Stevenson on Riots in France
Roger Stevenson kindly writes:
“Thanks so much for your thoughtful and enlightened piece on the riots that are currently besetting France. I, too, am extremely upset over the inflated, sensational and unfactual reporting from the US media outlets.
Steyn’s comments make you wonder if he has even ever set foot in the country let alone done any meaningful research on the social conditions in France’s HLM housing developments. As a retired American academic who now lives in France and who has also been naturalized as a French citizen, I have not just a passing interest in the causes of and solutions to the current situation.
I have been reminded over the past two weeks of on-going violence of my classes on French civilization and culture in the States. I always made it a point when we discussed immigration and social integration problems in France to emphasize that,
in my opinion, this was one of the most serious problems that France would be faced with in coming years.
I agree for the most part with your analysis of the historical factors and the neglect that French society in general has shown for the problems of minority ethnic groups. The housing problems and discrimination they face in everyday life are truly tragic. France was forced in the 50’s and 60’s to embark on large scale housing projects to house the increasing numbers of immigrant labor families that the economy needed, with the result that these large high rise apartment buildings are now ghetto-like neighborhoods that are often poorly maintained and very overcrowded.
The remnants of France’s colonial empire are now stacked, often 12 stories high, in what the French call “rabbit cages.” It is easy to understand how the youth of these
underprivileged projects feel totally disenfranchised from the mainstream of French society. Many have dropped out of a very rigid education system, and the prospects for any kind of meaningful future in terms of a job, career, decent housing, a feeling of self-worth, etc., are very bleak.
And when the Minister of Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, talks of clearning up these housing projects with a “Kärcher” (a high pressusre steam cleaning machine) and refering to the youth of these projects as “racaille” (I think the best translation is “scum”, what does he expect ? Such incendiary language has no place in dealing with the victims of many decades of social neglect and has, in fact, only served as a further catalyst to the present violence.
And yet, from what I read in the French press, there are other factors at play here. Le Monde had a series of articles in the Tuesday, Nov., 8th edition where many of the kids from these projects as well as their parents are interviewed. One mother is quoted as saying that these young men (there are very few young girls involved) have no future ahead of them and yet are the victims themselves of a gang mentality that is in operation in the suburbs. They have no values other than those of money and consumerism, and drug trafficking is one of the few means they have of making money. A group of young girls is quoted as saying that alone these young men would never think of torching a car, but in the group/gang mentality they would be considered a coward if they refused to go along with the group. “They would be nothing in the
Another factor that is important to realize is that their actions are largely designed to attract attention to them and to their plight. The group of girls interviewed were upset that there were no police helicopters flying over their neighborhood on the particular night they were interviewed. “Seine Saint Denis get the helicopters. We are losers here.”
It’s a complicated issue and one that will take considerable wisdom on the part of the authorities to quell the disturbances and put into place meaningful strategies and programs to deal with the underlying causes of the unrest. Contrary to what one hears and reads in the US media, this is not at all a Muslim intifada (There is currently an interesting thread on Helena Cobban’s Blog), and the frequent comparisons to May ’68 are only partially correct. For one thing, I doubt very much that the popoulation at large would ever support their actions. The general strike in ’68 was the result of large-scale involvement in the student uprising by many elements of French society. That just won’t be the case now. In fact, in a poll released this morning, over 80% of the French, including a majority of those polled from the left, approve the curfew measures decreed by Villepin yesterday.”