After reading numerous news reports about the massive wave of rioting and arson taking place in the Paris suburbs, I felt that I should at least share some personal experiences regarding the ‘youths’ who are responsible for the violence. Anyone who has lived in France during the last twenty years or so should have some story to tell about their encounter with this growing number of disaffected and socio-pathic young adults of mostly North African birth or parentage. I’m confident to say that those of who have had some experience with these troubled people are not the least bit surprised about what is now happening in France.
There have been two instances where I got a close and unpleasant look at the North African youth. They took place while I was a student in Angers, a provincial two hours west of Paris and considered by most French as a model bourgeois town. Geographic segregation of ethnic groups is even more pronounced in France that it is in the U.S. In the typical American city, segregation is indeed quite visible to anyone who will look around, and is usually determined by the relative value of real estate in that area. Housing projects built in America during the periods of “urban renewal” during the sixties and seventies are small in scope and number compared to similar housing developments, or “cités”, built in France since World War II. As the projects are being demolished here, the French government continues to build more of these cités throughout the country to shelter the continuing influx of immigrants. Although most the violent youths in the “cités” were born in France, their parents are exclusively immigrants from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal and other former colonies. Angers’ demographic structure is no different than any other French city – high-priced real estate in the historic core inhabited by native white Frenchmen, and state-controlled socialist housing blocks inhabited by mostly North African (or “les beures” in French slang, which means “the butters”, a reference to their golden skin color) at the city’s outskirts, the “banlieue” (suburb). I lived in the core, renting a room in the medieval quarter a few blocks away from the 12th century fortress crowning the city. Daily interaction with the inhabitants from the suburbs was quite rare, and life for me felt a lot like that story-book image foreigners have of France, what I call “Douce France” (Soft France).
One of the pleasures of being a college student abroad was the minimal amount of actual work required by the classes. This permitted me to frequent the cafes and bars around the city with good French friends I had made at the university. We would get together in the late afternoon and continue chatting and drinking until late. One afternoon, our routine was dramatically interrupted when a loud crashing sound echoed in the café. The glass storefront had been shattered, and before you could turn your head to see where the sound was coming from, the café’s owner and a couple of my friends ran outside to capture the perpetrators. Fortunately policemen were patrolling nearby, and my friends who intervened were the kind who were all for vigilante justice. Ten seconds later the bar owner and my friends dragged two young North Africans back to the café and held them down on the ground until the cops arrived. Looking at where the glass shattered it was evident than one of the youths had kicked near the bottom of the storefront. It then triggered my brief memory of noticing to figures walking outside past the storefront unassumingly right before the crash was heard, and, because it was executed so quickly it took awhile for me to link the two people with the shattered glass. Naturally the two suspects denied they had done anything, though every piece of evidence led to them being responsible. As soon as the cops had taken control of the situation, one of my friends who helped accost the perpetrators admitted to me that his real dream in life would be to become a member of the riot police. His hometown an hour away had been adversely affected by immigrants, and he was filled with a sense of revenge. Still he was bourgeois enough not to taunt or provoke any fights, but violently imposing order was what he would rather do than attend the university. The whole episode reminded me of how easy it would be for violent criminals to cause mayhem in even the nicest areas of France. No place is immune, and attacks are random. It’s not quite the same as an insane maniac going into a Lubby’s cafeteria and shooting everyone. The perpetrators were well aware of what they were doing, and they could inflict damage without giving it much thought. Their only motive was that of anger, a rage against everything around them, especially against businesses and people simply carrying on. Can you imagine sitting inside a bar and suddenly out of the blue witness an assault to the bar? For many French people, it’s become part of normal daily life.
The second instance took place after many hours of drinking at a bar by the city’s historic square. As we were in need of food to help digest all that alcohol, my friends and I walked several blocks to one of the few convenience stores open after hours to buy snacks. When we got there, only one lone immigrant West African worker was present inside the store. The storefront entrance was closed and the worker conducted all transactions behind a small window booth. There was a queue of customers outside, each making an order for the worker to get in the store’s aisles. This was obviously a long-winded process. Still, the practice of patiently queuing is a sign of a stable civilization, and it was evident that there were those who were so uncivil so as to opt out of civilization itself. While waiting behind several people, this young North African who had arrived after us decided to walk at the very front of the line and start ordering at the booth window. The worker was still writing down the order of the young woman at the front of the line. This man was also shoving the young lady aside was forcing the sliding window open to talk to the worker. My friends stepped up and reminded the man to take his place in line like everyone else. They even offered him to cut in front of them. The young man behaved as if he was being somehow violated and as expected began to react with aggression. A few lines were exchanged before the man was threatening to fight my friends, with the help of a few guys from his posse who were waiting nearby. Some pushing and shoving commenced, yelling took place, and fortunately throwing punches was diffused just in time when it was decided to give the North African priority in the line. What was scary about this encounter was the one friend who was at the most risk was 5’-5” and actually pretty gentle natured. After that close call, he was telling everyone that his view had changed from being tolerant and understanding of the plight of young North African hoodlums to regarding all of them with suspicion and disgust.
These experiences revealed the terrifying nature of these hoodlums. They were incapable of following basic societal rules of civility and respect. They had zero regard for anyone’s property, they relished in being able to cause trouble and get away with it, any attempt at reasoning with them by pointing out what they were doing wrong was taken as a personal slight so grave as to warrant a violent response. My oldest brother who lived in one the most ideally planned suburbs was unable to even get his mail without his mailbox being urinated on. Theodore Dalrymple goes into greater detail in defining this class of people, but I would argue that the French underclass has actually more harmful social pathologies than those in the U.S. This is in part contributed by what the French like to call “l’exclusion” , which most often means the denial of immigrants to participate in the economic life of France. Unemployment is extremely high in the suburban cités and state services falter when the environment is dominated by gang justice rather than by armed police. My experience has been that of all immigrants to France the ones that integrate the best come from old Indochina, or Vietnam today. Black Africans and Caribbean people often don’t fare well economically, but their general temperament is far more subdued than those coming from the Maghreb, or North African region. I can only conclude that what makes the North African youth especially violent and anti-social is their inherited macho/misogynistic tradition and their Islamic heritage.
The architectural environment of the cités only facilitate criminality through their density, common spaces such as hallways and courtyards, and the utter lack of privacy in favor of shared resources. Thus, the burning of pre-schools, of local stores that service the housing blocks, and the transportation infrastructure within the French cités is being torched at this moment. Dalrymple scapegoats my namesake, Le Corbusier, for the inhumane design of these housing districts. True Le Corbusier was the most charismatic figure in favor of developing dense cities of superblocks, highways, and the separation of programmatic functions between living and working. His ideas on urban planning, while radical and grandiose by today’s standards, were only part of growing consensus of avant-garde designers of the twenties and thirties. He never was able to implement his urban theories uncompromised, and was only able to construct a couple of examples of the housing prototype Dalrymple argues in encouraging crime. In reality, the prototypes that he refers to now turned into fashionable condominiums and the actual experiences of those who grew up in these blocks were quite favorable, due to the unique amenities Le Corbusier provided that most housing blocks leave out. Still I agree with Dalrymple, however, that isolated dense socialist housing blocks are counterproductive in producing civil communities. Cabrini Green in Chicago has a national reputation of how a socialist housing block can become hell on earth. Now imagine thousands of Cabrini Greens dotted throughout France, and you can come to understand how fragile the shiny glass of French beauty can be shattered.