespread spectrum of the population that is feeling excluded. One needn't pull out the Samuel Huntington boogeyman to understand why the feeling of desperation is so high in these areas. One need only use common sense: the largely poor and immigrant population here is made to live in dangerously, dilapidated conditions, are not permitted to practice cultural traditions from home thanks to the overarching cultural chauvinism of French society, and are not even give the rare representative in Congress the way American and British minorities are. Simply enough, you treat a significant portion of your population in this disturbing way for long enough, and they will rebel.
What began as a seemingly contained bout of social disorder in response to the electrocution of two youths being pursued by police last week has manifested itself into nationwide revolt. The problem areas have spread to Toulouse, Marseille, Strasbourg, Nantes, and other areas of the country that fit the ultra-excluded demographic of the Northern Banlieu. The most frequent form of revolt has been car torchings, with the biggest job being an entire Renault dealership in Aulnay-Sous-Bois. Schools, department stores, large chains and government buildings have also been targeted. The mainstream press has been dutifully overemphasizing the youth aspect to the rebels, so as to delegitimize the events. Any new violence is being referred to as "copy cat" riots, as if those responsible are not thinking about anything but imitating those who have come before. This is a completely irrelevant point insofar as the "copy cat" aspect doesn't significantly change the overarching picture: angry, disaffected, and largely young segments of the population with nothing better to do than declare war on France.
The war is built upon the marked contrasts in French society. The Paris city center is one of the richest in the world, with the West side being lined with gold from the Champs Elysées down through the Eiffel Tower district to the ultra posh 16th Arrondissement (district). As Paris rests comfortably in wealth, built on family dynasty and tourism, the suburbs toil for every last meal. If they are lucky enough to find work (sometimes unemployment runs as high as 50% in the suburbs), then they often work twelve hours a day, seven days a week, just to maintain a decent living. They keep France open by managing corner shops and laborious industrial night shifts, and receive nothing but hate in return. Their parents and grandparents managed to survive the often bloody onslaught of French imperialism in Africa, and now they are made to survive the immoral onslaught of rugged Capitalism.
France has always captured the imagination of the rebellious. Many credit the French Revolution with being the first example of a popular social revolution. It was followed in Paris with social rebellion in 1848, worker upheaval in 1871, and student revolt in 1968. In 2005, Paris is burning at the hands of the modern day proletarian population. Just don't call them riots! These aren't forest fires. This is a rebellion in real time.
Matt Reichel is an American expatriate currently working and studying in Paris. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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