Friday, November 04, 2005

More French Riots - analysis.

Eighth night of street violence in some of Paris suburbs where rioters fired at police, stoned commuter trains and torched a school, shops and hundreds of vehicles.

Despite what you may read or hear by some analysts, those riots have nothing to do with race and little to do with immigration. They mostly have to do with an acute sense of territory which is itself the result of too much concentration of poverty. It all started with the building of huge high-rise projects in those towns (mostly in the 60s and 70s) which resulted into a great concentration of low-income families, unemployed (1 out of 3 youths on average) and social problems.

My experience as a teacher in a similar neighborhood taught me that while you can do a lot when you have 10% of your class with kids with difficulties, it gets much harder when it’s 25% and it becomes impossible when it’s more than 50%. You need some diversity in your class, just the way you need some diversity in cities.

The result of such concentration is a sense of belonging to a different neighborhood which can be assimilated to a sense of belonging to a territory with its own culture, its own code and its own local vocabulary. When you teach there, you realize the great divide between those suburbs and the rest of the nation. It becomes increasingly like two countries growing apart.

So the police riots going there is seen by those youths as a attack on their territory. While this needs to be dealt with in the short term, in the long run only the realization of the “territory” issue will help. But the answers are multiple. They also include actions and investment that will give the people living there a sense that they are being taken care of and that they really belong to the Republic, that they have reasons to be proud.

What is also important is to not buy into the whole idea that race is the issue. Unlike the riots in Britain or in the U.S, it is one ethnic group against another. It is not even Arabs against “the white police”. The French police have become increasingly ethnically diverse. Ironically (and somewhat cynically), those riots are actually the sign of some successful racial integration. If you look at the pictures of the rioters, you see black, Arab-descent and some white kids. They are on the same side, all fighting for what they see as their territory.

One note on the coverage of the riots iby the French media.
I believe thet The Times correspondent in Paris has a point here, and if I may add, this is unfortunate:

The villain of the piece in many eyes is Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister, who is very much hard right, and opposed to him is Domininque de Villepin, the more consensual Prime Minister. They've been busy scoring points against each other over the last few days and that's contributed to sense that the Government has not been in control.

The media tend to reflect the complaints of the left and of immigrant groups, but I personally suspect that the average Frenchman is with M Sarkozy on this, that the yobs have to be kept under control. His talk about cleaning out the scum from the estates is deemed to be terribly offensive, if you're among the people trying to promote integration and inter-ethnic dialogue, but it pleases people who think that France lacks law and order.

Update: in the meantime, the French president inaugurates former concentration camp memorial in Alsace, saying nothing about the riots. Yesterday though, he did say that "the law must be applied firmly" but "in a spirit of dialogue and respect" to..... his Cabinet! Chirac certainly has turned the concept of "being out of touch" into an art form!


At 00:21, Anonymous marc said...

God (!) knows I'm far from sharing Sarkozy's view on things but, once more, the debate sounds rather too much clear-cut to me. You're either left-wing and prone to criticize our current government,hence explain and "understand" some of the youngster's anger, or you're more conservative and give no credit to the social aspect. I dare say that to me, absolutely nothing acccounts for firing at police officers, setting fire to buses and shops. Being too soft,even lenient and demagogical (in words as well as in acts)won't help those teenagers. Suggesting they're entitled to such a violence sounds appallingly itrresponsible.


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