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Looking at France

Posted by Helen Sunday, November 06, 2005

Now that the French riots have gone on long enough even for the British media to start paying attention (as usual the blogs, this one included, were there ahead of the MSM) the time has come for analyzing the commentators, as these events are not deemed to be important enough for any analysis to be published here or anywhere else.

There have been so many reactions outside the British media and on the blogs that it is hard to know where to start. But I have derived no small amusement from the fact that people who have been blithely calling for a revolution and gleefully predicting that soon the people will rise against the terrible European monolith are among those first to squeal about the French riots.

This is not a revolution, nor an insurrection, nor an intifada (just try coping with that as the Israelis have had to). It is a series of riots that are not leading anywhere special and have grown out of the peculiar tensions that have existed in French society for decades, possibly since the Algerian war. And yet, it seems, that the predicted riots and possible revolution meets with no approval among those who had done the predicting.

Far from looking at the causes they are largely blaming Islamic fundamentalists, chattering on about Eurabia and all but demanding that the French police employ the harshest measures possible. (And believe me there is little the French police does not know about harsh measures.)

All of which proves the point I have made once or twice on the forum: revolutions are not nice things. Riots are not nice things. They are scary. Think of the unfortunate people who are not burning cars or throwing stones but are caught in those appalling banlieus, their lives already hopeless, now surrounded by this violence and knowing that at some point they will all have to pay for the fact that the French government has lost its head.

There are curious omissions in the babel of comments. For instance, nobody is pointing out the fact that it cannot be French foreign policy that is causing these riots. France has famously (or infamously, given what has come out in the Volcker’s report) opposed the Iraqi war.

Equally famously it has tried to meddle in Middle Eastern politics, largely unsuccessfully but always on the side of the dictators and terrorists. Some of this can be put down to the basic theme of French foreign policy, which is the European common foreign policy in embryo: an opposition to the United States no matter where, when or how.

Some of it, on the other hand, as has been pointed out before, was motivated by fear. Fear of the large and growing Muslim population inside the country, which has, as anyone with the slightest knowledge of France, perceived some time ago, been treated abominably badly.

For the same reason, it would seem, though here the record is murkier, French authorities have largely looked the other way at the growing instances of anti-Semitism and attacks on Jewish targets. It may have been Muslim youths, apparently inflamed by events in the Palestine, or it may have been a mixture of dissatisfied Muslim and non-Muslim underclass, inflamed by left-wing propaganda. As there were no serious investigations we do not know.

Then there is another aspect of the problem that is rarely mentioned though Fukuyama, never afraid of controversy, pointed it out: the European social model, particularly strong and well regarded in France, has created high unemployment, made it impossible to start new businesses and next to impossible for people with no qualification get jobs.

Over on Chicagoboyz, where intellectual argument tends to be the order of the day, Lexington Green has written amusingly about the collapse of the American Left’s second Utopia – Europe and, specifically, France.

We, too, have noted on occasion the strange American tendency among that strange breed of anti-American Americans to praise Europe or the EU or France, largely indiscriminately as the place which provides social cohesion through a high taxation, high regulation system; in which the benevolent government ceaselessly watches over the people’s welfare and accumulates more and more power for that purpose; and in which lower productivity is not the sign of a sick economy but of a greater enjoyment of life.

Let us hope these riots, which have been predicted for a long time, will blow away those fancies but if I know left-wing pundits (and unfortunately I do know them) they will either pretend nothing happened or find any number of excuses, preferably, ones that blame the United States or root around for yet another semi-Utopia.

It is unfortunate that those, mostly across the blogosphere, who have presented these riots as a new revolt of Islam are playing the same game. If there is nothing rotten in the state of France, if this is merely part of a world-wide Islamic attack on the West, then we can simply forget about French and European problems. They do not really exist.

A small minority, poor and marginalized through its own faults, has been stirred to violence and as soon as that is put down, we can go back to worshipping the European social model and its various delightful aspects: high taxation, impossible regulation, protectionism, high unemployment and a smouldering resentment that will break out in some other way.

There have been other comments. On Chicagoboyz a series of postings by Ralf Goergens, the elegant weasel of our forum, I suspect, have tried to look at the genuine grievances and resentments that have set off the mindless and semi-organized violence of the last week and a half. (Although there has been some talk of organizers who ensure that lads get around from place to place quickly, there seems to be little of real organization and people who might consider themselves to have authority over the youngsters are as much at a loss as the government is.)

One of Goergens’s postings deals with the architecture of the banlieus, the soullessness of the buildings and impossibility of a fruitful human existence in them. He traces the ideas behind those monstrosities to Le Corbusier, arguably one of the evil geniuses of the twentieth century with his ideas of social and cultural experimentation on human beings. We in this country, who have known the problems of the council estates, those tenth rate embodiments of Corbusier’s plans, should not dismiss these arguments.

Goergens was challenged when he posited that far from wanting to create a separate community, what the rioters and, indeed, the people in the banlieus want is to integrate in French culture. This has been dismissed by the “it is all an intifada” commentators but that, once again, does not take into account the peculiarity of the French situation.

By and large, it seems, that is precisely what many of the newcomers and not so newcomers (third generation or so) would like. Remember with what unexpected ease the problem of the banned headscarf was solved. Very few people protested. When a couple of French journalist were kidnapped and one of the demands was that the ban be rescinded, North Africans and their descendants joined a demonstration against the kidnappers. They proclaimed themselves to be French, who would obey the French law. In return, they expected France to recognize them as equals.

France has always described its colonies as being part of the mother country – France Outre Mer. As we know, that means certain islands in the Caribbean can produce all-important votes in referendums. It also means that France feels fully justified to march in and sort out recalcitrant fromer colonies such as the Côte d’Ivoire. (Not that they are having all that much success, but let that pass.)

In theory that also means that all those who arrive in France from the former colonies, especially those who found they had to flee as a result of the Algerian war and its rather sudden ending, are French and will be treated as such. Alas, this has not been the case and the resentment has been smouldering, strengthened by the undoubted frequent brutality displayed by the police.

On Deutsche Welle there have been worried discussions as to whether riots like this could happen in Germany. Opinion seems to be that it is unlikely for a somewhat unexpected reason:

“Those allegedly responsible -- groups of young Muslim men of largely North African and black African origin -- have said that they are protesting economic misery, racial discrimination and provocative policing.

But while some blame the government's recent hardline law-and-order policies, others see the root of the problem in broken promises by the French government to its immigrant communities: The French integration model insists that all citizens are equal before the state, but some say cultural minorities are being left without a voice.

In Germany, on the other hand, immigrants have so far lacked any sense of entitlement. Unlike France, Britain or the Netherlands, Berlin has only recently opened up citizenship and loosened naturalization laws.”

In Germany it is Germans who riot, usually during May 1 demonstrations. If there are any problems with immigrants, these tend to be about issues back in their home countries. Thus Turks and Kurds will fight on the streets and the various Yugoslav nationalities and groups have been and remained a headache for the German police.

If the immigrants felt that they were German, runs the argument, with the same entitlements as other Germans, which they were not getting, they might start rioting as well. The French riots should, therefore, encourage Germany to produce better and clearer policies on integration while there is still time.

It is an interesting argument and not unsustainable. Whether Germany, bedevilled with even worse economic problems and suffering from many of the same political and cultural ones as France is, can come up with the necessary policies, remains to be seen.

In the meantime, it might be worth casting a swift glance at the difference, from what we can tell, between the Danish and the French riots. It seems that, for the moment the Danish situation is under control, though I am ready to listen to anyone who has better and more up to date information. The riots in Århus were very different, clearly organized and caused by events that were not directly related to the people’s lives: the series of cartoons of the Prophet in a Danish newspaper and the Prime Minister’s refusal to control the press.

So far as one can tell, the swaggering youngsters, from various parts of the Middle East, were not interested in better conditions or jobs or integration on whatever level. They wanted a surrender to Muslim demands and an acknowledgement that their area should be a no-go area for the police.

This was very different from what is happening in France. The common factor is that the participants are largely Muslim, which appears to be sufficient to lump them together. There is, I fear, a tendency to do this with all events world-wide.

This is an understandable reaction to official Western reluctance to blame all Muslims for the terror that has spread across the world and a much more serious, what one might term politically correct silence or obfuscation about the fact that at present most terrorist attacks are carried out by Muslim groups.

Nevertheless, different events have different causes and there is no question that Islamic extremists have latched on to troubles that had other causes. One unfotunate outcome of this reluctance to look closely has been a difficulty many of us have experienced in trying to explain what is going on in Chechnya and to what extent the problem is Russian brutality as well as Chechnyan terrorism. Again, the outcome is unfortunate from a geopolitical point of view: a refusal to analyze has played into President Putin’s hands.

On a slightly more light-hearted note, one may point out that the riots were typically French, down to the attacks on a McDonald’s, and that it has seemed for some time that France was due for another revolution. This could be the beginning of one or it might peter out as did les événements of 1968.