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Riots expose French society’s weakness

November 07, 2005 ~ 11:50 p.m.

Of all the things I am grateful for, one of them is that I am not in Paris – or, indeed, any major city in France.

The riots, which started October 27 in a northern suburb of Paris, soon spread to other impoverished Parisian banlieues and have now, after the 11th consecutive night, consumed other metropolises in France, including Dijon, Rouen, Toulouse, Strasbourg and Nice.

The riots ensued after two North African teenagers were electrocuted in a substation in the Parisian enclave of Clichy-sous-Bois in an attempt to hide from pursuing policemen. The two teens, police suspected, had been involved in a robbery.

This event seems to have been the last straw for French Muslims – a good-sized number of them North African immigrants – as nationwide riots have become a de facto occurrence. Even neighbouring countries Germany and Italy are worried about a trickle-down effect amongst their Muslim populations.

President Jacques Chirac has appealed for peace but has also left no room for doubt that punishment is forthcoming and will be severe.

“The law must have the last word,” Chirac warned. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has also been talking tough, referring to the rioters as “scum” and promising to “clean up” the suburbs. Muslim youths are not giving in, continuing to torch cars, firebomb schools and churches, and throw Molotov cocktails at police forces.

It would appear that the time is right for Chirac, Sarkozy and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to declare martial law and start delivering on the promise of tough action. Poverty and unemployment in the working-class estates in France is no excuse for out-of-control rioting, which has now been fed by drug traffickers and Islamic militants.

But there is a reason why all this disorder has exploded in France. For all its socialist liberalism, as with most of Europe, France has failed to integrate Muslim immigrants into society where they have mostly been looked down upon. As aforementioned, poverty and unemployment in run-down ghetto towns where they live is rife. Also, immigrants from North Africa are used to clearly defined rules of behavior. The culture shock they suffer when living in Europe, where the rules aren’t so delineated, causes them to cling even more to Islam, breeding fundamentalism. Umemployment plus fanaticism equals disaster. The Muslim community in France needs opportunities, and that’s exactly what they’ve been lacking for decades.

In a sense, I take a small amount of satisfaction from the violent unrest in France, chiefly due to that fact that it knocks French arrogance down to size. Recently, a French writer leapt gleefully at the aftermath of Katrina, crowing about how it exposed America’s weaknesses and racial divisions. And then there’s Chirac’s – and France’s – reluctance to adopt economic neoliberalism. This fear of “Anglo-Saxon” style market forces was a reason why the European Constitution was rejected; French voters were right to reject it, but for the wrong reason. Clearly, France has its own serious social problems and, in a sad way, it’s refreshing that they’ve been exposed.

Nevertheless, my heart goes out to innocent French citizens who have suffered these past eleven nights. I, personally, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the French people at this moment in their history. I never claimed to love France, but I never would have wished this horror upon them. I would not tell Sarkozy to tone down his language, because he is the rarest of creatures: a Frenchman with a strong backbone. Right now, he is exactly what France needs in turbulent times. However, his current language cannot be taken as an excuse for France to remain mired in the mess that it’s in.

Mssrs. Chirac, de Villepin and Sarkozy? Get to work. Take your country back. But once you have, reform it so that your post-colonial immigrant population feels that it has a chance of success.

– M.E.M.

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