Americans should not take unseemly unsatisfaction from the spectacle of France’s riots. Oh, why not? Like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, the French leadership shines and stinks. Dominique de Villepin, with his pompadour and his potted biography of Napoleon; Jacques Chirac, protected only by the presidency from the slammer — these jewels in the crown of Gallic civilization thought they could earn the affection of their Muslim helots by truckling to Saddam Hussein: you’ll love us, even though you chop wood and haul water, because we take oil for food bribes.
But now, after more than a week of arson and uproar, it turns out that France’s Arabs don’t like France any more than we do. Now maybe Froggy knows what we feel like: we liberated them, and were rewarded by 60 years of ingratitude. They kissed Saddamite ass, and are being rewarded by son et lumiere.
All right, stop. If this goes on, there will be Jerry Lewis jokes. What, if we want to be thoughtful, is an American to think?
Americans have to get used to the notion of cities rotting from their periphery. Paris itself, from Sainte-Chapelle to the Pompidou Center, is safe, an urban ode to rationality: what Washington, D.C. might become in 500 years if it were a real place. The immigrant poor, and their children, are consigned to lower-class housing in the suburbs, which reflects the bastard aesthetic of Stalinism and Bauhaus. You’d riot too if you had to live in such ugly places.
Americans also have to get used to the relative calm of these riots, at least in the early stages. When the lid blows off here — and it is greatly to our shame that this should be so — people die. Fifty-five people were killed after the Rodney King verdict. Yet for 10 days what we saw from France was burning stores, cars and buses. A crippled woman almost died in a firebombed bus, but she was carried out by the heroic driver. One person died on Monday. This is mild, not only by our norms, but by the standards of French history. How many thousands died in the Algerian rebellion, or the Paris Commune, or the June days? One must conclude (talk about squinting for silver linings) that both sides are pulling their punches.
It is easy to see why the cops should be pulling their punches. The establishment simply doesn’t know what to do. In the early going Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy talked about “zero tolerance” for “scum.” But the French government seems to have reflected that a policy of zero tolerance may require the use of maximum force. If you’re serious about zero, then you have to be willing to do anything. And how are you going to do that when the actions you refuse to tolerate are being committed by members of an ethnic minority that is edging towards one-tenth of the population, and a quarter of the country’s young people?
If the police or the army did what French rulers have done in the past, and what, with their instinct for riding a train of thought all the way to the end of the line they might still be capable of doing, what would be the result? The explosions of French history have long aftershocks.
Louis XIV made French Protestants second-class citizens — and Protestant Europe fought him and his heirs for a century. The French Revolution dethroned the Catholic Church — and some French Catholics didn’t get over it until Vichy. If the French state cracks down now, they may be cracking down on into the 22nd century.
France’s Arabs must be equally perplexed. One of them reportedly expressed the hope, as poignant as it is impossible, that his community should just be “left alone.” If they wanted to be left alone, then they could have stayed in Morocco, or wherever they or their parents came from. They didn’t, because those places were poor. To be left alone now that they are in France means being left permanently outside the mainstream of French life. When they are employed, they can do grunt work; when they’re not, they can lie in the safety net. A few lucky individuals may become soccer stars or super models; others will pursue local politics, the traditional permanent career of outsiders.
For the rest, being left alone will mean sitting in self-made Bantustans. Their street address may be in Clichy-sous-Bois, but their mental address will still be the North African village, or slum; except that it will be a village or slum surrounded by the inducements and frustrations — drugs, girls, advertising —of postmodern Western life. Bright lights, no city. Living in a hut, outside the candy store. Segregationist policies didn’t work in South Africa, when the rulers imposed them on the ruled; they won’t work in France, even if the ruled impose them on themselves.
So what are they doing in the streets? They are not numerous enough to rule the state (or not yet). They could, at a maximum, divvy it up, compelling the government to make their neighborhoods formally as insular as they are now in fact. Mostly they want attention, and to scare people. And then it’s back to square one, until the next riot. Maybe in some cave in Pakistan, Osama is plotting to blow up the Eiffel Tower. But these riots are less dramatic than 9/11, and more intractable.
What France mostly feels is the pathos of a former great power. The Italians, except for an outburst under Mussolini, wisely gave the game up centuries ago, and have devoted themselves to the arts, and the arts of living, the eye and the palette. But the French are still too close to —though very far from — Jena and the Marne; too close even to a showboat like de Gaulle. They might be fine, if they could perform a selective lobotomy. Stick the Arc de Triomphe and its pompous statuary in the Louvre, where it belongs. Write books; eat bread; learn Arabic. That is their future.