Two weeks of rioting have raised serious questions for France. The escalating violence has forced the French to acknowledge the widening gap between their image of French society and the reality of the lives of many of its newest citizens. The temptation to dismiss the violence as a superficial phenomenon — adolescent angst or the work of foreign agitators — must be resisted. Worse, the recent violence may herald problems that will be faced by other developed countries in the near future.
Rioting began Oct. 27 in a town northwest of Paris, after two Muslim teenagers were electrocuted in a power substation where they were hiding after allegedly being chased by police — a charge that police officials say is untrue. Other youths took to the streets, first to protest the deaths, then to demonstrate their grievances over what they perceive as racism, abuse of power by the police, and the bleak economic prospects for immigrant and minority youth.
In the two weeks since the deaths, the violence has spread nationwide to more than 300 towns and villages, including some of France’s largest cities. It is reminiscent of the unrest that rocked France — and much of the Western world — in 1968.
When the violence began, officials’ initial response was to blame boredom or “rituals of passage” for French youth. As the violence spread, the blame shifted to drug dealers or “foreigners” — usually Islamic radicals — who were ready to exploit the widespread disaffection felt by the rioters. (Rightwing politicians like Jean Marie Le Pen, who have long argued that France’s open-door policy was a threat to the nation, were especially quick to take up this view.) Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy’s remark that the demonstrators were “scum” magnified the protesters’ anger, which in turn contributed to the perception that the problem was primarily a result of small issues — in this case the tactics of French authorities.
President Jacques Chirac has been strangely quiet, and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is inexperienced. As he and Mr. Sarkozy are both rivals to succeed Mr. Chirac in 2007, their handling of the situation has been influenced by their political aspirations. Only after 12 days of clashes did the government impose emergency measures that included curfews throughout the country. While hundreds of cars are still being set afire nightly, the number of incidents is decreasing.
A return to calm is welcome, but the danger exists that France will avoid tackling the real causes of the violence. The protests reflect deep-rooted problems in French society, most fundamentally the country’s failure to absorb Muslim and North African immigrants that have come to France over the past several decades. Some 6 million Muslims now live in France, and they remain largely segregated from the mainstream of French life. Most of the immigrants are marginalized in subsidized housing outside the city centers.
Unemployment in France is 9.2 percent for people of French origin; for immigrants, the rate is 14 percent. A little over 22 percent of men under the age of 25 are jobless; for 20-24 year olds living in the suburbs — i.e., predominately Muslim youths — the figure is 37.2 percent. This is plainly trouble. Still worse is the growing French resentment of foreigners, a sentiment that is gathering momentum as the French economy stagnates and the Paris government continues to assert itself internationally with diminishing returns.
The rejection of the European Union Constitution, the desperate battle to protect supports for French farmers in global trade talks, and the debate over Turkey’s entrance into the EU are all signs of a society that feels threatened. Immigrants in the suburbs are the daily reminder of that threat — and they feel the brunt of the backlash in subtle and structural ways. That many of them are also Muslim compounds the fear.
France must come to a better understanding of how immigrants fit into their country. In 2003 France became the world’s leading destination for asylum seekers, but it has not provided its new citizens with a real home. Not only are job prospects slim, but when government benefits are cut, the newcomers feel it first and most acutely. It is a dangerous downward spiral, and one that other governments will face as well, as their societies age and budgets tighten.
Paris needs to meet the challenge posed by its growing population of immigrant youth. A real solution will help France, and the world, and will restore the luster to a national image that has been badly tarnished.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.