Eruption in Paris

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Simmering tensions between the Paris police and throngs of disaffected youth erupted into violent confrontation again this week. In the northern suburb of Villiers-le-Bel, the epicenter of the unrest, gangs burned cars and buildings, including a new library and a nursery school, and openly clashed with police for much of the week.

Rioters from the banlieues–the poverty-stricken suburbs that ring Paris–have skirmished with authorities in the recent past, most notably during two weeks of unrest in November 2005. In an eerie replay of the riots that set France aflame almost exactly two years ago, this week’s violence was sparked by the death of two teenage boys: 16-year-old Lakamy Samoura and 15-year-old Mohsin Sehhouli were killed in a motorcycle collision with a police car last Sunday. A similar accident occurred on October 27, 2005, when Bouna Traore, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17, were electrocuted while hiding from police in a power station in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. That incident ignited the largest revolt France had seen since May 1968.

Unlike two years ago, however, this week the youth seemed noticeably organized. And their resistance was, for the first time, armed. On Monday night an estimated 80 police officers were injured, some from gunfire, prompting the New York Times to warn that the situation was escalating toward “urban guerrilla warfare.” By now a massive show of force seems to have tamped down the violence, presenting a moment of calm in which we can try to understand the crisis and consider what’s at stake.

There is a whole body of literature attempting to explain the recent outbursts of violence in the Paris suburbs. Many commentators regard the struggle primarily as an immigration problem. To them this is largely a matter of white France asserting its dominance over a nonwhite group it perceives as a threat: the largely Muslim population of immigrants, many of whom come from the Maghreb, and their children, first-generation citizens who nevertheless face widespread discrimination and insurmountable obstacles when they attempt to enter the workforce. Whereas in the public schools anxieties about the changing face of French identity have been channeled into debates over the headscarf, in the banlieues similar anxieties over integration pit a restless, jobless, nonwhite population against the strong, white arm of the law.

Other commentators see the struggle less as a clash of civilizations than as the result of failed economic policy: it’s the “jobless” part, not the “nonwhite” or “Muslim” part, that really matters, the argument goes. Indeed, if these young people were integrated into the workforce, offered some degree of financial stability and even a shot at improving their socioeconomic status–that is, if they were perceived as an asset rather than a threat to the state–then they would have no reason to be so restive and in fact would have something to lose by lashing out. Top government officials seemed to adopt this strategy two years ago, at least in theory. Unfortunately, then-President Jacques Chirac never delivered on his pledges to provide money for housing, schools, job training and related programming. The lack of any follow-through, the exposed bankruptcy of any commitment to the banlieue youth’s well-being, certainly helps to explain their continued agitation.

For his part, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has done a fine job of fanning the flames of this conflict, then as now. In 2005, when he was serving as Chirac’s interior minister, he used the racially loaded term racaille (“scum”) to describe the rioters. This not only provoked further violence but formalized the antagonistic relationship between the state and its nonwhite residents. Despite a public scolding from Chirac, Sarkozy never apologized for his remarks, and in fact capitalized on the tough-guy image he brandished during the uprising as he mounted a successful run for the presidency. “Sarkozy came to power thanks to the crisis in the ghettos,” French historian Emmanuel Todd told the British Telegraph. And now that he’s in charge, Todd continues, “it is not just the rioters he feels able to take on but the civil servants, the legal profession, the transport workers. Everybody who he thinks needs reforming.”

Sarkozy, it’s clear, comes from the bare-knuckles school of diplomacy, and it seems like he intends to use conflict as a motor to push his economic reforms. In recent weeks he has faced down striking transit workers in a squabble over pensions–and won. He has launched a campaign to do away with the thirty-five-hour workweek–and seems so far to be succeeding. If Sarkozy hopes to rebuild France as a free-trade power broker, it’s understandable for him to treat the unions as an adversary. You may disagree with the politics here, but surely you can follow the logic.

With the situation in the banlieues, however, the logic is less clear. On Wednesday Sarkozy paid a high-profile visit to the Paris suburbs during which he dismissed any notion of a social crisis and instead blamed a “thugocracy” for the troubles. If one of his top priorities is to revamp the French economy, though, it doesn’t make sense to isolate, surveil and continually provoke an idle workforce, as he’s doing. Likewise, if he hopes to usher the Republic into a new era, embracing a multicultural identity seems like the smart, or at least inevitable, option. Sarkozy has reportedly assigned his junior minister, Fadela Amara, the task of developing a “Marshall Plan” for the suburbs, which on the surface sounds like a good idea. Maybe he thinks an investment program of that sort will be worthy of its distinguished nickname only if it’s preceded by a war.

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