Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Riot Act

There have been so many events in the last few months that I could be blogging about, but I've decided to devote my energies to more healthy activities, such as sleeping. There have been other factors, too, in my silence since early September. The rest of that month I had so much work that I could have cut myself in two and both halves would have been busy. Then in October I spent most of the free time I had promoting a Princeton Nassoons concert. This experience alone is worth a detailed blog post. But it will have to wait for another day.

Several people have asked me about the situation in France over the past two weeks. All of these requests for information seem born of genuine concern for me and my family, and I would like to thank everyone for that.

Yes, we are fine, and indeed during the first week or so of the “urban violence” – there seems to be a reluctance to use the word “riots” – the only way I knew there was anything going on was by tuning into the usual media suspects.

Then events spread to Lyon suburbs and public transport here started to be disrupted. A city bus was attacked and someone threw a Molotov cocktail into a metro train. So since Thursday all trains and buses have been stopping between 6 and 7pm. This meant that just before 6pm on Thursday, prior to the three-day Armistice Day weekend, the Lyon subway was more packed than I have ever seen it (like the 4 and 5 trains at rush hour, for those New Yorkers who want a point of reference). After 7pm there were massive traffic jams, because so many people had decided to take their cars instead of public transport. A Moroccan friend said a lot of people she knew were parking their cars in the center of Lyon. Some of them chose to walk home.

In the last two weeks we have seen reassuring confirmation that rioters in France can be just as stupid as rioters elsewhere. I read an interview in Le Monde with some "jeunes émeutiers", young rioters. They don't like to be called "casseurs" – which could be translated simply as vandals - because jeunes émeutiers are fighting for a cause, you see. They explained that they attacked schools because school had not done them any good. So they were taking revenge. Get it? The same goes for other local infrastructure (community centers, swimming pools), not to mention all the cars, which all belonged to people living right in their neighborhoods. If they had wanted to campaign for Jean-Marie Le Pen and the Front National, they couldn't have found a more effective way.

Yesterday, S. went shopping in Place Bellecour, Lyon’s urban plaza centerpiece, and she saw police lined up in riot gear along some streets. She looked around, assessed the scene and thought to herself: this won’t go down well with certain young people. Sure enough, we heard later that there had been some skirmishes with police. We read in today’s Le Progrès that the police had got wind of plans to trash the city centre … and were ready for them. It didn’t last long.

Surely this is part of the answer to the question of why rioters trash their own neighborhood. To take the “battle” to another neighborhood, you have to be organized. And you have to be experienced enough in underground organization to make sure the police don’t find out what you’re up to. The thirteen-year-olds arrested yesterday clearly had not yet acquired those skills.

Of course, the causes go a lot deeper; these riots are an expression of pent-up anger, frustration and despair about discrimination, unemployment and the other ills of ghetto life. The few articles I’ve read in the US press (New York Times to Fox News with little in between) seemed an accurate summary of the situation. There has been a lot of comparison of the various integration models – the German “guest worker” model, the UK or US pluralistic models and the French melting pot model – and a lot of talk, for good reason, of the failure of the French model. It’s a model that most French people I know feel very strongly about and that worked quite well, up until about a generation ago.

I wonder how much longer Nicolas Sarkozy is going to last as interior minister in this government. He's too sure of himself, too angry, too politically motivated and ... too humorless to be effective. But the things he says make a lot of sense. Maybe Sarkozy isn't going far enough. He now says he wants any foreigners convicted of rioting to be expelled from the country. I'd like to find a way, whether they are French or foreign, to remove them from the gene pool. But on a 1-10 scale of human misery, cruelty and stupidity, these events probably rank only about a 3, so I suppose they don’t deserve that much priority. If at least they could have the Riot Act read to them….