Friday, November 18, 2005

Beur Republic: Factors Behind the French Riots

Beur Republic: Factors Behind the French Riots

There have been various analyses of the French riots, almost all of them from a comfortably remote viewpoint.

In "A War of Words", Françoise Mouly, art editor for the New Yorker, said of the French rioters, "As true Frenchmen, they understand the importance of discourse [...] they seem to parse the fine nuances of every word; then they fight back bitterly..."

Then some people (a lot of them Americans) responded, as they always do when problems of France come up, that this is actually evidence of the failure of the government's "socialism", defined by these folks as the five-week vacations, the three-month maternity leave, and so on.

Others have blamed architecture, and so it goes.

To start, when it's spread to 300 cities (and destroyed six-thousand cars), it's not a
riot or even a series of riots anymore; it's a rebellion. If all of the "rioters" were all concentrated in one area, part of France would've likely declared itself the Beur Republic, however short-lived.

Yet, in many respects, these are old-fashioned riots, for old-fashioned reasons.

Explaining this as some kind of failure of socialistic policies is based on ideology, not reality. It's also patently idiotic: if this sort of thing were caused by socialism, Stockholm and Malmo would be glowing in the light of Saabs and Volvos set ablaze their sizeable immigrant populations.

On the other hand, the explanation that this is "a war of words" suggests that the New Yorker's art editor hasn't spent much time in the streets where the "war" is happening, and where it's about a lot more than words. Yes, the words have been inflammatory - either due to ineptness or intention - but they'd be easily ignored were there not something more concrete to back them up.

Three primary factors are behind the current reaction of French youth, and I think it's fair to call it a reaction, that we've seen recently:

The main one is just how vicious and useless French police in general are. Remember that it was two children fearing they were being chased by these police that started this all, the thousands of cars torched, the violence roiling right into Paris and forcing
riot police encampments around the famous monuments, the international disgrace as it's raged on night after night into a national state of emergency.

The New York Times described the French police, accurately, as "widely resented and often despised". That was in an article not about rioting, but about police who roller skate. One tourist guidebook warns visitors that victims of racist attacks can expect little sympathy from the police (and are better off contacting their consulates).

It's illegal to insult the police in France, so all a French cop has to do is claim he overheard you insult him, and you're going to jail. With their highly trained and surprisingly keen sense of hearing, the police seem to pick up racial minorities insulting them all the time, even when bystanders hear nothing at all.

Sometimes they may actually be insulted, as when they behave abusively at the checkpoints they set up in poorer areas. For example, even when being addressed by the polite "vous", police officers will regularly call their subjects "tu". This is unbelievably rude and insulting - translated to US culture, it's the equivalent of a Southern sheriff calling a black man "boy". If the person being so insulted should react with even the mildest of insults in return, it's a crack with the baton and off to jail.

Imagine regularly being subjected to this. Imagine, say, watching your grandfather being called, "boy", and trying to hold your tongue (even if you do, they might "hear" an insult and arrest you anyway). Imagine how you'd feel towards the police.

With absolute impunity, the police do things like stuff somebody into the trunk of a little French car, wildly fabricate charges despite a street full of witnesses, essentially drug a suspect into signing a "confession" (ostensibly to "calm down" the suspect, though against his or her will) and generally menace or even attack pretty much whoever they feel like. (These are all things that I’ve either witnessed or have happened to people I know, many of whom have also suffered astonishing indifference in the face of their distress calls.)

In fact, after writing the above paragraph, I came across a recent Amnesty International statement on out of control police behavior in France. Interestingly, Amnesty saw the same thing: "In our view, there is effective impunity for police officers committing human rights violations..." Amnesty goes on to say that basically no one in France can do anything about anything the police do, and that the French government so fails to control police behavior that it is in violation of international covenants against torture.

Then there's the uselessness - they simply don't respond to many calls (and not just in the projects). And though they swagger about in packs, often dressed like combination
riot-police/paratroopers, they seem unable to see or react to a vicious fight happening or a woman being assaulted just 20 meters away... though they will savagely attack, for example, peacefully striking nurses. In cases of outright brutality, in the very unlikely instance a prosecutor should somehow bring charges against them, they can confidently expect at worst a suspended sentence, even for "voluntary homicide".

Call the police for a car accident or an assault, or even visit the station, and they seem to not only fail to respond, but to even refuse to take a report. Perhaps it’s a way to keep the statistics down. Whatever the case, it leaves the society with a police culture that’s only to be feared.

Cities in United States have, of course, seen similar reactions against similar police cultures – we’ve seen them from Watts to Brooklyn. There are other factors in those situations, too, but what finally sparks off the rampages are often specific instances of police brutality.

France is widely referred to in Europe as a police state, as seen not only in the powers of police, but the horrors of the prisons (condemned by human rights observers as being worse than anything in Europe until you get to, perhaps, Moldova – French officials all say they’re somebody else’s responsibility). That's the reality of France today. Nicolas Sarkozy ("Sarko"), the main target of the car-blazing rage, is head of the French police, and seems to encourage their worst qualities.

Those two children were electrocuted after they saw a group of police on the street, and feared it was one of these abusive street checks (the police were there for another purpose, but many if not most French people, though innocent of wrongdoing, have learned to fear and avoid their police). The boys had been trying to get home for dinner and wanted to avoid the police. In France, even adults with respectable lives and careers will go out of their way to avoid the police.

The police said that they didn't know the boys had gone into the power station, though this was later shown to be an outright lie. Instead of expressing some sort of official sadness, Sarkozy then arrogantly, and falsely, claimed the boys had been fleeing a burglary.

That's a lot of what's going on, much of what's behind the rage in the street. You don't need a whole lot more to set off riots.

(It's worth noting that the police recently objected to a simple plaque remembering those killed in a massacre in Paris in 1961: Under the command of Nazi-collaborator and, later, convicted war-criminal Maurice Papon, police slaughtered about 200 peaceful Algerian demonstrators in the center of downtown Paris and then dumped many of the bodies in the Seine. According to police officers who'd tried to stop the massacre perpetrated by their colleagues, about 50 of the victims had been summarily executed in the courtyard of the Paris police headquarters. It took forty years for the city to even acknowledge it happened, and then the police union objects to even a small memorial for the victims.)

However, this is also a rebellion against the general French malaise - both a widespread despair that's hard to escape (a mere 30 percent of French feel optimism about the future) and a general decline of French culture (to the current veritable persistent vegetative state).

The cultural decline includes the highbrow - in a recent interview, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard talked about little besides how dead and/or useless everything from literature to philosophy is in France today, a view on finds repeated among the more astute observers, one of whom, a professor who lives near me, recently commented, “I would hate to be young in France today – everything is dead, from the culture to the future.”

But it's also the street culture, from the general alienation, to the economic problems, to the inability to do anything about organized crime (the only national politician who dared speak out against the mafia's power in southern France was quickly assassinated, as were several people working with her - though some of these murders were ludicrously termed "suicides" by the aforementioned French police).

There is, in much of France, an overhanging sense of despair, defeat and futility. Look, for example, at supposedly festive occaisions: Arriving at French party, you could easily mistake it for a wake - everyone is sitting around, eyes to the floor, looking as if they're chilly and mildly constipated (at least unless/until they get sloppy drunk and start shouting along with the choruses of American pop songs... then I guess it becomes Irish wake). Guests from neighboring Spain and Italy - and you hope there are some present - will be laughing and singing and having fun, and ignoring their morose neighbors.

This feeling that one is arriving at a wake happens so often it's become the basic stereotype of French party, and it symptom that says a very great deal the necrosis afflicting about the wider culture. Who wants their cultural identity to be subsumed and absorbed into that?

The only really vibrant and vital part of French culture today is from the ethnically African (North and Sub-Saharan) groups, and rather than accept this and integrate it into a stronger and more dynamic France, there's this attempt right from the top to repress it.

And that's the third main factor here.

This attitude isn't so far from the Académie Française trying to force French kids to say "planche-à-roulette" instead of "le skateboard":
there's some vague idea of a glorious, pure (and purely fictional) French culture that needs to be "preserve" by preventing change, especially "foreign" influence.

And thus there is this tendency, far too often on an official level, to insist on keeping a significant part of the French population separate - from the endless bureaucratic hassles a dark-skinned French woman might run into that her blonde cousin will sail past, to the dreadlocked driver regularly getting pulled over and roughed up in the name of searching for drugs, to the desperate situation of the ghetto housing projects.

Ironically, banning the headscarves, seen everywhere as a sign of intolerance, was originally intended to help the cause of integration. Problem was, banning religious symbolism in public institutions was one minor suggestion in a long list of ideas on how to better integrate France.

(Girls who tried to remove their headscarves at school faced harassment from certain Muslim boys. Rather than deal with that, rather than committing to protect the girls in whatever religious or fashion choices they chose to make, French officialdom came up with a bit of a sledgehammer approach, the intentions of which were widely misperceived.)

Far more important was dealing with the problems of the ghettoization and employment issues, but the patrician patronizing patriarchs decided to skip over all that stuff and, to the astonishment of the people who'd come up with the suggestions, obsessed on that one alone.

One study showed that, in private industries, a resume submitted with an "Arab" name at the top was 50 times (not 50 percent, 50 times) less likely to receive a call than one without. And the society in general has a very hard time realizing that Hassim the Hoodlum is a lot closer to Guillaume the Gangster than he is to Ahmed the Academic.

(The only way around this is to get a white supervisor to write a letter saying, basically, that you're a still a good worker in spite of your obvious racial handicap. Really. For many jobs, if you're submitting a resume with an Arab name at the top, accompanying it with such a letter is about your only chance of getting a response.)

People old enough to remember recount that decades ago, French people were saying the same things when it was Italians who made up the bulk of the immigrants (and with the Spanish, as well). Unfortunately, on an official level, nothing is being done to counter that. In fact, politicians on the right are playing it up, stoking the fears and pandering to the worst in French society for their own gain, while the culture almost childishly resists the sort of integration that would value diversity rather than insist on assimilation and subjugation.

Still, those second and third factors are background, reasons to push for rights and so on. If you had to pick the one root cause, and the trigger for all this, it'd certainly be the behavior of the police, and the right-wing Interior Minister responsible for them.

And in that, you can't blame socialism any more than you can blame socialism for anti-police riots in Cincinnati or Chicago or Los Angeles.

Somehow, the 35-hour workweek, five-week vacations, and a basic, reasonable maternity leave don't seem to be driving people to

But, ah, we'll keep you posted on that one.


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