Monday, November 07, 2005

Riots in France

For the past 11 days, the northeast suburbs of Paris, which are largely populated by immigrants and first generatrion French of West African descent, have been beset by riots. More recently, riots have broken out in other cities of France--like Toulouse in the South--and in the city limits of Paris itself (the 17th Arrondissement or district, which is in the northeast). In most parts of the city of Paris however, according to a New York Times correspondent, there is no sign that looting and arson are occurring.

This disconnect illustrates the general disconnect between the city of Paris and many of its suburbs. I remember taking the RER (regional) train out of Paris while there, once to go to Charles DeGaulle airport, and once to a festival. Paris and its suburbs, it seemed, was like a kind of inverted 1970s America. Instead of leaving a run down inner city for affluent suburbs, one leaves an affluent inner city moving into suburbs of housing projects and other grim buildings.

Whether it is the city or the suburbs that is home to poor and isolated members of a society, members who are uncoincidentally part of the same race, the result is the same. A spark--in this case, the accidental deaths by electrocution of two young men who were being chased by police into a train station--set off the riots, but violent discontent like what we are seeing has been a long time coming from a community that has been largely isolated from the larger French society. These events harken back to the riots after Martin Luther King Jr's assassination in the late 1960s that broke out in poor areas of American inner cities.

The France ideal of laïcité or secularism, which was behind, the banning of a Muslim girl's wearing of her headscarf to her French public school is great in theory. In practice, however, France's government cannot require its citizens to maintain equality between one another if it is unwilling to admit that its citizens do not start off equal in the first place. It's not an easy problem to solve, this problem of the new immigration wave in France (and other European countries) and the harsh lack of integration that characterizes it.

So, let the riots be a lesson to Americans that anti-immigration stances, discrimination, and social segregation breed an unstable society.

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