Tuesday, November 08, 2005

# Posted 3:58 AM by Patrick Belton  

JUST BECAUSE I'M NOT POSTING DOESN'T MEAN I'M DEAD DEPT: Only that there aren't nearly enough internet spots in the banlieues. No wonder they're rioting. A few quick observations from my first interviews, before I catch the RER up to Aulnay-sous-Bois; then I'll try to write more extensively this afternoon:

There is, in speaking with its people at its cafes and on its streetcorners, a sense of malaise these days in Paris, which I think you could probe further by juxtaposing the despair of the banlieu rioters with the stories of the increasing numbers of graduates of Paris's leading business schools who go to Britain upon graduation, or those of postgraduate degree holders working as postmen. All have in their way given up on the French dream, a comfortable lifestyle sheltered by an extensive and humane welfare state. The Dalrympean take, I suppose, would be to say that in both cases it's the unproductivity of the French economy that's partially to blame, particularly after the massive explosion in the size of the state during the early Mitterand years. People who during their days at Science Po took easily for granted the superiority of the French model, with its educated technocracy and comfortable standards of living, now despair over it. The operatic trio of Chirac (who, in the one sentence all American schoolchildren are taught in school, is un ver), Sarkozy (not only his former political son but, as his daughter's one-time lover, nearly his one by marriage as well), and Villepin may make for lovely libretto, but not for conspicuously good governance: Chirac's eerie absence from the airwaves until Sunday night led commentators to suspect that perhaps he and his preferred successor Villepin wouldn't mind too terribly much if it took a few more days for this to quiet down when the weather turns disagreeable, and the blame were deposited solidly on Sarko's door.

The police presence of the French state is everywhere: if not in Clichy and Aulnay, then at very least along the Champs and by the Place de la Concorde. Last night I was surprised to count ten police cars by the Elysee metro station (in a row, to cite a song from the wrong side of the Channel), then by the American embassy two entire large buses of Gendarmerie (painted blue, no police light on top though, however cool though that might have been) and the odd plainclothes unit (they being the ones who look like cops in suits, rather than French people in suits.)

Commentators have compared the loi sur la voile to the Dreyfus affair, manufactured by the French political class without necessity to reflect the fact the Republic regards some of its citoyens with suspicion. That it doesn't is clear enough: unemployment is high among all sectors of the French economy, but holding constant for education and age, it doubles among France's Muslims, the Algerian and Moroccan descendants who are in this regard the converse of the more professional, and more Levantine, American Muslim community who in educational attainment, salary, and employment rate exceed America's non-Muslims.

Paris is burning. It has done so before. Those of 1848 were the street riots of modernism, heralding enlightenment and republicanism versus the restoration of the ancien regime. The soixante-huitards's were those of postmodernity, seeking to resituate the individual and power at the centre of a discourse which modernity and liberalism's had to their view hidden. One is tempted to see in 2005 the riots of the atavistic, but that would be overdrawing the issue - they are the riots of Newark, Watts, and Brixton come to Paris. Those residents of the banlieues who are religious, even Islamist, are not the ones who are throwing stones or assaulting the Marais's Jews (whatever international activity some of their number may get up to to the side). Contra one recent meme of commentary, the problem of the banleieus in a sense is not that its inhabitants are Muslim, but that they are not.

France's Muslim population is, at 5 million, the largest in Europe. (Germany's comes next at 2 million, and the United Kingdom at 1.5 mn.) I'm off to talk to some of them. I spoke this morning with someone whom I asked, if I wanted to get to the banlieues, which was the best route. His response was to take issue with the premise of my question.
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