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Bonfire of the French Vanities

The gap between the Republic’s dysfunctional universalist dogmas and a real-life suburban world at war with itself is so wide in France that a fire can spread in the middle with nothing to stop it—save a brutal Leviathan to kill the fire and erase all traces of what first sparked it.

The worst news about the ten-day long November riots in the many French suburban housing projects (rightly called cités, a mix of Plato and Platoon) may very well be the amount of nonsense we heard about it. Let’s not even mention Fox News’ on-site discovery that Islam would not be compatible with Western principles, since Muslims this time were mostly bystanders barely taking notes; nor the State Department or the Japanese Embassy memos advising tourists and sales reps to avoid enflamed Paris, even though the city of light had actually never been more quiet than that week, safely cut off from its enraged Northern and Eastern suburbs by the most visible boundary an Imperial capital ever invented: the four-lane, partly covered, all-year long gridlocked boulevard périphérique. “Foreigners” never get it right, do they?

But much more depressing was how deliberately wrong and ideologically deceitful most French commentary on the riots has been both during and after the traumatic events. The critics described a brutal, mindless, essentially apolitical attack on everything those hysterical kids could put their hands on, something between fourth-century barbarian vandalism and the masochistic stroke of a bum tearing his slum to shreads. In reality, the targets had been carefully chosen, symbols duly selected, and the neighborhood warfare led with a certain talent for invisibility: burning schools which can’t do much against inequality and unemployment (when they don’t actually reinforce it); destroying supermarkets and local factories that exploited cheap labor, where lifelong “interns” are hardly paid at all; setting on fire thousands of cars that signify primarily the art of commuting and secondarily insurance industry ripoffs. At any rate, regardless of whether a consistent political movement emerges in the near future from such a spontaneous, unorganized form of unrest, the upheaveal surely was not the nihilistic burst that all our paranoid opinion-makers saw in it, depicting something worse than a tsunami, close enough to a fascist coup, a threat as lethal to Western civilization as an alliance between Nietzsche and Marx. Each interpretation showed that the crucially political distinction between destroying goods and hurting people, attacking property and human life, had been truly lost over the last thirty years.

Most French columnists left and right suddenly united in their common distance to (and utter distrust of) this other world, and portrayed a one-sided, furious offensive by immigrant-origin hooligans against some disarmed firemen and unexperienced cops, which all news channels showed constantly enduring a rain of stones and molotov cocktails. Meanwhile, what very few journalists mentioned is what you actually can’t film—that is, the more-than-proportionate reaction from defenders of the so-called “public order”: riot cops beating up 14-year-old rioters or else knocking down innocent passersby; I.D. checks only for the sake of humiliation, reaching the world record of 10 to 15 per day per person for those with skin on the tan side; and night-time police raids in random apartments or local bars, once the Algerian war-era curfew law revived by the right-wing government after a week had legally enabled cops to arrest and jail anyone anywhere for no reason. All of this is to continue through March, 2006, at the least—while all other measures implemented by the de Villepin government since that dreadful week seem like a return to an even darker era, from fighting illegal immigration at the cost of basic human rights to unbounding systematic police repression at the expense of social prevention.

Brandishing a civilizing mission and humanistic—if paternalistic—rationale reminiscent of France’s proud colonial past, center-left ideologues of all sorts portrayed a country threatened to death by identity politics and redeemable only if one lets shine forth the abstract humanity (or universality, in the Enlightenment lexicon) formally connecting the rich whites and the poor blacks. Any identitarian statement, even if it’s a call for recognition from a formerly colonized people never acknowledged as such, is deemed in France a regression into a fascist-sounding “politics of difference” any micropolitical expression of one’s group-based identity is associated with the twin evils of North-American multiculturalism and third-world tribal selfishness, and therefore placed under the insulting category of “communitarianism.” In the recent crisis, no magazine column or TV talk show in France was without some generous promoter of the République warning us against “les dangers du communautarisme.” This long-standing, self-righteous dogma naturally, and ironically, actually encouraged a highly ethnicized reading of the November riots: so-called philosophers André Glucksmann and Alain Finkielkraut blamed the riots on a Muslim “culture of hatred” (Glucksmann) and a ritualized “progrom against the Republic” typical of such “enemies of the West” (Finkielkraut). Meanwhile, historian of Russia and respected intellectual Hélène Carrère d’Encausse—astonishingly—found no other reason for such a “strain of violence” than the African “habit of polygamy.”

In such a reactionary context, there were very few observers who emphasized the typically French dialectic of the united Republic and multiple identities assembled under it: there may be an undesired countereffect of neutralizing ethno-cultural or even religious identities, of legally “erasing” them (French law does not break up citizens into racial or sexual groups), and of limiting their expression to the “private sphere” in favor of a public space made up only of formally equal citizens (as was reinstated in last year’s bill against the wearing of “religious signs” in school). For, even if all were inspired by the best intentions, such actions could very well turn out to be the best way to either reinforce identities, intensify their outcry, or at least trigger enough frustration to radicalize their public expression.

The biases shown by French intellectuals are all the more regrettable in the land of social rights and good old class struggle. Mistaking a social explosion for a racial war, the French riots of 2005 for the Rodney King unrest of 1992, and a complex phenomenon for the simplistic obsessions surrounding it—this is what happens when the dread of a backlash of identities amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy. The intellectual class demonstrated their historic fear of (and political prejudice against) French Islam, and contempt for cultural peculiarities. They espoused the commodified and easily marketable set of identity traits (and representational fantasies) emphasized by the media, which have altogether blinded most social experts on the most simple social realities. It was as if they had all suddenly forgotten, except for a few leftists and some age-old sociologists, that a youth raised in sheer poverty and joblessness simply has nothing to lose, and that gradually taking out from them social benefits and local public subsidies (as done in Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s Britain twenty years ago so much more brutally than by today’s French center-right government) is like striking the match that lights the fire. Add to this a serious postcolonial blindspot in a country where Congress passed a bill last February recommending that history classes in high school “teach the positive work” of French colonials overseas. Throw in the many gang-style verbal agressions coming from Interior Minister and Presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, who wears a freemarket velvet glove over an authoritarian iron fist—and whose punch lines about immigrant kids include terms like “Rabble,” “junk youth,” or the need to “clean those housing projects with a water canon.” And don’t forget the continuous image flow of global injustice poured in by the mainstream media, from African-Americans drowning in New Orleans all the way to African-French people burning in decayed Paris hotels. All in all, you get enough resentment to make street warfare a real option.

The trigger itself carried enough pathos to help ignite the bomb: the story of two 12-year-old kids from Clichy-sous-Bois dying after hiding in a hazardous electric plant where they had trespassed just to escape from a routine police check. It’s no wonder why the famous French assimiliationist model (“le modèle d’intégration à la française”), so fiercely debated for its pros and cons, its old miracles with first-generation immigrants and current crisis with their second- and third-generation siblings, is unfortunately no longer the issue. The bottom line is indeed elsewhere: the world that is offered to the youth to “assimilate” in, this world where if you’re lucky enough you may make a life for yourself, the world of worshipped commodities and devalued dogmas, abstract connections and constantly postponed action, formal equality and real skin-color hierarchy, that very world, call it ours, may simply no longer be desirable enough to make it worth sitting down and waiting for better days. And in that respect, the lesson taught in fire and fury by those young tanned hooligans from the French suburbs was being taught simultaneously to the whole Western world—not only to poor old Jacques Chirac’s France.


Francois Cusset is a writer based in Paris and a frequent contributor to the Rail.


Francois Cusset


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 05-JAN 06

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