“But if you look at the streets it wasn’t about Rodney King,
It’s bout this fucked up situation and these fucked up police.
It’s about coming up and staying on top
and screamin’ 187 on a mother fuckin’ cop.”
— Lyrics from “April 26, 1992”, by Sublime
A friend gently poked me yesterday to write about the Paris Riots. I’ve lived about half my life in France, and half my life in the US, so this is obviously a topic of involved discussion. To many (and in a way, even to me), these riots came out of nowhere. In retrospect, of course, they’re not entirely surprising. In these riots, and in the government’s response, lies one of the major differences between France and the US. How should one respond to violence? Through the exploration of root causes? Through the swift reestablishment, by extreme force if necessary, of public order?
Some wingnuts would like you to believe that the riots are indicative of a massive failure of french socialism, what with the high unemployment, bureaucracy, etc… Yet the LA riots were far more destructive and deadly.
Others are calling this a French Intifada, some massive showdown between secularism and religious extremism. Yet the ridiculous anti-science movement in the US that promotes Intelligent Design, fights against stem cell research, and struggles to keep the Plan B contraceptive off the shelves seems far more effective in its religious extremism.
No, the one who gets it right is Atrios:
France treats its immigrant populations (which include, of course, 2nd and 3rd generation “immigrants”) like shit.
In my experience, that is exactly right. Racism runs deep in French society. I’m often shocked, on my various trips back to France, by the off-the-cuff racist remarks. The unemployment rates within these ethnic minorities is telling: more than twice the national average. Clearly, there’s an education problem, but, just as clearly, there’s discrimination by employers.
The cause of these riots is none other than disenfranchisement. The French have failed to integrate various ethnic minorities because they’ve insisted on maintaining a rigid, French monoculture. As has been well studied, in France, you’re either French quite a few generations back, or an immigrant.
Now the question is: what’s the government to do? And this is where it gets interesting.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the Minister of the Interior, has unapologetically called the rioters “thugs.” Supposedly, the riots got worse as a result of his comments. Immediately, the Communist and Socialist parties called for Sarkozy’s resignation and for the police to withdraw from troubled areas in order to stop the “provocation.”
This is typical of the French Left ivory-tower elitist reasoning. These people think incredibly carefully about root cause, to the detriment of justice here and now. The Palestinians have suffered greatly, thus their bombing of innocent civilians is understandable. Jose Bove destroys a McDonald’s restaurant, but since he means well, he should not be punished. Young people burn 1200 cars in one night, but since they’re disenfranchised, we should look the other way and hope for the best.
That is the trap of over-intellectualizing the issue. At the end of the day, these disenfranchised people still burned cars, cars that belonged to their equally-poor neighbors. Do these neighbors deserve no protection?
Of course, the US Right Wing is guilty of the opposite crime. It’s all about immediate justice. Shoot first, ask questions later. If you even consider the possible root causes of terrorism (say, for example, the invasion of a sovereign Arab country), you’re a traitor, you’re “with the terrorists.” The terrorists are evil, they are wrong, there can be no logic to their actions. We must kill them all. You’re either with us, or against us.
That is the trap of under-thinking the issue. There are root causes, and there are lessons to learn about how our actions today affect violence, terrorism, and the state of the world 20 years from now.
Interestingly enough, Nicolas Sarkozy is the one politician who’s proposed and implemented a harsh response to the riots while being a long-standing proponent of American-style integration, with programs like affirmative action. This is a man who, it seems, understands that the riots require two reactions: reestablishing public order in the short term, and planning structural solutions for the long term.
There cannot be one without the other. The French Left and the American Right, it seems, have a lot to teach one another.