16 days ago in a town at the North of Paris, two teenagers died electrified in a building of the national electric company where they had tried to hide from policemen who they thought, rightly or not, were after them. This led to street fights between inhabitants of their neighbourhood and the police forces. Violent events such as these are rather common; they can happen more than once a year following tragic events due to police violence. La Haine, a fairly well known movies dealing with the topic of the lives of kids in the Parisian suburbs, shows events of the kind. Usually they stop after a few days and remain located in one particular neighbourhood. This time however things are different. After only two days, the violence started to spread in the towns around, and quickly reached many of the towns at the North of Paris before contaminating other towns further away and in the Southern suburbs as well. In these places some cars, buses and even buildings were burnt. After 5 days many of the largest towns of the country were touched by the phenomenon prompting the President to declare the “state of urgency” which allows the local representatives of the government to establish a curfew in restricted areas for kids under a certain aged which aren’t accompanied.
These events attracted massive attention not only from the French press but also from the media in many foreign countries as well. It seems clear to me that the further one is away from events like this, geographically and sociologically, the more grotesque the representations given are. The Portuguese government told its nationals living close to Paris that they could contact their authorities to organise their return to Portugal if threatened by the burning cars. The Chinese Government encouraged their nationals not to plan any trips to France under the current circumstances. These reactions are quite simply ridiculous.
I can’t explain what is happening, it would be too presumptuous as even sociologists are very cautious on this issue. What I should do however is state what is not accurate.
Firstly, neither France, nor even Paris, are “burning” as the Independent and many French newspapers were saying on their first pages a few days ago. I know that the press needs to sell and that the more tragic an event, the more copies are sold, I also know that fire exercises a strange attraction on most people but this image of France burning is an outrageous exaggeration. There are fights with the police in precise neighbourhoods. Cars, a few buses and some buildings were put on fire but the events take place sporadically. In the street where I park my car, a car was burnt and there was probably another 300 meters away and another again maybe a few kilometres away. The kids that do this put one car on fire and run away quickly, someone phones the fire department and the fire is put off rapidly. The images shown on TV tend to make you think that the fire is everywhere and that everyone is threatened but it isn’t the case at all.
Secondly it is implied by the comments made and the explanations given that only sons and daughters of immigrants take part in these violent events and that most of them are Muslims. This also is completely false. Many of the people participating in the events are born from French parents and in the whole there is absolutely no reason to think that a majority of the kids are ‘Muslims’. Some are of course, but many aren’t, so the focalisation of the media on that point is uncalled for and stems more from an irrational fear of Islam than any fact-based observation. If the frustration caused by the racism of the French society towards some of them is certainly an important factor, it probably isn’t as important as many comments let on, since many of the participants in those events are not concerned directly by racism.
Far from being dangerous Islamic soldiers described by Le Pen and his followers or professional gangsters protecting their business, as Sarkozy sees them, the majority of the people involved are just kids, just teenagers. Many are involved in some kind of competition with kids from rival neighbourhoods; it’s down to which neighbourhood will burn more cars. The media took one week to realize that making the number of cars burnt during the previous night the main news of the day was the best way to encourage others kids to beat the record. For those reasons amongst others, it seems to me that the comparison with the events of May 68 is not telling at all. In 1968 there were students of course but also workers, professors, politicians etc. In other words, the kids involved were guided by adults. It isn’t the case here.
There are some simple conclusions that I think can be drawn already: 1/ burning cars is an efficient way to get the State and society to realize that special efforts need to be made by the State to finance social and cultural public interventions in the neighbourhoods where there is more unemployment, poverty and crime. Indeed, the Prime minister promised to allocate a very large amount of money to the suburbs. 2/ politicians on this issue are not divided mainly according to ideological distinctions, the division is between local politician (from the right and from the left) and national ones. The former are fed up with the unproductive political games of the ladder. 3/ Sarkozy is a dangerous man, he will not hesitate to encourage violence if he can get political benefits out of it. 4/ the only thing as dangerous as his kind of politicians is the media when it behaves like it did for the past 2 weeks: counting the burned cars, keeping score between the different neighbourhoods, and showing images of the kids fighting the police making them look like Indians taking on the cavalry.