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Wednesday, November 09, 2005
What's At Stake in the French Riots: Moving Beyond Redistribution and Recognition

France, invoking its curfew laws and emergency government power from the Algeria War, has managed to lessen the chaos that has engulfed the country for the past two weeks. (Only 617 cars were burned last night.) Monsers and Critics reports the French government's response to the issue:
Tuesday afternoon, Villepin told deputies in the National Assembly that, in addition to the steps taken to increase security, the government would enact a series of measures to attack what he called 'social inequality' in France.

'The republic has come to an hour of truth,' Villepin told deputies. 'What is at stake is our model of integration.'

Can we really believe (Prime Minister) Vellepin's characterization of the event as a mere contestation of the country's "model of integration"? De Vellepin's earlier reponse to situation was along the same lines: "There are bands of youths, some very young, who are in a state of social, family and educational breakdown," he said, choosing his words with characteristic care. "They are in a destructive mind-set."

For other people who are following the situation, like Daniel Pipes and Thomas Blankley, the latest contestation is not for more welfare redistributionist policies, but for political recognition of the Islamic youth. (Links to websites found at IRIS blog.)
The French insurrection is by no means the first instance of a semi-organized Muslim insurgency in Europe – it was preceded days earlier by one riot in Birmingham, England and was accompanied by another in Århus, Denmark. France itself has a history of Muslim violence going back to 1979. What is different in the current round is its duration, magnitude, planning, and ferocity.

The riots started eight days after Mr. Sarkozy declared a new policy of "war without mercy" on urban violence and two days after he called violent youth "scum." Many rioters see themselves in a power struggle with the state and so focus their attacks on its symbols. A typical report quotes Mohamed, 20, the son of a Moroccan immigrant, asserting that "Sarko has declared war …, so it's war he's going to get." Representatives of the rioters have demanded that the French police leave the "occupied territories"; in turn, Mr. Sarkozy partially blamed the riots on "fundamentalists."

Tony Blankley provides a similar perspective and emphasizes the non-assimilationist aspects of the violence.
Even when the current violence subsides -- even when the French government attempts to placate their radical Muslim population by offering more welfare benefits and programs -- it will not be the end of the story. A new benchmark of the possible will have been established. The flaccid and timorous response of the French government will only increase the radicalizing Muslim elements' contempt for Western cultural weakness.


As Mr. Belien reports, look what a typical radical Muslim leader, Dyab Abou Jahjah, the leader of the Brussels-based Arab European League says: "We reject integration when it leads to assimilation. I don't believe in a host country. We are at home here and whatever we consider our culture to be also belongs to our chosen country. I'm in my country, not the country of the Westerners."
Welfare programs will only strengthen the resolve of the rioters, Blankley argues, because their identity as Muslims are ultimately at stake, not their pocketbooks.

I am skeptical that Messrs. de Vellepin, Pipes, and Blankley really know what is at stake here. Let me offer one key piece of evidence which should complicate our reading of the French riots as something more than demands for redistributionist policies on the one hand, and an ethno-religious intifada for recognition on the other hand.

The New York Times provides some evidence that there has always been low-level violence in the suburbs, making this particular upsurge in violence unnoticeable until late.
France was slow to react to the spreading violence set off by the accidental deaths of two youths on Oct. 27, in part because the initial nights of unrest did not seem particularly unusual in a country where an average of more than 80 cars a day were set on fire this year even before the violence.

Most of the rioters, however, are children of immigrants who were born in France. "It's the attitude of the police; they insult us," said a man of Algerian origin who gave his name as Medhi. "People here don't feel like they're a part of the political system. Their only recourse is to violence."

There has always been low-level violence in the areas where the immigrants from African live; the suburbs are also the poorest areas of France. Commentators and news junkies are all trying to explain a particular outcome: the upsurge in violence. Since the foreignness and poverty of the rioters are constant and do not change (as far as we know the rioters didn't become any more black or any more poor on 27 October), we cannot point to those factors as the explanations for the outcome. What explanatory variable can I offer to explain both (a) the upsurge in violence and (b) the religious overtones of the violence? I offer that a change in the politics of foreignness caused the increase in violence.

The uprising started after a member of the political opposition, Mr. Sarkozy, declared a new policy of "war without mercy" on urban violence and two days after he called violent youth "scum." Within a week of this new war, two youths are electrocuted fleeing the police--the first casualties--of the new war started by the French government. Sarkozy's pronoucement, and the death of the two youths as result, changed the dynamic of being an African immigrant in France. The problem is not foreignness per se. Foreignness signifies different things depending on what work that foreigness is being made to do in the political discourses. It is characteristic in French society for the elites to openly wonder why the immigrants aren't becoming "more French" and why they are so poor. Women's bodies, in particular, are the sites of contestation of negotiating foreignness in France. The most dangerous aspects of the Muslim immigration to France is that (1) their women won't unveil and display solidarity with the French and (2) that the Muslim settler women are out producing the natives due to their higher birthrates. The veiled female body produces more aliens into the French society, all of whom, according the French elite, are waiting for the moment when they can overturn the white, Christian, French, European order. (The French position on Turkey's admission to the European Union also reflects these fears.)

This isn't a problem of recognition or redistribution in France; it's a problem of French racism, and the aspects of African identity that have become fetishized and politicized in France. In order to end the violence, all of those who live in France must remake the French state so that it does not demand that all people who are not "us" must "assimilate." The French nation is black and well as white. Turning the African immigrants into a resident enemy alien not only unfairly creates a situation of war--you can only destroy or defeat an existential threat--but it undercuts the possibility of a post-racial democratic future for Europe. If we are all to achieve our humanity--as blacks and whites around the world--then we being to embrace a post-racial future in America and Europe.