If you’ve been following the news lately you would have seen reports of rioting outside Paris. Unfortunately due to the language barrier it’s harder to get a feel for what the *French* actually think about these events. So I wanted to find someone who could give a better perspective on how the events are being presented in the French media.
These thoughts are from someone who you could only describe as a francophile. If there was anyone who was simply born in the wrong country, he would be the man. As such he is a fluent French speaker and follows French news very closely. So I asked him to give his opinion of the current situation… here is what he had to say.
What I’ve seen from reports on France 2, Liberation, Le Figaro and le Monde is that in one of the “sensitive” suburbs of Paris, two youth might have committed a robbery and were hiding in a transmission/transformer site, got into the equipment and were electrocuted. Some people said they were fleeing the police and were the victims of police harassment. As is often the case, little seems to have been established about the original accident, but whatever happened, the residents of the neighbourhood were upset, and as sometimes happens, some of them took it out on anything and everything that fell to hand: burning cars seems to be a favourite. Into this cauldron of discontent stepped the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is hoping to ride a law and order platform to the presidency in 2007. Everything he said seemed to inflame the situation. There is large-scale discontent throughout the country as people see life getting more difficult, and the successive governments of Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Dominique de Villepin have done nothing to improve the situation as they move ahead with the privatization of major state companies and do nothing to prevent the layoffs and off-shoring of jobs that have become part of the global economy. The suburbs of Paris are often composed of high-rise low-cost housing that has fallen into disrepair and has become a hotbed of Islamic discontent and gang activity. Unemployment is high and many of the jobs on offer are low-paying, have few or no benefits and offer little in the way of security. Life is not comfortable for the residents of these areas and there is little opportunity to move elsewhere or to find better work elsewhere. It reminds me very much of riots in Watts, in Detroit and of recent outbreaks in Ohio. I believe we also saw something not too different in Manchester, in England. There were also similar incidents in Strasbourg last winter.
My own reading of this is that it is part of a pattern of frustration at dispossession and disenfranchisement, especially when governments speak of employment being the highest priority, and then cutting taxes on the rich and on large corporations. It is frustration at seeing a gap develop between haves and have-nots in what was once a more egalitarian society, in a country where the majority consistently polls a desire to have a strong program of social spending and where the government does the opposite. Strange, it sounds a lot like Canada! The difference is that we have yet to reach the stage of slum development that seems to have overtaken England and France over the last thirty or forty years, but it surely looks as though at least Toronto is headed in that direction with its newfound love of gunplay.
Most of us tend to think of Paris as being that fabulous area within the boundaries of the old walls of the city, the Seine, Notre Dame, the Opera, the Grands Magasins, the Latin Quarter and the like. But there are kilometers and kilometers of urban blight all around that gem in the center, and parts of that blight are starting to look like the slums of the American rust belt, often for what looks like many of the same reasons. Hence the reaction to the death of a couple of young men and the callousness of the Interior Minister.
You can read more of what Danneau has to say at his website.