[xmca] new yorker about the french riots

From: David Preiss (davidpreiss@puc.cl)
Date: Thu Nov 17 2005 - 10:21:04 PST

by Jane Kramer
Issue of 2005-11-21
Posted 2005-11-14

Eight days ago, when the violence that had erupted in three hundred of the
immigrant housing projects that circle France’s big cities spread, briefly,
to Belgium and Germany, the sigh of relief among French politicians could be
heard from Lille to Marseilles. “Voilà! It isn’t us,” they seemed to be
saying. “It’s everywhere.” And, in a way, they were right. The immigrant
poor are everywhere in Europe now, and what the French novelist Antoine
Audouard, writing in the Times a few days later, aptly called France—“a
society that no longer knows how to enforce its own rules or how to create
the dream of a better life for its new generations”—describes more countries
than his own. Since the end of the Second World War, Western Europe has been
at the center of a labor migration that, in its proportions, rivals the
great forced migrations of the Roman Empire; and since the nineteen-fifties
and sixties, when Europe’s own empires unravelled, the strains of that
demographic shock have been compounded by what could be called an implosion
of difference, as the colonized fled the chaos—economic, tribal,
political—that the colonizers left behind. It is easier to manage difference
at a safe colonial remove than it is at home. To say that Europe was unaware
of this is an understatement.

Every country with an influx of migrant workers had to scramble toward some
sort of social formula to absorb them (or, as often as not, pretend that
they weren’t there). And before long those formulas had frozen into easy,
and, not surprisingly, competing, certainties—all of which have turned out
to be as shortsighted as the government-sponsored agents who first combed
Africa and Asia and the Indian subcontinent recruiting labor for Europe’s
postwar factories. There was the British “multicultural” model—or, to put it
perhaps more accurately, the “You will never be us” model. There was the
“We’ll support you, but please be invisible until you are us” Scandinavian
model. There was the “integrated but not assimilated” oxymoron called the
Dutch model. There was the “You’re guest workers, so you’ll be going home”
German model—which, until the late nineties, put off even the possibility of
citizenship for most immigrants and their children. Everyone had something
to contribute to this debate: the social theorists and social planners and
social workers and politicians and, of course, the people who hated
immigrants—everyone but the immigrants themselves, who were rarely
consulted. 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

The French model could be called the “You will be us” imperative. All
children born in France are citizens at birth, and citizenship, it was
believed, confers an instant, almost mystical “Frenchness” on them. But the
cités, as the immigrants call their projects, belied that fantasy. They were
social planning at its most earnest and its worst—the glitch in the French
republican case for assimilation. Back in the early fifties, when Le
Corbusier designed the first of these projects—Unité d’Habitation, on the
outskirts of Marseilles—they were called villes nouvelles and declared to be
the last word in progressive urban thinking. The idea at first was that soon
the middle classes, fleeing their crowded cities, would arrive, and
merchants would open stores and big business would start investing. But it
was hard to imagine anyone “French” moving to a project who didn’t have to.
Most of the immigrants had nowhere else to live.

The projects were huge, some of them built for as many as fifty thousand
people. And they were grim—cheaply made, almost impossibly monotonous (the
government said “modern”), and well beyond the pale of city life or, for
that matter, country life. Social psychologists were hired to make the
projects “friendly,” which is why you will occasionally find, say, circles
of faded pink or purple paint on the cinder-block walls. But there was
nothing to do in a cité, nowhere to go, nothing “French” to attach to.
Within a few years, the projects had deteriorated into slums; the new
ones—welfare ghettos, targets of choice for construction boondogglers—never
pretended to be anything else. The only real investment in most of the cités
was in cheap chain stores and in schools that taught Frenchness but had no
way of folding an immigrant’s child into anything resembling French life.
Children sang the “Marseillaise” and memorized the lengths of France’s
rivers, as their parents had in the colonies, but in most ways remained as
far from France as their parents had been.

The statistics you read about young Muslims in the cités are true: six times
the national unemployment rate; five times the incarceration rate. Some ten
per cent of France’s children are Muslim, and, like all children, they are
vulnerable to promises of a newer, “truer” identity that will transform
their lives. The problems in the cités today are arguably complicated by, or
perhaps obscured by, the politics of Islamic identity—by imported imams and
Islamist chat rooms and bin Laden posters in teen-age bedrooms—which may be
why, when the rioting started, the country’s politicians panicked to the
point of dazed withdrawal (President Jacques Chirac), or grandstand threats
of deportation (Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy), or meaningless
pronouncements about a plan for France (Prime Minister Dominique de

The riots were undeniably alarming, as much for the carnage—one man beaten
to death, sixty-five hundred buses and cars torched, a dozen schools set on
fire—as for the political incapacity they revealed. (The number of arrests
has, in fact, been small—a couple of thousand—compared with the fifteen
thousand arrests in October of 1961, when Algerians were demonstrating in
Paris.) By now, the rioting has become sporadic, but the rioters’ rage was
so self-punishing, so focussed on their own lives and neighborhoods, that an
obvious lesson should have been drawn by the Élysée the day the first bus
burned. The kids who are rioting hate their lives. They are lonely for
France; they are sickeningly disappointed in France, in the promise of
France. And, in desperation, they are attacking their own half-world cités.
They want the real cities, where the “French” live. A few years ago, the
Minister of Urban Affairs, Jean-Louis Borloo, took the unthinkable step of
demolishing tens of thousands of apartments in the worst of the cités.
Richard Descoing, the director of the Institut d’Études Politiques, or
Sciences Po, launched what amounts to an affirmative-action program—the
French called it “positive discrimination”—bringing bright young graduates
from the cités into one of the most prestigious schools in France. Those men
made the first cracks in the national myth that the badge of citizenship
makes happy citizens. But, so far, no one else has.

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