Paris is Burning

For over a week now, Paris has been rocked by riots by "disaffected youths" (more specifically, young Frenchmen of North African and West African descent) in some of its suburbs–in French banlieu, or suburb, means "ghetto"–after 2 youths died (and one is in serious condition) after seeking refuge in an electric transformer in order to escape the police (who’d caught them trying to break into a backyard shed).  Upon getting the news over a week ago, scores of angry youths took to the streets in multiple cities within the Seine-Saint-Denis region.  Scattered disturbances have been seen elsewhere, as well, reaching as far as Normandy and Aix-en-Provance along the Mediterranean coast.

As usual, the Christian Science Monitor has a really informative and enlightening  article on this important development.
(Note to self:   Must renew our sub.  Note to you: They deserve your support, too.)

The  tragic deaths (and, I assume, the shocking image of young people so desperate to escape the police that they would climb a fence, scale a wall and lower themselves into an electrified enclosure) have obviously struck a nerve and brought France’s social problems with its Muslim population out into the open.

Over 400 cars have been torched.   Mobs have lobbed rocks at police stations, government buildings and even fire fighters and paramedics.  A commuter train was attacked on the platform and some of its passengers mugged.  According to one particularly disturbing report, a train that had been vandalized was then set on fire, severely burning a woman inside who was already handicapped.

The situation was further exaccerbated when police threw a tear gas bomb into a mosque, causing mayhem and panic inside among the men, women and children inside.

The CSM piece writes:

After a week of nightly disturbances that have left hundreds of cars and buses torched, and several buildings burned down, the horns echoing off the concrete walls of grim housing projects sounded a broader alarm. The spreading violence has lifted the lid on an ugly stew of poverty, discrimination, and desperation amongst immigrant-descended families that most French citizens have long preferred to ignore.

"Frankly I am not surprised by what is happening," says Dounia Bouzar, an expert on French-born Muslims who has worked in the mostly black and North African districts on the outskirts of Paris. "Given the way these kids live, I wonder why it doesn’t happen more often."

This article is well worth a read.  It explains some of the reasons why life is so bleak in France’s woefully neglected banlieus.

During my year in Paris (1995-1996), I suspect that I had more exposure to these
problems than most foreign students studying French at the Sorbonne, as I spent my
first few months in France living in Vitry-sur-Seine (a poor and overwhelmingly North African suburb made famous recently with the shocking murder of a young Arab girl in 2002 for refusing to obey male authority), spent half my stay living in Barbès, and made friends
with some young, struggling banlieusards (i.e., people from the suburbs) at the mosque.

While it is always shocking to see civil unrest on this scale, I’m not at all surprised by what’s happening.  The desperation and resentment of these people’s neighborhoods was bound to boil over eventually.

The ugly, often poorly maintained blocks of public housing that have become a nightly battlefield are testament to 40 years of government policy that has concentrated immigrants and their families in well-defined districts away from city centers, as housing there became more expensive.

Those ugly, towering buildings on the outskirts of town are often called les HLM (habitation à loyer modéré, or rent-controlled housing).  I lived in a bleak one on Avenue de la Glacière in Vitry-sur-Seine for a few months, when I–a broke , quasi-homeless student who’d arrived 2 months before the semester and thus my lodging arrangements were to begin–rented a room from a poor Tunisian family.

These riots are not unlike the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992 in that they remind society that problems of racism and social exclusion cannot be ignored indefinitely.  Eventually, they bubble over and when they do everyone suffers and becomes at risk.  Lawlessness and violence is never justified, but that doesn’t mean we all don’t have an interest in preventing its’ outbreak by addressing social problems.

These problem are intertwined with religious tensions because most of France’s poor are Muslims from North Africa (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia) or West Africa (Senegal, Mali, …).

P.S.  I wrote an article on the headscarf controversy in France  a few years ago that touches on some of these issues.

Update (11/5/2005):  Copycat violence  continues to spread (e.g., 900 cars were wrecked in a single night).  Predictably, the government is claiming that this is being centrally coordinated, rather than entertain the possibility that this terrible strife is the result of widespread pent up frustration and grievances.  Sarkozy continues to talk tough. 

France is experiencing its political equivalent of Hurricane Katrina.


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