Blogs > HNN > Why Paris is Burning

Nov 10, 2005 11:31 am

Why Paris is Burning

Americans should be very concerned about the violence that has swept across France the last two weeks. The riots, and the deeper problems they have laid bare, are a microcosm of the larger struggles of Muslims across the Muslim majority world to integrate into a globalized order from which they have been marginalized for decades, even centuries.

While unusual in their scope, the riots are in not unprecedented. A similar “intifada of the cities” broke out fifteen years ago in response to the same conditions in the banlieues, or suburban ghettos, where a lack of educational and employment opportunities, and dismal housing conditions created, in the words of then Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, a “reign of soft terror” that left young people with little choice but “to revolt.”

The state could maintain its policy of trying to maintain order while band-aiding the endemic problems they reflected, “but until when?”

We now know the answer. Days after Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy announced a "war without mercy" against crime in France's ghettos, two young Muslim teenagers were electrocuted while hiding in a power substation from police October 27, sparking the violence of the last two weeks. They hid in such a dangerous place precisely to escape a police force--and a state--that has long viewed most poor Africans and Muslims as the kind of “criminals and other troublemakers” upon whom Sarkozy had declared war.

Now that he's President, Chirac can no longer speak of the terror caused by government policies and societal neglect. Instead he argues that "the Republic is completely determined to be stronger than those who want to sow violence or fear." Similarly, Prime Minister de Villepin argues that “order and justice will be the final word in our country.”

What both men cannot acknowledge is that in the banlieues, the “Republic” can be the very source of the violence and fear its leaders are now trying to overcome. As Chirac once understood, the young rioters cannot be blamed for concluding that when “justice” and “order” are incompatible, the only way to achieve the former is to bring disorder to the Republic as a whole. Indeed, after a week and a half of violence the government decided to “restore” and even increase funds for much-needed reconstruction, education and similar projects.

Naturally, the violence has led French commentators to argue that it reflects a failure of the “French Republican model” to live up to its promise of full equality for all citizens. Yet few have recognized the deep historical roots of this failure, or its global repercussions.

On the one hand, the Republican ideal that should provide for the assimilation and integration of all French citizens evolved through and was nurtured by centuries of often brutal French rule in Africa, and later the Middle East. The racism and exploitation that were fundamental to the functioning of the French empire “d'outre mer” (“across the sea”) did not melt away at the borders of the motherland. Instead, they became endemic to French political culture, poisoning attempts to assimilate the hundreds of thousands, and now millions, of former subjects who migrated to France to find the low-wage jobs their own economies could not provide.

The children of these workers are now dismantling the edifices of France's “Fifth Republic,” itself established in the ashes of a dying empire after World War Two.

But French Republicanism is under attack not only from within. Today the forces of globalization demand that the French State, the symbol of the Republic's commitment to all its citizens, withdraw its safety net, leaving them to struggle increasingly on their own against the vagaries of a market that cares little about the principles of “liberté, egalité, fraternité.” And it is here that the struggles in the long-abandoned banlieues intersect with the struggles of Muslim countries to integrate into a global system that for centuries has been predicated on their marginalization.

Indeed, just threat of exposure to the economic logic that has long defined French immigrant life led one million French citizens to take to the streets last month in nation-wide protests against the “neoliberal policies” of the recently reshuffled government. Standing on the Boulevard Beaumarchais watching hundreds of thousands of workers march past, I was struck by how few of them had come from the banlieues, whose African or Arab residents have long born the brunt of the economic restructuring against which the marchers were protesting.

This points to the third problem behind the violence: the French Left, which sees itself as the protectors of the highest ideals of the Republic, has largely failed to engage the poor minority communities who have long been excluded from the benefits of the celebrated “French economic model.” Instead, leading Leftists have attacked Muslims who've dared to point out the gap between their rhetoric and actions for being “not Republican” and therefore “not one of us” Like the government, the Left is unable to recognize that it is the Republic that has made it impossible for Muslims to be “one of them.”

Ultimately, the violence in France reflects a larger struggle between a “Euro-Islam” that is well-integrated into a globalized European Union, and a “ghetto Islam” that see little hope for such a future, turning instead to a closed and increasingly violent form of identity to resist a system that excludes, or at best exploits, the majority of them. In a nut shell, this is the struggle facing over one billion Muslims in the age of globalization.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

You write:

two young Muslim teenagers were electrocuted while hiding in a power substation from police October 27, sparking the violence of the last two weeks. They hid in such a dangerous place precisely to escape a police force--and a state--that has long viewed most poor Africans and Muslims as the kind of “criminals and other troublemakers” upon whom Sarkozy had declared war.

"Precisely"? Isn't there another way of describing what happened--namely, that the teenagers were fleeing justice and managed to get themselves killed in the process?

Your description manages subtly to provide excuses for the teenagers while evading all of the relevant factual issues, namely: a) did the police have just cause to pursue them? b) what were they suspected of doing? c) what right did they have to hide in a power station? d) how exactly did they get electrocuted? (A power substation is a somewhat dangerous place, but it's not so dangerous that going there automatically spells death. It's a bit of a puzzle, then, how these kids died. "They went to a power substation" is hardly an explanation of that.)

In fact, it's not even clear that the police were chasing the teenagers, or if they did, chased them into the station (or if they did, got them electrocuted). This link from a few days back suggests that facts are too murky to permit categorical assertions about what happened, much less excuse-making on behalf of the would-be victims:

But surely we need hard facts about what happened before proceeding to the excuse-making, assuming that we're obliged to make excuses at all.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Prof. LeVine's "argument" is a textbook case of question-begging and evasion. His original claim was an attempted explanation for why the teenagers hid in the power station. He so far has produced not one iota of evidence to support that pseudo-explanation, except a lot of hand-waving about a "larger claim" that serves to do nothing but draw attention away from the failure of his actual claim about the two teenagers.

All those "larger claims" are alas based on "smaller claims" about actual cases like the one at issue. A person who can't get the facts straight on a single case is not in a position to be making bold claims about lots of cases at once--which is what LeVine's so-called "larger claim" amounts to.

The claim that the "police would have produced evidence" is more question-begging and evasion: LeVine has presented not a single particle of evidence for what they "would have" done; and anyway, their failure to present evidence doesn't amount to evidence in favor of his "explanation." Silence is not a confession of guilt and the absence of evidence can't be equated with its presence.

For a person who likes to lecture us so loudly and at such length about the requirements of academic accountability--how every commentator on the Middle East should be held to the professional academic peer-reviewed standards of LeVine's guild--this is some pretty poor stuff. I teach at a college of criminal justice, and the sort of stuff that LeVine is offering up here as expert commentary on the events in France would get laughed off the stage of Police Ethics 101. I'm inclined to say that it deserves the same treatment here.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

The last paragraph of my post was a reference to the last paragraph of this post of LeVine's:

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

The question is not what irrelevant rhetorical tropes you can muster up, but what the actual facts of the case are. What happened to the Brazilian guy in London, what happened in "other cases," and what generally happens tells us absolutely nothing about what happened to the teenagers you were writing about. You were making a claim about them, not about the universe at large.

The police haven't defended their actions because an official inquiry is still under way. Since silence doesn't entail guilt (especially when an inquiry is under way), your claim "it would seem that they were not in hot pursuit..." is a blatant non-sequitur.

Resa LaRu Kirkland - 12/13/2005

I agree with Irfan.

Resa LaRu Kirkland

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 11/15/2005

the fact is, there is no evidence i have seen that these two young people were involved in any criminal activity at the time of their deaths. Nor have the police made any available, which they certainly would do, investigation or not, if they had it. but as mr. pinzuti, comments, in either case it has little to do with the larger argument, which is that decades of instiutionalized racism, admitted by everyone up to the president of the country, has created a situation where such violence becomes unavoidable, however much we might want to criticize it

jp a pinzuti - 11/14/2005

the key issue is WHY do immigrants still want to come to western europe despite the "bad reputation" of wetern european police and in this case of french police:
- well do go and wait in line at a french hospital "urgences" and you will have a partial answer and for deeper understanding...
- witness the waiting room of the "maternity" service at the same hospital...
Today: how many casualties in france after two weeks of "rioting" ? just like in may 1968 probably more on the police side exept for the yet to be explained deaths in the power station
Finally to assess "police states" please compare the inmates to total population ratios of france and the usa ?

Oscar Chamberlain - 11/14/2005

As far as comeing to grips with the fundamental situation is concerned, it actually does not matter much of the police were right or wrong in the initial incident. This level of response indicates a disaster had been waiting to happen. All that was required was the perception of injustice.

I say this because the bulk of this essay strikes me as insightful, and I would hate to see that insight obscured by what was--given the subject of the essay--a minor mistake and a tangential argument.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 11/10/2005

well, i'll mention the poor brazilian guy in london who was shot five times in the head, i'll mentioin all the other times french police have behaved brutally towards young people in the ghettos. since the police have not tried to defend their actions, it would seem that they were not in hot pursuit of criminals for whom they had clear cause to be chasing. this is also part of the larger culture of fear in relations between police and minority communities across the world, where a criminalization of poverty and race/ethnicity helps perpetuate various forms of criminal behavior, from minor infractions against public order like graffiti to major crimes like drug sales, which are then the justification for heavy-handed police practices..