Saturday, November 19, 2005

Wool over his Eyes: A Frenchman's View of the Riots

A French relative of mine always seems to offer the standard loyal French point of view on current events. He had much wisdom to share about Hurricane Katrina, and now he offers his insights about the recent French riots, which torched thousands of cars and billions of dollars in property damage. He writes:

Chers cousins
Plutôt que des commentaires à chaud, j'ai attendu que les évènements qui ont fait le tour de la planète se soient quelque peu calmés.Que n'a-t-on pas dit et écrit dans les médias étrangers, particulièrement anglais et américains. J'écoute presque quotidiennement la revue de presse anglo-saxonne, c'est hallucinant. On y parlait de guerre civile, que les journalistes étaient plus en sécurité en Irak (je rappelle les + de 2000 soldats tués et combien de civils) que dans les banlieues françaises; j'en passe et des meilleures.Un journaliste anglais a cru mettre un point d'honneur a dénigré notre pays sur toutes ses coutures alors qu'il y vit toute l'année (comme plusieurs milliers de ses compatriotes) sans aucun problème.Bref du n'importe quoi ! Il y a eu sans doute une volonté de discréditer la France sur le plan international. Nous n'avons poutant pas de leçon a recevoir. Serais-je en sécurité si je vais ....... disons dans le Bronk à 22 h ? Vous nous parlez des arabes mais vous qu'avez-vous fait des indiens. Et ce n'est pas la nomination d'un C. Powell ou C. Rice effacera les problèmes avec la population noire ou hispanique et comme le dit Thierry attendez encore quelques années pour voir si ce n'est pas eux qui bruleront vos voitures. Et vous noterez je l'espère que ces émeutes de voyous et de racailles ont fait........ZERO morts.Sans anticiper, je ne crois pas qu'il en eût été de même dans un pays ou l'arme est reine.Quant aux anglais, ils ont oublié les années 80 et 90. C'est quand même bien des anglais d'origine pakistanaise les auteurs des derniers attentats en Angleterre. Personne ne peut se réjouir de ce qui s'est passé chez nous, ce genre d'évènement peut déteindre rapidement. La Belgique proche et Berlin peuvent en témoigner.
Bisous d'un franco-européen

My translation:

Dear Cousins

Before giving you commentary during the heat of events, I waited until the coverage of the rioting that had made it around the world had calmed a bit. There was much that wasn’t said or written in the foreign media, particularly by the American and British outlets. I listen daily a review of the Anglo-saxon press, and it’s hallucinatory. They would speak of a civil war, that the journalists were safer in Iraq (I remind you that more than 2,000 soldiers have died and an untold number of civil deaths) than in the French suburbs. I’m ignoring even better examples. One English journalist who thought it was honorable denigrated our country in all of its seams even though he lived the whole year in France (like many of his countrymen) without any problems. He was just spouting nonsense. There has been doubtless the desire to discredit France on the international stage. And yet, we are in no need of lectures, since would I be safe if I went to…say, the Bronx at 10 P.M.? You talk about our Arabs but what have you done to the Indians? And this nomination of a Colin Powell or a Condi Rice will erase the problems with the blacks or Hispanics? And like my cousin said, wait a few more years to see if it won’t be them that will burn your cars? And you will notice, I hope that these riots by young punks have killed ZERO people. Without anticipating it, I don’t believe there was ever another like yours where weapons rule to such a degree. As for the British, they must have forgotten the 80s and 90s. Wasn’t it Englishmen of Pakistani origin that committed the last bombings in England? No one is rejoicing at what happened in our country, as this kind of thing can ignite and get out of control very quickly. Our neighbor Belgium and Berlin can attest to this.

Much love from a Franco-European



His commentary displays a common use of comparing apples with oranges, indicting the U.S. for its flawed past, its current social problems and assuring all that life in France is as safe as it has always been. The Brits are hypocrites and they’re no better off with their own minority groups. I think its fair to provide some background on this writer: he lives in small rural town in one of most trouble-free parts of France, works for the state, has never traveled to the U.S., an absorbs uncritically French media outlets.
I feel obligated to my readers to take apart his statements one by one.

To begin:

I listen daily a review of the Anglo-Saxon press, and it’s hallucinatory. They would speak of a civil war, that the journalists were safer in Iraq (I remind you that more than 2,000 soldiers have died and an untold number of civil deaths) than in the French suburbs. I’m ignoring even better examples.

I’ll defer to the writer on his criticism against the perception that the riots in France are like a civil war. I think the American media is a bit guilty of hyping the events to make it look like the French state is in utter collapse and a new competing faction of Islamists are posing as a credible alternative in controlling the country. That’s a long way from now, as demographic trends in France forecast the political future more than two week’s worth of rioting. That being said, civil wars take on various forms, from the overt to the covert, and it is clearly evident that there is shaping up to two irreconcilable sides in France: the haves and the have-nots. Those that believe in the secular French social model with all of the benefits guaranteed, lucky enough to be employed and those who desire its destruction as it has offered little by way of social acceptance, employment, and self-esteem. There is also an element of coordination among the rioters, as the riots hit in three hundred communities across the country all at once. A struggle for territory is also a characteristic of a civil war, in that the rioters would rather have total control of the use of force in the area and be free from the coercive powers of the French state by way of police. And like a civil war, I see neither side willing to accept and embrace the other’s goals. The majority of Frenchmen on one side is intent on maintaining secularity, the French language and heritage, and its exceptional social welfare system. The rioters destroyed the symbols of their enemy’s creed, namely the free child-care centers, public buses and trains, and finally the modern mobility offered by cars. The rioters will not let go of their power over fearful residents of these French suburbs, nor the control over their women by forcing them the veil while violently abusing them, undeterred. And they won’t accept the traditional French ideals, since they rejected it long ago when it was evident that they didn’t belong.

Why the writer compares Iraq to the French riots, I have no idea, other than to claim that France is safer than the main stage in the battle against Islamic terrorism. What happens in Iraq is irrelevant to the problems France has in dealing with their immigration problem. How does throwing out the worst of despots, rebuilding from scratch the government and infrastructure of a country the size of California and fighting an unimpeded flow of jihadists relate with the French riots? I’ve never been to Baghdad of late, so I won’t comment on the level of security compared to the French “cité”. I will say that being among these French North African youths is scarier than anything I ever experienced in the U.S. Still, there’s nothing to be proud about the number of cars destroyed being four times the number of those who gave their lives in the line of duty in Iraq.

One English journalist who thought it was honorable denigrated our country in all of its seams even though he lived the whole year in France (like many of his countrymen) without any problems. He was just spouting nonsense.

I’m suspecting the writer is talking about the British commentator Theodore Dalrymple who now lives in France. Somehow, a British writer has no right to criticize a country that has treated him well. If only that rule were applied on all sides, than we would all get along, right? Or maybe we can only criticize a country when we don’t live there. That makes for enlightened opinion, alright. It’s true that there are many Brits who make a new home in France, particularly in the picturesque countryside in a charming villa. They know better than to situate themselves in a French suburban ghetto. But that’s precisely the problem, in that the French have been able to contain all the criminal elements, the excluded class of immigrants and the losers of the French social system within a strict geographical boundary of the cités. Still, these mostly isolated social ills at times escape into the heart of “la Douce France”, and give the more perceptive expatriate residents in France the chills. Just ask France’s most famous American resident, Johnny Depp!

There has been doubtless the desire to discredit France on the international stage. And yet, we are in no need of lectures, since would I be safe if I went to…say, the Bronx at 10 P.M.?

The writer here implies that it’s unfair to be critical of France’s position on world affairs. It’s true that those who work in the French media are embarrassed by the coverage of the riots, since they immediately anticipate the foreign presses tying it to international affairs. There has even been an admission of self-censorship by the French press official in reporting the gravity of the crisis. And if the writer thinks that foreign journalist should have no right to lecture the French on the flaws in their social system that led to the riots, then it’s quite audacious for him to start lecturing the U.S. on its own problems. But I can bet you that one feels much safer in the Bronx than in the Middle of Clichy-Sous-Bois. Violent crime in the U.S. is on a downward trend and has been for the last fifteen years. The reverse has been taking place in France, which now has more violent crimes per capita than the U.S. If 100 burned vehicles a night in a country the size of Texas is considered ‘normal’, then I’m probably better off in the gentrifying Bronx where such incidents never take place.

You talk about our Arabs but what have you done to the Indians? And this nomination of a Colin Powell or a Condi Rice will erase the problems with the blacks or Hispanics? And like my cousin said, wait a few more years to see if it won’t be them that will burn your cars? And you will notice, I hope that these riots by young punks have killed ZERO people. Without anticipating it, I don’t believe there was ever another like yours where weapons rule to such a degree.

What does annihilation of the American Indian population have to do with how the French treat Arabs? Maybe he’s talking about the miserable conditions at Indian reservations. He has a point there—the political and social set-up of these places is quite similar to the way minority groups in France live. But living in a reservation, I’ve been explained, is purely voluntary. North African immigrants are placed in the cités and kept there. As for other disadvantaged minority groups in the U.S., I don’t think any Americans pretend that the problem of inequality has been solved. But I don’t think rioting in the U.S. will ever come to thousands of cars being torched simultaneously. For one thing, riots in America are local affairs, taking place in one city at a time, usually in response to local events. It never mobilizes blacks and Hispanics in other cities to riot in solidarity. Another fact to consider is that blacks have rioted already in the U.S., most notably in Los Angeles and in other major cities, and torching cars is not their destructive act of choice.

The biggest element missing in this prediction of riots is the prevalence of upward mobility in the U.S. as opposed to the static socio-economic environment in France. An open and inclusive market economy is one of the most effective ways in preempting civil riots. Hispanics arrive with nary a possession and climb the socio-economic ladder; especially if they are legal immigrants (illegals are limited in their mobility due to the fact that they must remain invisible to the authorities). Black Americans are wealthier than the average Europeans in per-capita GDP. Violent rage in black communities is mostly expressed by internecine gang murders. The political and police organizations of cities are far more integrated than in France, which helps in preempting and “us” versus “them” mentality.

Next, I’d like to correct the writer by mentioning that 1 person did die from the riots. Still, the violence did not lead mindless slaughter, which is evidence that the violence was more tactical than about personal vengeance. If you destroy property, the sentences won’t be harsh and most of the lawbreakers will go back on the street continuing what they were doing—reclaiming control of their turf in the cité. Hence the argument that the riots were a form of civil war becomes more credible.

And finally, the writer buys into the fallacy that the ubiquity of guns will lead to more lethal violence. It has never occurred to him that the mere possibility of law-abiding citizens possessing guns successfully deters crime. I’m sure the suburban residents in France who were trying to form militias to defend themselves wished for more accessible legal gun ownership.

As for the British, they must have forgotten the 80s and 90s. Wasn’t it Englishmen of Pakistani origin that committed the last bombings in England?

As for the French they must have forgotten the 90s. I do recall several terrorist incidents in the Paris subways committed by Algerians. And wasn’t it an Algerian-born Frenchman. Zacharias Moussaoui who was the designated 20th hijacker of the 9/11 attacks? I could have sworn that some of the world’s most lethal terrorists were brought up in France. Britain’s multi-cultural policy has failed in preventing its own immigrants from causing its countrymen harm. Nevertheless, Britain can claim an unemployment rate half that of France, and has provided a welcoming environment for immigrants to thrive in. France’s economy feels more like a holding cell for immigrants once they arrive, denying immigrants to participate economically in a meaningful way, to ascend positions of influence. This trap has helped spawn riots in more than 300 communities nation-wide, which presents a far more serious threat to the integrity of French state than any pin-point terrorist attack. The government has displayed a level of indecision towards the riots which may instigate future terrorist attacks, since jihadists are attracted to weak states that can’t properly enforce security.

In my opinion, my relative is one who will not be swayed by any evidence which counters his convictions. He believes France has nothing to learn from other countries, and that it’s far worse elsewhere than it is in his home country that’s under a 3-month long state of emergency. He believes that the French secular model is still viable in spite of the continuing popularity of the Front National, which feeds on the unavoidable rift between North African immigrants and the rest of France. What is quite telling is how he signs off at the end of the letter, describing himself as a Franco-European. I guess Europe still matters to him deeply despite of his countrymen’s firm rejection of the E.U. constitution. If one is willing to believe in the promise of Europe regardless of all indications of its imminent collapse, then it’s quite understandable why he readily ignores the grave reality that faces his country.

Many thanks to No Pasaran! for its abundant research leads.

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