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Voices on the French riots

A selection of the best theories from In Today's Feuilletons and our Magazine Roundup

The rioting in the French suburbs has dominated the newspapers and magazines in recent weeks. What was behind it all? Playful action? A payback for French racism? Failed integration politics? An offshoot of the wave of nihilism washing over France? Or an OTT demonstration of testicular one-upmanship? We have compiled a selection of the best theories from In Today's Feuilletons and our Magazine Roundup.

French voices

Süddeutsche Zeitung, 07.11.2005

Clemens Pornschlegel looks to the rap world for answers. For him the burning banlieues are not just a French phenomenon. "The hatred in the immigrant ghettos is aimed at the Western world which, as rapper Akhenaton from Marseille puts it, is "abastion of absurdity" into which it is impossible to integrate. "Only gangsta as identification / yields a million / stinking jackals, and the darky / is the mangy / product of racists / from countries with profit lusts". (Süddeutsche Zeitung)

Daniel Geiselhart lets French rapper Fofo Adom'Megaa aka Rost explain the situation. "The older kids all went to school, some even went onto college, but still none of them can find work. The big brothers can no longer convince the younger ones that there's any point going to school. After all it hasn't done them any good. Now these teenagers are setting the cars on fire." (Süddeutsche Zeitung)

Die Welt, 07.11.2005

Alex Capus, an author living in Paris, puts things in perspective: "When the suburbs of Paris burn, you don't notice a thing in the chic districts of the inner city." If you see someone with dark skin in Saint Germain or Auteuil, he writes, you know it's the street sweeper. "You don't have to tell the youth in the suburbs that they have no place in the inner city. Wherever they go, the police show up. For white people state violence is invisible, for black people it's everywhere. The children of immigrants should go to school in the banlieues, and think about their future. Many do exactly that. But it doesn't help. Because whether they drop out of high school at 15 or leave with top marks, they're going to be unemployed anyway. And if one of them does manage to have a career as graphic designer or tax collector, he still remains a second-class citizen. If he wants to go to a disco in Saint Germain on Friday night, the bouncers still won't let him in."

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 08.11.2005

Author Francois Bon, who has done considerable work with young people in the suburbs, voices his depression at the violence in France. "For years people have been struggling against the general disdain, and gained only centimetres at a time. The suburb of Pantin, where I'm now giving writing workshops, has a community youth centre where a dozen people, often locals, help out. But in the end you come up against a wall – and all that's left is fear. It strikes me that my years of work here are at a dead end. Last June, when I was doing a series of portraits for arte with two trade apprentices, a gang of 10- and 11-year-olds forced us to turn around in our tracks. They were still children, not even young men. And three weeks ago in Pantin I was about to give a workshop in the library for young hairdressing students. At first five, then ten youths physically prevented me from teaching literature to their sisters and girlfriends. Suddenly the sweat shirts and hoods were there, and showed me, the 'white' guy, what it was like to be disdained. It's appalling."

Berliner Zeitung, 09.11.2005

"The French will have to make time to consider why they are so ill-prepared to understand the current crisis and why therefore they are threatening to exacerbate it," writes French sociologist Alain Touraine. "It is not just the 'under-privileged' who need to change their attitude to society. French society can also become a threat in itself if it fails to combine integration and cultural differences, universalism and individual cultural rights, if it can't break down the walls between a republicanism riddled with prejudices and group identities based on aggression. ... We can no longer pretend that France is the protector of universal values, and that in this mission it has the right to make second-class citizens of anyone who doesn't fit the bill of this ideal 'national ego'".

Frankfurter Rundschau, 10.11.2005

"People in the suburbs say: Baghdad is here. They see the events on television and think it's great," says French philosopher Andre Glucksmann in an interview with Ruthard Stäblein. "The violence has a global element and a French element to it. I'm sorry, but the French said no to Europe; and used their veto everywhere they could, in world trade talks and agriculture negotiations. The French say no whenever they can. The French government, that is, Chirac. For me these youths who are becoming murderers are imitating the big players, copying the politicians. A nihilist atmosphere is reigning in France today, and not just in the suburbs."

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 10.11.2005

In a conversation with Joseph Hanimann, the French author Mehdi Belhaj Kacem analyses the symbolic play between Nicolas Sarkozy and the revolutionary youth: "A leftist magazine recently portrayed Nicolas Sarkozy as a kind of Al Pacino, who never loses sight of his goal and is willing to brave fire and brimstone to achieve it. One has the impression that Sarkozy read the article and wanted to prove its point: Sarkozy as hero in a gangster showdown in the suburbs. The youth didn't wait too long with their response. They took on the offer of the minister, who had bowed down to their level of rhetoric and entered into the showdown."

Le point, 10.11.2005

Bernard-Henri Levy writes in his notes on "Explosion": "Physics of the body. Sinister energy of pure hatred. Nihilistic whirlwind of violence without idea or plan which intoxicates itself, town by town, in the reflection of its own spectacle in the TV images which are just as fixated themselves. This is no war. In contrast to what the extreme Right, extreme Left, or the Islamists want to make us believe, this is not a black French intifada." This is a totally new degree of craziness. "The vandals are driving their own fathers' cars out to set fire to them."

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 12.11.2005

In an interview, French demographer Emmanuel Todd takes the riots as proof that immigrants' children have successfully integrated: "With their revolt, the insurgent youth have integrated into the French tradition. And they're treated by the police just like any other revolutionaries. Despite Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy's absurd rhetoric (more), the police and the population haven't lost their nerve. If the events can be brought to an end more or less peacefully, France will wake up and say to itself: this revolt doesn't mean the failure of the French model. On the contrary, it shows that it works. Because that's what we call assimilation in French."

die tageszeitung, 12.11.2005

In another interview French sociologist Michel Pialoux makes an interesting differentiation between the sexes: "Girls from the immigrant milieu are more successful at school and at entering the job market. Unemployment is higher among young men. This feeds the youths' despair, and it also feeds their machismo. Another factor is that street culture is typical male territory."

L'Express, 17.11.2005

The Islamic "boom" in France is dividing the French Left. L'Express invited journalist Caroline Fourest and political scientist Francois Burgat to battle it out in a discussion that "couldn't have been more heated". When asked whether the Left had "prepared the way for Islamism", Burgat answered: "Yes I believe that a certain faction of the Left has prepared the way for fundamentalism. It encounters a generation which is keen to participate in the progress of history and which does so in its own way and with its own vocabulary, with a sectarian and arrogant rejection, a veto. One of the people with the say in this leftist faction is you, Caroline Fourest. You contest that Muslim women can improve things for themselves by using aspects of their own culture." Caroline Fourest replies: "Let's talk about this Islamic feminism, that you find more interesting than my lay feminism. According to Tariq Ramadan's definition, women should take on activities which suit their 'nature' – on the condition that this does not endanger their role within the patriarchal family, and naturally, that they wear headscarves so as not to bring their men into temptation. If that's your view of women's liberation..."

Frankfurter Rundschau, 24.11.2005

"For me, it has to do with the opposition between economic rationality and a certain romanticism," says French cult author Camille de Toledo while talking to Cornelius Wüllenkemper about his capitalism-critical book "Goodbye Tristesse" and the rioting in the French suburbs. "A person who, given an existence based solely on economic logic, says, 'it's not enough, the world is more than that' is behaving like Albert Camus' 'Man in Revolt'. He is engaging in a kind of poetic revolt. In the current riots in Paris, the issue is a simple reality: the social misery of mankind."

Le point, 24.11.2005

This week Le Point dedicates its title story to a phenomenon it has dubbed the "iconoclastic wave". With an eye to the current events in France, intellectuals like Alain Finkielkraut, Marcel Gauchet, Luc Ferry, politicians and groups of activists have "finally" upset the division between Left and Right. Claude Imbert looks into the reasons for this development in an editorial entitled "The graveyard of beliefs", which also deals with the Socialist Party convention: "More and more French people are coming to see the atrociousness of France's situation in its true light: economic decline, the lack of success in countering unemployment in the suburbs, isolation in a Europe which has been beaten down by the no to the referendum. There is only one suitable hope in view of this chaos: reform."

Die Tageszeitung, 08.12.2005

Dorthea Hahn interviews French sociologist Dounia Bouzar (more here) on the unrest in the French banlieues. Dounia contests any explanations for the riots based on ethnic or religious motives: "It's simply young people who grew up without a culture. Because there is no culture whose values include burning cars. For the most part, those who set cars alight come from families that have been here for three or four generations. Only a few of them were petty criminals. But it's true that we are facing a major problem. Never before have children in France set their schools on fire."

German and Swiss voices

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 07.11.2005

Martin Meyer tries to pinpoint the motivation of the young fire-starters. "The new partisans are mobile, informed and versatile. They have no Chinese red stars or little red Mao books. They may be increasingly 'nihilist', and armed with a willingness to commit a violence honed by thousands of computer games. The events satisfy their desire for action, and are steered by the vague 'idea' that 'this'll show the people in power'. But this mentality, far from theory and doctrine, makes it extremely difficult for the public security forces to respond efficiently. The more a spontaneous terror movement sees itself as 'playful', the more difficult it is to tackle."

Südeutsche Zeitung, 08.11.2005

Johannes Willms describes the blind spot in French society. "It is a political taboo in France even to officially acknowledge ethnic or religious ties, in view of the state principle of 'egalite'. This self-inflicted blindness goes so far that it is explicitly forbidden to publish relevant statistics. For that reason, no statements can be made with certainty about the minorities living in the country – no one can say what deficits these minorities suffer from, or how these can be corrected with specific measures. Such things are strictly looked down upon as discrimination."

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 08.11.2005

Jürg Altwegg blames in part the poor teaching of French colonial history: "The outbreaks of violence seem to go hand in hand with the dispute over colonialism and the Algerian War, which are finally being talked about... Discussions on France's colonial past were prompted by minorities who felt left out of the process of dealing with World War II and the Vichy era. Observers talk of a 'competition among victims'. People are going into battle with the Shoah victims armed with the slave trade. It was Islamic theorists around Islam scholar Tariq Ramadan who started up this battle when they called for an Intifada after the banning of the Islamic scarf."

die tageszeitung, 08.11.2005

Isolde Charim sees the burning suburbs as the third media manifestation of poverty following New Orleans and the storming of Ceuta and Melilla. The rioting youth in France are responding to the refugees in the South. "We are vividly reminded of the onrush of the poor from Africa. These became 'visible' for the first time when chunks of their flesh hung from the barbed wire fences that Europe uses to protect itself from them. The Africans just wanted to get to Europe, just wanted a space of hope. And now they are getting an answer from those of the second or third generation who are already here. They have gotten into 'Fortress Europe' without, however, really arriving."

Le Monde, 09.11.2005

According to Tariq Ramadam, the multicultural British and the republican French model of integration have both failed and the riots are a social rather than religious or ethnic issue. "People seem to be obsessed by the idea that Islam causes problems, that it represents a threat to social order. We are witnessing a case of political brinkmanship, a dangerous strategy that attempts to turn fears of Islam into short-term electoral advantage, using arguments that were once restricted to parties of the extreme right: security discourse, national preferences and discrimination are all being thrown together with the issue of immigration. The obsession with integration and identity is symptomatic of a dual phenomenon: on one hand the inability to hear those Muslim voices that for years have been saying Islam is not the problem and that millions of Muslims have embraced their identities as Europeans. And on the other the lack of political resolve to address the pressing social issues."

Die Weltwoche, 10.11.2005

Is the rioting in France linked to Islam? If only, sighs Daniel Binswanger, who spent some time looking for answers in the banlieues. "You almost want it to be about political insurrection, with Islamic, autonomous or other ringleaders pulling strings in the background. You wish there were some political movement behind the fiery delirium and that you could approach the unrest with 'understanding' and a political strategy. But there is nothing but a monstrous symptom of social and psychological devastation, snowballing zones of anarchy.... French etatism comes up against a strange socio-psychological barrier in the banlieues. Although the state is seen as the absolute evil – the weapon-toting arm of the rich, white and privileged, it remains the only redeemer. People are infinitely hostile and yet full of expectations. They set fire to the town hall and demand more subsidies. They think it 's right that the police station should be attacked and complain that there aren't enough police officers. They burn down the gymnasium where their own sport club trains. Alarmingly large swathes of the population have locked themselves into the mental ghetto of victim discourse. And that leads to nothing but infantile self destruction."

Die Welt, 12.11.2005

Die Welt publishes an essay in which author Michael Kleeberg compares the country's republican discourse with its apartheid praxis, which is the flip side of an unspoken but deep-rooted elitism: "France, in contrast to the official rhetoric, is an archly conservative country in which the elite recruits almost exclusively from within the elite. In France, men with the academic training of someone like ex-chancellor Helmut Kohl or outgoing chancellor Gerhard Schröder (obscure provincial high school, continuing eduction, mass university, no marriage into higher social spheres) can at best hope to become mayor in a middling provincial town."

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 14.11.2005

Michael Jeismann sees not only reasons to despair, but also signs of hope, for example in Evry, southwest of Paris. "The European space programme is centred in Evry. And with Genopole, the elite of French scientific research and biotechnology is at home there too. But that's not all. It's also the only place in France where a new cathedral was built in the 20th century. It's right next to the city hall and has over fourteen hundred seats. Pope John Paul II visited it in the 90s. And at the same time, there are more people from Mali living in Evry than anywhere else in the world, and a huge Buddhist temple is being built there as well."

Süddeutsche Zeitung, 15.11.2005

The riots in the banlieues are neither a French phenomenon nor have they anything to do with unemployment, poverty or immigration, says sociologist Ulrich Beck. Far more, globalisation is creating ever more people everywhere who are superfluous. And it is certainly not a question of a lack of integration. On the contrary. "These assimilated youths whose parents were immigrants scarcely differ in their desires and attitudes from their peers in their country of immigration. They are closely affiliated. And this is precisely what makes the racism of their exclusion so terribly bitter for these very heterogenous youth groups, and so scandalous for everyone else. The paradox is this: a lack of integration in the parent generation defuses, and successful integration of the second generation intensifies the problems and conflicts."

Die Welt, 15.11.2005

Hans-Christoph Buch focusses on the "social romantic transfiguration of the criminals" by a well-meaning German media, with its undertones of "clandestine schadenfreude and embarrassing self-righteousness": "Until recently, German experts were envious of what they perceived to be a successful integration model in France which, independent of background, race or religion was based solely on citizenship or more precisely on freedom, equality and fraternity, the fundamental values of the secular republic.... France was a country of immigration that offered political asylum and in which a cultural symbiosis took place the likes of which could only be dreamed of this side of the Rhine."

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 17.11.2005

In contrast to 1968, this time it's only young men who are rebelling in France, writes Alice Schwarzer, the queen of German women's lib. These men are under the influence of unemployment on the one hand, she continues, and Islamism on the other. For Schwarzer the situation in Germany is similar: "Violence in Turkish families is three times as prevalent as in German homes. The men are the violent ones, and their victims are women and children. But the girls identify with their victim mothers, the boys with their violent fathers (even if they themselves are victims). But as starry-eyed accusations of racism prevent us from saying it like it is, we'll never get to the root of the problem."

Hungarian voices

Heti Vilaggazdasag, 17.11.2005

Sociologist Janos Ladanyi writes that Hungary should also take a lesson from France: "True, Paris is far away, and the situation of immigrants under the influence of Islamic fundamentalism in France is only slightly akin to that of the Hungarian Roma. But the combination of poverty and ethnic marginalisation can spark off dangerous conflicts, here as well as abroad.... When our government, opposition and intellectuals debate about the necessary social measures to be taken, they shouldn't act as if the riots started up by ethnic minorities – a year and a half ago in Slovakia and now in France – were happening on a distant planet."

Elet es Irodalom, 25.11.2005

"Behind portrayals of immigrants as a homogeneous mass lurks the notion of a symbolic superiority of Europeans," writes cultural anthropologist Peter Niedermüller. "Certainly, in the immigrant milieu there are religious fanatics, dangerous criminals, delinquents and families in which women are subject to constant humiliation, oppression and violence. But it is the sad truth that the same problems are also present among the majority populations in Europe. We don't identify the domestic violence which permeates our modern societies with European Christendom. Nor do we associate those men who regularly beat their children and wives, or who molest and rape under-age girls and boys, with Christianity. Equally, we don't identify paedophile priests with the Catholic church. By the same token, we can by no means identify isolated forms of radical social behaviour with immigrants and Islam."

Polish voices

Plus - Minus, 12.11.2005

In the weekend edition of the Polish paper Rzeczpospolita, Dariusz Rosiak analyses the spectacular collapse of French integration policy. "After 15 years of smouldering conflict, the French still don't know – or don't want to know – what lies behind the immigrants' hatred for France. The reasons can be found in the republican tradition, and how it is implemented in the French suburbs. The noble principle of equality of all, which among other things leads to there being no statistics taken about ethnic or religious minorities, is unfortunately a fiction. Poles may well soon face the same problem: "No matter what we think of ourselves, from the perspective of a Vietnamese, Kenyan or Chechnian we are among the richest countries in the world. Their work, their culture, could be an enrichment to us, but can we convince them of the advantages of integration?"

British voices

The Spectator, 11.11.2005

Rod Liddle is amazed that no one is using the "dreaded M word". "It may well be that the motive for the rioting was nothing more than an inchoate grievance allied to youthful exuberance and a penchant for bad behaviour, but it was Islam which gave it an identity and also its retrospective raison d’etre. The political aspirations of many French Muslim organisations and explicitly of the most important political Islamic organisation on the Continent, the Arab European League, is for much greater segregation, for Verwoerd's ideal of separate development — the very essence, to my mind, of racism. The appalling Arab European League, in fact, likens assimilation or integration to 'rape' and calls upon all Muslims to resist such cultural imperialism. And the director of the Great Mosque of Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, who delivered that nice fatwa, has seemed to request that the French government give Muslims autonomy within the state; to, in effect, allow them to follow their own rules. So for those pundits on French TV, apologies, but au contraire: the French Muslims do not, as a whole, want greater integration. They want less integration."

London Review of Books, 01.12.2005

In Jeremy Harding's Paris diary he writes: "We shouldn’t always expect a riot to mean something. There’s been a carnival air about some of the destruction in France, and as anthropologists know, the meaning of carnival is to be found in the ordinary days of the calendar. The crudest question seemed simply to be whether there was anybody out there. Would anyone who wasn’t the descendant of a Maghrebi or sub-Saharan migrant living in abject conditions be willing to acknowledge the existence of these conditions and the people afflicted by them? But with that came a threatening message about mistaken or ill-assigned identity that briefly clarified the cities like a flare over an earthworks: ‘we will become the people you imagine we are, just watch.’ It is the defensive-aggressive strategy that Sartre discerned in Genet’s ostentatious criminality."

American voices

The New Yorker, 21.11.2005

For Jane Cramer, the unrest is a pan-European problem with the assimilation of immigrants. "The only thing most Europeans agreed on was that the 'American model' was wrong, although the American model wasn't really a model at all but a kind of success ethic - the Europeans said 'dollar ethic' - in which making money and moving up in the world was what made Americans out of strangers. It was, for better or for worse, the one model that seemed to work."

The New Republic, 29.11.2005

The magazine features a lengthy essay on French anti-Americanism by Paul Berman. After reviewing several books by Pierre Rigoulot and Philippe Roger reviews), he comes to the surprising conclusion: " (France's grandeur is not, after all, entirely an illusion. It may even be a sign of French grandeur today that, at a moment when a more-or-less systematic anti-Americanism has blossomed from right to left all over the world, France has, ever so quietly, made itself the international home of a new literature of anti-anti-Americanism--this new and radical and brilliant literature that has not yet worked a powerful effect around the world, or even on conventional opinion in France, and is certainly not going to produce a sudden shift in outlook, but which, even so, might well turn out to be, in years to come, an event in the history of ideas. A flash of self-awareness. The stirring of an eyeball, breaking through sleep. A new realization, just beginning to awaken."

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