Published on Tuesday, November 8, 2005 by the Philadelphia Inquirer
Panic in Paris
by Gwynne Dyer
'Scum," French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy called the rioters who have seized control of many working-class "suburbs" around Paris every night since Oct. 27, when two teenagers died in an accident that many blame on the police.
Sarkozy plans to run for the presidency next year, and he wants to seem even tougher on crime and on immigrants (two separate issues that he regularly conflates) than his main rival, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. But his conviction that the policy of multiculturalism has failed has become the new popular wisdom in France, where right-wing commentators refer to the riots as the "Paris intifada" - as if the rioters were all Muslims.
Meanwhile, right-wing American commentators gloat that the French, who refused to follow the Bush administration on its crusade against alleged Islamic extremists in the Middle East (you know, like Saddam Hussein), now face a Muslim uprising at home. Multiculturalism, as an alternative to the U.S. "melting pot" approach in which second- or third- generation immigrants eventually lose their old identities and merge into the majority, is now under attack everywhere.
Even William Pfaff, the best informed of American commentators, no longer believes that people of profoundly different traditions can live side by side in the same country. After the July terror bombings in London, he wrote in the Observer that "a half-century of well-intentioned but catastrophically mistaken policy of multiculturalism, indifferent or even hostile to social and cultural integration, has produced in Britain and much of Europe a technologically educated but culturally and morally unassimilated immigrant demi-intelligentsia."
He was in effect arguing that the London bombs would not have happened if British immigration policy over the last 50 years had extinguished any sense of solidarity between the descendants of Muslim immigrants to Britain and Muslims elsewhere. True - but not invading Iraq would have prevented the London bombs at much less cost.
The real problem is not the failure of multiculturalism. The Paris riots are actually a splendid demonstration of the successful integration of immigrants into French culture (which has, after all, a long tradition of insurrection and revolution). The Paris riots are not a Muslim uprising. They are not even race riots. They are outbursts of resentment and frustration by the marginalized and the unemployed of every ethnic group.
The low-income housing estates that ring Paris and other big French cities are dumping grounds for everybody that hasn't made it in the cool 21st-century France of the urban centers, the old white working class as well as immigrants from France's former colonies in Arabic-speaking North Africa and sub-Saharan black Africa and from all the poorer countries of Europe. Unemployment there is often twice the national average of 10 percent. But they are not Muslim- or even nonwhite-majority communities.
Ethnic groups live jumbled together in apartment towers. The kid gangs that dominate the estates steal from strangers and residents alike and fight among themselves for control of the drug trade. But these are models of racial and cultural integration. What is happening now is neither an intifada nor a race riot - small comfort to the owners of the 28,000 vehicles burned on those estates so far this year.
This is an incoherent revolt by kids, many of them gang members, who would once have formed the next generation of the French working class. No longer needed in that role, they have no future, so they are very angry. But they are not politically organized, so after a few more nights the violence will die down again for a while.
These are neither American-style race riots nor a Muslim rebellion. About half the kids burning cars and buildings are white, working- class, post-Christian French, and they get along with the black and Muslim kids just fine.
Gwynne Dyer writes from London on international issues and is author of "War: The Lethal Custom."
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