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Year 2005 No. 127, November 11, 2005 ARCHIVE HOME JBBOOKS SUBSCRIBE

Paris is Burning

Workers' Daily Internet Edition: Article Index :

Paris is Burning

Explosion in the Suburbs

The Roots of Civil Unrest in Europe

Why Paris is Burning

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Paris is Burning

By Arsenio Rodriguez, Granma International, November 8, 2005

A time bomb has just exploded in France, and is shaking the social and political foundations of that society. The immediate result was to shine a spotlight on a situation that everybody knew about but did nothing about for decades.

Images that are hard to believe of a city like Paris have been arriving via the mass media and justify the title of this commentary. A warehouse burns in the middle of the French capital, and the flames intertwine with the neon lights to illuminate the place known internationally as the City of Light.

Meanwhile, in nearby neighbourhoods, vehicles and buildings are set on fire. What sparked it is known: the deaths of two immigrant youths who were electrocuted while escaping from the police.

Likewise the reaction, when young people like them, who have jumped from many parts of the Third World into the First World in search of a better life, are warning that the impunity and lack of respect for their rights cannot continue, because they are just as human as their employers.

Ministry of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy stated that the problems that sparked the last 11 nights of violence in the poor suburbs have been "neglected for 30 years", and that time would be needed before they could be resolved.

Sarkozy is man charged with exacerbating the fury of the young immigrants, when he characterised them as scum, a statement that also provoked anger among diverse sectors of French society, who started to call for his resignation.

So far, one person has died, many have been injured, and many young people have been beaten in brutal police actions. Attacks on buildings have increased, and more than 3,500 cars have been burned during these first days of November.

Disturbances are occurring on the outskirts of Marseilles, in the city of Dijon and even in the southern and western regions of the country. Certainly, the interior minister has moderated his comments, but perhaps a little too late.

The possibility of more deaths is latent. It is not decades but hundreds of years of exploitation, first in their countries of origin, and later in the "paradise" they hoped to find, where they are needed but discriminated against, and now abused with impunity.

The way that this problem is dealt with will determine whether or not the flames are extinguished, even if just for now. It is no coincidence that this is taking place, as neither were the incidents on Spain’s border with Morocco.

What are Moroccans, Africans and other people from around the world fleeing from? What are the causes of their underdevelopment, malnutrition and extreme poverty? What responsibilities do the wealthy societies who were their colonisers and boundless exploiters have toward their former colonies? The answers are there, but many do not dare propose them.

Perhaps calm will come, and Paris will once again dazzle the eyes of new immigrants who will inevitably continue to arrive. They will be new young people who will have to face old situations of neglect. What many already know and are concerned about is that the causes of situations like the current one that has the majority of French people worried, will once again shake the cities of this rich First World.

Perhaps it will be in Paris again, or in London, Rome or any other big capital. It is just a matter of time.

Article Index

Explosion in the Suburbs

By Naima Bouteldja*, CounterPunch, November 7, 2005

In late 1991, after violent riots between youths and police scarred the suburbs of Lyon, Alain Touraine, the French sociologist, predicted: "It will only be a few years before we face the kind of massive urban explosion the Americans have experienced." The 11 nights of consecutive violence following the deaths of two young Muslim men of African descent in a Paris suburb show that Touraine's dark vision of a ghettoised, post-colonial France is now upon us.

Clichy-sous-Bois, the impoverished and segregated north-eastern suburb of Paris where the two men lived and where the violent reaction to their deaths began, was a ticking bomb for the kind of dramatic social upheaval we are currently witnessing. Half its inhabitants are under 20, unemployment is above 40% and identity checks and police harassment are a daily experience.

In this sense, the riots are merely a fresh wave of the violence that has become common in suburban France over the past two decades. Led mainly by young French citizens born into first and second generation immigrant communities from France's former colonies in north Africa, these cycles of violence are almost always sparked by the deaths of young black men at the hands of the police, and then inflamed by a contemptuous government response.

Four days after the deaths in Clichy-sous-Bois, just as community leaders were beginning to calm the situation, the security forces reignited the fire by emptying teargas canisters inside a mosque. The official reason for the police action: a badly parked car in front of it. The government refuses to offer any apology to the Muslim community.

But the spread of civil unrest to other poor suburbs across France is unprecedented. For Laurent Levy, an anti-racist campaigner, the explosion is no surprise. "When large sections of the population are denied any kind of respect, the right to work, the right to decent accommodation, what is surprising is not that the cars are burning but that there are so few uprisings," he argues.

Police violence and racism are major factors. In April, an Amnesty International report criticised the "generalised impunity" with which the French police operated when it came to violent treatment of young men from African backgrounds during identity checks.

But the reason for the extent and intensity of the current riots is the provocative behaviour of the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. He called rioters "vermin", blamed "agents provocateurs" for manipulating "scum" and said the suburbs needed "to be cleaned out with Karsher" (a brand of industrial cleaner used to clean the mud off tractors). Sarkozy's grandstanding on law and order is a deliberate strategy designed to flatter the French far right electorate in the context of his rivalry with the prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, for the 2007 presidency.

How can France get out of this political race to the bottom? It would obviously help for ministers to stop talking about the suburbs as dens of "scum" and for Sarkozy to be removed: the falsehoods he spread about the events surrounding the two deaths and his deployment of a massively disproportionate police presence in the first days of the riots have again shown his unfitness for office.

A simple gesture of regret could go a long way towards defusing the tensions for now. The morning after the gassing of the mosque, a young Muslim woman summed up a widespread feeling: "We just want them to stop lying, to admit they've done it and to apologise." It might not seem much, but in today's France it would require a deep political transformation and the recognition of these eternal "immigrants" as full and equal citizens of the republic.

* Naima Bouteldja is a French journalist and researcher for the Transnational Institute.

Article Index

The Roots of Civil Unrest in Europe

Interview with Robert Fisk*, November 9, 2005

AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined by Robert Fisk in our studio. As the civil unrest in France enters its 14th day, we want to look back at that critical moment in French history that's still being felt today: The country's colonial rule of the North African nation of Algeria. To talk about the French rule of Algeria and the country’s War of Independence, we're joined by British journalist, Robert Fisk. He has been the Middle East correspondent for various papers, most recently over the years the London Independent, for about 30 years. He's based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has written a new book, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, and in it, you spend many, many pages on Algeria

ROBERT FISK: Many bloody pages, Amy, yes. That's right, yeah. I mean, it's impossible to see the crisis in Algeria today, the crisis in France today, without going back to the War of Independence, which lasted from between 1954 and 1962, which eventually gave Algeria not freedom in the democratic sense, but freedom from imperialism, from colonialism. And you've got to realise that the wounds of that war were never healed. The Algerians who fought for the French, the Harki, were never forgiven by the Algerian government or people, the pieds-noirs, the vast number of French colonial people who lived in Algeria, who regard it as their home, whose parents and grandparents were born there. By the way, you keep calling it a French colony. The French, of course, regard it as "France metropolitaine". It was part of metropolitan France, but the Algerian "natives", quote/unquote, didn't have equal rights. The pieds-noirs have never forgiven the Algerians for throwing them out, effectively, of the country.

And one of the things we're not actually talking about now, but which we should be, is that many of the areas where this violence is taking place around Paris and other large French cities are areas where lower middle class French people who were pieds-noirs from Algeria now live. So what we actually have is we have Algerian youths setting fire to cars outside the homes of the people who were expelled from Algeria in 1962. You need to realise that it is, in this sense, there’s a civil conflict going on here, not just a minority objecting to their treatment by the country which is supposed to be their country now, their citizenship.

And what happened, of course, during that war was that the wounds were never healed, since no one wanted to heal them. What we had was a French government that, first of all, said, ‘We will never leave Algeria; it’s part of France,’ then negotiated with those who wanted freedom, and then, having done this negotiation, effectively ratted on their own French citizens and let them leave in penury and squalor on ships back to France, where in many cases they had no family and no friends. So in a sense this is a continuation.

And we need to remember that these infamous murders, which is what they were, by the French security authorities in 1961 were carried out when the head of the French police, the Paris police, was, in fact, a man who had served the Germans loyally under Vichy, who had assisted in the deportation of French Jews to Auschwitz and who later was imprisoned for war crimes. This is another element, which has now been forgotten, of this 1961 massacre.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that.

ROBERT FISK: Well, I've just done it, Amy. What we have is that during the period of the 1960s, a large number of French officials had served loyally under the Vichy regime, which was set up under the Germans as part of their agreement of the surrender of France in 1940 after the German invasion of France. And until the Vichy regime was effectively taken down in 1944, the large number of bureaucrats who served under the Vichy government of the Petain, Philippe Petain, who was a hero of the First World War and became the great anti-hero of the Second World War, they continued in office so that many of the French police chiefs at the time of the 1961 massacres in Paris were ex-Vichy officials who had deported Jews to the concentration camps.

AMY GOODMAN: And then you have people like the fierce rightist, anti-immigrant Jean-Marie Le Pen, who actually –

ROBERT FISK: He’s getting boring. It's his daughter you want to watch, but anyway. Carry on. Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: But didn't he serve in Algeria?

ROBERT FISK: So did President Chirac, and won medals for his service in Algeria, as General Ariel Sharon, now Prime Minister of Israel, constantly points out to President Chirac. Most of the older French leaders or most of the old statesmen of France did have a role in the Algerian war. What's interesting about France is that the French government's attitude towards war is quite different from the British or American, because unlike the U.S. administration and the titchy little administration of our own dear Mr Blair, many French politicians served in Algeria and have seen war, which the Bush administration has either not done or chosen not to do and which the Blair administration is too young to have done. So you do have in France a great fear of war and violence. Mr Sarkozy, I believe, has not seen war, which is why he's prepared to use these disgusting phrases like "racaille" – "scum", translated into English – about the rioters, when quite clearly there are major problems here that need to be addressed, and calling people scum only overheats these problems. I think Mr Sarkozy will be thrown to the wolves, by the way, because French governments always give in to violence, without exception. Always. And I think Mr Sarkozy will be set out to be put out to dry and forgotten because of this.

* Robert Fisk, veteran war correspondent and the chief Middle East correspondent for the Independent and author of several books. His latest is "The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East".

Article Index

Why Paris is Burning

By Ehsan Ahrari*, Asia Times Online, November 9, 2005

Why is Paris burning? That's the red-hot question. Newsweek, in its latest edition, showed its ignorance and insensitivity by coming up with an Islamophobic slant: "Will the riots swell the ranks of jihadists in Europe?" The question remains, why is Paris burning?

The answer goes to a detailed description of the hypocrisy of French political culture, which gleefully depicts itself as too civilised, too secular and too "sophisticated" to nurture hostility or animus toward any ethnic group or religion, including Islam. The reality, alas, is quite the contrary.

The demonstrators, to be sure, are young men, mostly of North African origin. Almost all of them are second- or even third- generation Frenchmen, but that depiction remains only in the government record of birth certificates. For the blue-eyed, blonde-haired French, all those young people of North African origin will always be "Africans" or "Arabs", words that manifest their not so latent disdain.

These people of North African origin form 10% of the total population and unemployment among them runs at 21%. The number of underemployed is considerably higher. Most of them hold "dead-end" jobs as janitors, grocery store clerks and other oddjobbers. The French middle class did not expect them to register any protest. They were expected to consider themselves much too lucky to be living and breathing on French soil.

The very reason why they are in France today is because France direly needed them during the glorious days of economic expansion of the post-World War II decades – the so-called "les trentes glorieuses". During that era, the ancestors of today's protestors were brought to France not only to serve as cheap labourers, but also to make up for the loss of native French manpower following that war. Moreover, their usefulness also stemmed from the fact they were passive and not expected to strike, unlike those Frenchmen and women who were members of the country's communist unions.

Many of these immigrants were known as "Harkins", i.e., those Algerians who sided with their French colonial masters during Algeria's struggle to overthrow the yoke of French colonialism. More than 100,000 Harkins were massacred by the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) for being "collaborators". Those who entered France "were parked in unspeakable, filthy, crowded concentration camps for many long years and never benefited from any government aid – a nice reward for their sacrifices for France, of which they were, after all, legally citizens".

Today's "ghettoized" protestors and arsonists are the children and grandchildren of those Harkins. Naturally, they "harbour certain resentment" toward France, which long pretended they didn't even exist, as long as they were willing to suffer silently the malignant racism of official and unofficial France.

Unlike the racism against African Americans, no North African version of Martin Luther King Jr heightened the political and moral consciousness of the French middle class by declaring, "I have a dream!" The leftist French Catholic priest, Father Christian Delorme, called for the integration of those French people of North African origin, but that did not create a lasting political movement, as with the American civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Now the "wretched" – to paraphrase Franz Fanon's classic Algerian war of independence study, The Wretched of the Earth – of contemporary France have turned to violence in order to claim what should be theirs to begin with, a dignified existence in their homeland. But they are not treated as if they are in the country of their birth. Reading the French press, one is shocked by the contemptuous behaviour of today's French police, similar as it is to the conduct of racist cops in the American "Deep South" of the 1960s. The youngsters of North African origin are referred to by French police as "bougnoules", which is a verbal equivalent of the American racist slur for Arabs, "rag heads". As one report states, they (the youngsters of North African origin) are told to "Lower your eyes! Lower your eyes! – as if they had no right to look a police officer in the face. It's utterly dehumanising. No wonder these kids feel so divorced from authority."

The official French response to this violent outburst was epitomised in the petty and selfish ambitions of two French politicians. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy – two contenders for the presidency of France – did not manifest any amount of sophistication or a genuine desire to take immediate proactive measures to calm the situation.

On the contrary, both of them used the unfortunate outbreak of violence to placate the racist feelings of the French extreme right wing. Then Sarkozy decided to outbid his rival, de Villepin, by declaring he would "karcharize" the ghetto (Karcher being the well-known brand name of a system of cleaning surfaces by super-high-pressure sand-blasting or water-blasting that very violently peals away the outer skin of encrusted dirt – such as pigeon droppings – even at the risk of damaging what's underneath). The protestors' response was: "It's us who are going to put Sarkozy through the Karcher."

This type of puerile, political one-upmanship is both highly deleterious to the French populace in general and the rioters in particular. If France is serious about integrating its citizens of North African origin, its politicians must immediately deviate from racist and hyperbolic sound bites. For its French Muslims, cooler and mature heads must also prevail in calming the anger of the youngsters.

On the part of the Western media, there is that unfounded concern about these young protestors becoming jihadis in order to seek justice, as seen in the aforementioned Newsweek report. Such simplistic analyses are not based on any evidence or hard facts. The causality that is assumed in such reports is fictitious at best.

The threat to France is not from any purported springing up of jihad. Rather, the chief problem is its refusal to face the fact that multiculturalism is a fact of life inside its borders. The London Economist notes:

As a result, there are no programmes to promote ethnic minorities out of their ghettos. The state keeps officialdom and religion firmly apart, and Mr Chirac has banned Muslim headscarves [as well as "conspicuous" crucifixes] in state schools. Many Muslims have come to feel stigmatised since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, as France, along with other European countries, has cracked down on suspected Islamic extremists.

Consequently, there is an immediate need to stop rejecting the reality of multiculturalism and start taking steps to integrate its citizens from different cultures into the economic mainstream. If their economic lot is improved, they will learn to identify themselves with French culture without necessarily abandoning their Islamic identity. If they remain on the economic fringes, they will not only become even more voluble than they are right now about their Islamic identity, but might adopt even more violent tactics to make themselves heard.

The continued arson in Paris and its outskirts are manifestations of decades of bottled-up frustrations, heightened feelings of alienation and neglect, as well as a desperate longing to belong to an economic class, where youngsters can dream of having productive careers and happy family lives for themselves.

Their parents and grandparents could not live those dreams. The least today's France can do is work sincerely and assiduously to realise those dreams of the current generation of Frenchmen and women of North African descent. That is the least a democratic polity can do for all of its citizens.

* Ehsan Ahrari is a CEO of Strategic Paradigms, a US-based defence consultancy.

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