Fiddling While France Burns
It can't have escaped anybody's attention that approximately half the acreage of France is either on fire or in charred cinders at the moment. The other day saw the first death as a direct result of the rioting and violence that has been raging for the last ten days or so. This is of course tragic, and I feel morally repugnant at what I'm about to say, but...
The French riots are a good thing.
I'm not saying this because I'm some kind of weirdo who likes seeing things smashed up, nor because I dislike the French (although I suspect a lot of English people are mildly smug seeing bits of France in ruins). I'm saying this because it could well mark an important watershed in the mentality of the French governing powers and in the future leadership of the country.
The rioting started in Paris as a result of the accidental deaths of two teenagers who were apparently running from policemen and were electrocuted when they ended up in a substation. The rioting flared up because the local Arab/African community felt that it was merely the latest in a long line of events that they perceived as harrassment and discrimination from the police. Whether or not they had a case, I don't know, and frankly now it doesn't really matter. The situation has escalated day-by-day and now is raging throughout the land.
This isolated incident should not have sparked mass rioting in cities as far apart as Nice and Rouen. It was merely the spark, the catalyst for years and years of pent-up anger to be unleashed against the status quo of French society by the underclass of immigrants and workers. If the government has any sense and starts to make changes to its society's structure, we could look back on this unrest as a moment in France's history as significant as Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her bus seat in Montgomery in 1955 was in American history.
France, like Britain, has always hankered for an empire. And, like Britain, it has had one and then granted independence to its constituent parts. However, unlike modern Britain, it still demands a significant influence on its former hegemony. Many people who live in countries other than France are still technically French citizens, les français d'outremer. This is all very well, all very liberté, égalité, fraternité, but when they started getting enough money together actually to go 'home' to France, the theory tends to fall down somewhat. The French quickly decided that they preferred their fellow citizens with different cultures and skin colours to stay in their own countries, and prejudice and discrimination soon followed. Indeed, this even extended to people who were originally French but who had settled in France's outlying départements, the so-called pieds-noir, who were quickly shunned upon their return home following Algerian independence in 1962. (Before anyone says so, yes I know this is a bit more complicated with the politics of the preceding civil war, which is why I only mention it is a slight tangent.)
As the Arab and African French came to be shunned more and more, a two-tier society quickly established itself. French people lived with French people, immigrants ended up in housing estates in the outskirts of cities, the banlieue triste. These often became nothing more than ghettos, not unlike the black estates of America. And, as in America, this led to a flowering urban culture - French rap is thriving, and Franco-Arabic slang such as verlan is becoming more and more ubiquitous.
But no matter how well the immigrant 'French' get along by themselves, there will always be a sense of bitterness for their treatment in the past and right up to this day by the powers-that-be in France. Nicholas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister and clear favourite to be the next President of France in 2007, managed to fan the flames of resentment by describing the rioters (or should that be protesters?) as 'a rabble of hoodlums' and saying that the high-crime estates should be cleaned out with a power-hose. What he fails to grasp is that if you put humans in conditions fit only for a zoo, they'll quickly start to react like animals. Sarkozy, in appealing to the ever-rich French sense of right-wing indignation, risks a lot. A failure to recognise the bigger picture behind this rioting, the most significant on French soil since the popular uprising of May 1968, will seriously damage the credibility of the French government. The French political system has just run out of ideas and energy at the worst possible time, and over French history moments of weakness have always been exploited with revolt and disorder.
French politicians, and Sarkozy in particular, face a very tricky crossroads over the period of the next six to twelve months. They can go right, towards further exclusion of immigrants and a return to 'traditional' (i.e. white) French social values; they can go left, towards a greater inclusion of Arab and African culture into mainstream French life; or they can continue straight on as they were, head down and ears closed, hoping that life will carry on regardless.
Whilst the nature of the civil unrest is undoubtedly odious to watch, it has a positive product: it is forcing the French government to look at crucial issues it has been avoiding for years. Let's hope they actually take the hint this time, get off their high horse, and start producing a meaningful plan to make France a place that truly adheres to the principles of liberty, fraternity and equality.