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….



At 11:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I agree with your comments about the "riots" in the Paris and Lyon suburbs, with one small exception--or, rather, clarification. It may indeed be true, as you suggest, that the NY Times and Fox covered events fairly (I feel the same about the excellent coverage in Wall Street Journal Europe, too); however, I don't think the same could be said for CNN and BBC World. Their commentators, who were invariably speaking from a building looking out onto the Arc de Triomphe or the Eiffel Tower, always seemed to be talking with bated breath, as if the dangers were imminent--only a few hundred meters away--and as if they were talking at the risk of their very lives. I was also a little uncomfortable about the facile comparisons between the skirmishes in the suburbs and the LA riots or Chicago riots. Nor did I appreciate the way the media seemed to associate the "riots" with France's large Islamic population and even the head scarf issue.

Overall, it was difficult to separate the media wheat from the chaff.

Just another American in Paris.


At 7:33 PM, Anonymous Jeff Z said...

Steve: Like most Americans, I have to say that I was shocked by the anger the rioters have shown in support of the US.

Weren't you watching CNN?

At 10:06 PM, Blogger mission2moscow said...

Steve, good local perspective on things. What I wondered was, didn't anybody in France fight back? It seemed like the racaille have complete run of the place and nobody tried to defend their property. I'm not expecting Texas-style armed militias, but the only fighting spirit I read about came from Russian tourists who, in the true style of heroic Leningrad, fought some attacking hordes with cutlery. Is it a Gaullic shrug of the shoulders (as the NY Times would say) and nothing more?

At 2:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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." Yeah, what about these annoying little problems?

Your sister

At 2:59 PM, Blogger Saucy Lil' Tart said...

I want to be just like you, except swap France with Chile and we'll be in business. How did you just up and leave? And find viable employment in France?

At 2:06 AM, Blogger ben katz said...

Steve, I just got done filling out the profile on my blog, and I put "Time and Again" as a favorite book. I said to myself, I'll bet nobody else has that. But, lo, you and one other blogger did. And you're wearing a Mets hat to boot! Good work. Look forward to reading your blog. Au revoir.


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