Monday, November 28, 2005

Egalité?

I started writing a post about the riots in France while they were still going on. I wasn't satisfied with the post despite repeated attempts to edit it. Here, at last, I am posting it.

The scenes of arson and rioting from the Paris suburbs were upsetting. Francophile that I am I had hoped that France had fewer problems with race and class than we do here in the U.S. The fact that the poor people one sees in France are almost all people of color went some way towards dispelling that notion. Incidents such as the recent unrest bury the illusion for good.

The reactions of the French people (as reported in the U.S press) were interesting. The coverage in The New York Times emphasized the opposition to the government's invocation of a law that was used to suppress dissent during the Algerian Crisis in the 1950s. The concern with the provenance of the particular law the government was citing was bizarre. Echoes of the Algerian war for independence were obviously something that one would wish to avoid in this situation, but the government had to do something to restore order and this was a law that was still on the books, so why not use it? Does anyone believe that the youths setting fire to cars care that the law they might get prosecuted under was also used against Algerians in the 1950s?

The values of the Republic are up against the realities of racism. There is no explanation, other than racism, for the segregation of people of color into poor ghettos. One thought that occurred to me many times during the riots was that the situation was not all that different from the riots that hit U.S. ghettos in the 1960s. Officially ignoring race and religion in determining government policy is noble in concept, but when race and religion play such a large role in determining one's opportunities, such a color-blind view is obviously unrealistic.

That said, the rioters should be prosecuted. And, if one is unwilling to live by the values of the society where one lives, one should consider why one is living in that society.

...the principal victims of the rioters are the little people, workers of all origins who live in the same apartment buildings and have watched as their cars and other belongings go up in smoke. Where is the indignation of the majority of the French against these insurgents who terrorize the weakest members of our society? Why have groups of citizens not banded together to peacefully protect public and private property?

—Pascal Bruckner, in The New Republic

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