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Foreign Correspondent
by international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis


Copyright: Eric S. Margolis, 2005

November 20, 2005

NEW YORK - Rioting and demonstrating is France’s favorite sport after extra-marital affairs and manic driving. Ever since the Middle Ages, all French cities have always had a large, but often unseen mob of unemployed and assorted troublemakers ready to riot at the drop of a sou.

But the urban violence that blazed across France in recent weeks had nothing to do with the usual Gallic political street theater. They were something quite new, and quite sinister.

The wave of arson attacks and mob attacks appears to be abating -at least for now. Over 8,000 cars were burned, schools and clinics were wrecked. Fortunately, only one person died.

A decade ago, French far right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen told me, ` Immigration equals invasion. We will face riots and even war in our streets.’ Le Pen predicted Europe was facing `another Crusade against invading Muslim hordes.’ He added, for good measure, `you Americans stole California from Mexico. Now the Mexicans are taking it back.’

Alas, many Europeans think Le Pen is right. The explosion of violence in French urban areas shocked French and outsiders alike. Except, of course, for those uncultured Americans and neocons for whom hating France is a religious dogma.

By contrast, as a veteran France-watcher, I was surprised the violence took so long in coming.

Ten percent of France’s 60 million citizens are of North African or black West African origin. Most are Muslims. They are the sad human debris of 130 years of French colonial rule in Africa. France has nearly 60% of Europe’s immigrant Muslim population.

France’s first generation of Arabs and Africans did all the dirty jobs Frenchmen wouldn’t do, and kept a very low profile. Many of the immigrants were `harkis,’ former Algerian soldiers who fought on France’s side during the bloody Algerian war of independence that ended in 1962 and were given refuge in France. America may one day soon have to offer similar refuge to Iraqis when US troops are finally withdrawn from the debacle in Mesopotamia.

But the first and second French-born generations, living in large, but usually quite decent housing projects, and schooled as Frenchmen, lost the strict family discipline of Africa’s Muslim and black cultures, without gaining the substantial benefits of France’s high culture and society. They became, to use an apt French expression, `déraciné’ – unrooted. They belong neither to the Muslim World, Africa nor to Europe.

In France, people Arab descent are looked down on as second class citizens, and called `butters’ after the color of their skin; black Africans are relegated to fifth class. While French have long made much of their egalitarian society, in which all immigrants had to become Frenchmen. This system worked until the current generation. Now, it has broken down under weight of numbers and economic grande malaise.

The riots in France had nothing to do with Islam, at least not so far, but everything to do with economic and cultural alienation. The rioters and arsonist were mostly boys aged between 14-26. They are hooligans, not protestors.

Too much free time, no jobs, hostile police, and male hormonal overload combined to spark these riots. Their inspiration was not Osama bin Laden but French and American gangster rapper music and violent, sadistic American videos. The moral pollution brought by western junk culture that so many Islamic imams fulminate against violently infected France’s rootless Arab/African youth.

In the past, conscription would absorb most young men and mature them by two years of rigorous army life. Military service is the cheapest and best way to deal with unemployed youth. Ending conscription left France with large numbers of bored, jobless teenagers looking for trouble.

But the biggest problem is France’s stagnant, hidebound economy, with its 10% chronic national unemployment, ludicrous 35-hour work week, institutionalized union featherbedding, stultifying socialist over-regulations and absurdly high taxes. Scare jobs go first to white youth. Arabs and blacks are last choice – leaving 40% of them unemployed.

The riots posed a dangerous quandary for France’s government. Responding with too heavy-handed police repression – French CRS riot cops are very tough and notoriously mean- could spark an armed urban jihad, another Battle of Algiers. All it would take is a few dead youth to become martyrs and a few firebrand leaders.

Too weak a response would mean more chaos and further outraging already angry French voters who demand an end to violence. While the politicians dithered or gave empty speeches, the ex-urban rings around France’s cities burned.

The government is seriously split by the presidential rivalry of patrician PM Dominique de Villepin and the pushy, hyper-active Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. The latter, who has taken a very aggressive stance towards the riots, just broke with French tradition by proposing special reserved jobs for underclass youth – in other words, US-style affirmative action. Sarkozy’s standing in the polls has risen sharply, putting him ahead of rival de Villepain for the first time.

President Jacques Chirac, who was recently in hospital, has been barely visible during this crisis, letting anointed heir, de Villepain, manage affairs - and take blame if things get worse. Chirac’s already battered image has suffered further damage as a result of the violence.

Sarkozy enraged rioters by calling them `scum’ - which, of course, they are. But the reason these youths are scum is because they have never been truly accepted as French, speak gutter argot(in spite of efforts by schools to impart decent French), and have no place in French society except as street sweepers and footpads.

France has provided enviable public housing, the world’s finest health care and excellent schools. But material benefits cannot replace respect and hope. France’s underclass have neither. New apartments and schools are quickly wrecked by young vandals, or turned into Third World slums by African immigrants who don’t know any better.

The answer is jobs, jobs, jobs. But that means tearing down France’s protected, stagnant economic structure and bringing in painful free market reforms most French strongly reject. But the riots are a fiery reminder France must change or face more uprisings.

France’s plight is hardly unique. North America’s ghetto housing projects are far grimmer and more violent than France’s, and just as volatile, if not more so.

Half the Third World’s population is under 18. Housing, jobs, medicine and schools are available only for a fraction. It’s only a question of which city explodes next – Detroit, Sao Paulo, Los Angeles, or Amsterdam.

Published at since 1995 with permission, as a courtesy and in appreciation.

To read previous columns by Mr. Margolis: Click here

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