Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A state of emergency in France

I haven't yet commented on the horrible situation in France, though, privately, I've noted the lack of contextual perspective (that is, a lack of understanding of French history and politics) in much of the right-wing reaction to the riots -- as if the right, succumbing to the moral ease of enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend gymnastics, is somehow relishing this apparent attack on the French state. Many on the right seem to see this as justifiable comeuppance, and, to borrow a term from France's long-time enemy to the east, it's Schadenfreude all the way.

In other words: The French are snotty, anti-American elitists who think they're better than everyone else. Plus, they supported Saddam and opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At every turn, they seek to block American interests. If this were happening in the U.S., if American cities were burning, the French would cheer on the rioters or at least blame America's racial politics and economic barbarism for the oppression of entire classes of people.

So the French deserve it. Period.

Not that we should expect much in the way of disinterestedness from the partisan right. Not that we should expect them to understand what's really going on and what really sent those young people out into the streets.

For what's going on in France is complicated. Multiple triggers have sent alienated and in some cases highly politicized youth into the streets. (After all, The Battle of Algiers, which marked the beginning of the end of the French occupation of Algeria, didn't happen all that long ago.)

And this is why I haven't yet commented. And why I won't comment here. Rather than jumping to premature conclusions, I think it's important to develop a more reasoned (and reasonable) response. So instead of telling you all what I think, I'm going to wade into this story with links to key developments, round-ups of reactions from around the blogosphere (which will allow me to some room to comment), and, beyond that, deeper analysis of the causes of this astonishing moment in French history.


From the Times:

The French government, unable to quell nearly two weeks of civil unrest, invoked emergency measures today to impose curfews in its strife-torn suburbs, where bands of youths continued to rampage, burning cars and battling with police.

After a series of mostly ineffectual pledges by French leaders to restore order and crack down on lawbreakers, the government resorted to a 50-year-old law, dating from the Algerian war, which authorizes local officials to enforce nighttime curfews for up to 12 days, starting at midnight tonight.

"The republic faces a moment of truth," Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said in announcing the decree during a grim-faced address in Parliament. "A return to order is the absolute priority."

Mr. Villepin also outlined a package of economic and social measures to try to address the entrenched racial discrimination and chronic unemployment that have bred resentment and alienation in the suburbs, which have large populations of West African and North African origin.

"Our collective responsibility is to make difficult areas the same sort of territory as others in the republic," Mr. Villepin said. He admitted, however, that merely restoring order would "take some time."

Of course, "Villepin and other French leaders have come under stinging criticism for their response to the unrest," but this is at least a step (or a few) in the right direction. Order needs to be restored, but France also needs to think through its commitment to diversity. It's not good enough to put up with non-French communities, to see them as some sort of domestic "Other" that isn't really French. Those communities need to be integrated into the larger national community and accepted as important components of the French cultural landscape.

French nationalism has historically been rooted in language and culture. Unlike, say, German nationalism, which is rooted in blood, and hence which cannot be acquired, French nationalism, like Amerian nationalism, is potentially universal, generally open to those who wish to learn French and to participate in French culture.

But there is also, of course, a racial (and racist) component to French self-identity, a turn from the universalist French identity developed during the Enlightenment and actualized through the ongoing revolution after 1789. Anecdotally, I remember taking the train from Charles de Gaulle airport into the center of Paris and seeing swastikas all along the sides of the tracks. Whereas Germany has been forced to account for its past, France has never quite accepted responsibility for its involvement with the Nazis under the Vichy regime, for its history of racism, and for its imperial domination of North Africa and elsewhere.

It's not enough to scapegoat right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen and his National Front. After all, there's a reason he's been so popular.

So, yes, this is a start -- even if the great irony is that the government has resorted to a law that dates from France's occupation of Algeria.

But let's conclude here with some perspective: As bad as these riots have been, there's been only one death. Over 6,000 cars have been burned, and the rioting has spread from Paris to 300 other cities and towns, but this is not the great apocalypse, the end of Europe, that some are suggesting.

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