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The riots in France: The problems of ten years ago, today

The folowing has been shamelessly copied from the Chicago Tribune editoral article France in Flames. It's quoted instead of just a link becasue I don't know when the Tribune will take it down or put it under a subscription only licence. Oh, and it's very good.

France's glory is the city center, the stuff of travel books and postcards, where society's movers and shakers stroll on well-tended streets, dine in cafes, soak up centuries of culture in museums. But France's shame is on the city's outskirts, toward the end of subway lines, where impoverished immigrants, including Muslims of African and Arab descent, often congregate in characterless apartment blocks, out of sight and out of mind.


The society's split--the glory walled off from the shame--can no longer be ignored in the wake of the riots now sweeping through France.

The tumult began after two teens were electrocuted Oct. 27 at a power substation in a Paris suburb, Clichy-sous-Bois. Some in the neighborhood claimed police chased the teens, a charge denied by authorities. A spark literally became a fire, and rioters torched 15 vehicles in the area that is home to African and Arab communities.

Violence has spread to other areas and cities, fed by resentment among young men, fueled with flames that engulfed thousands of vehicles and terrorized neighborhoods. One man has been killed. Hundreds of people have been arrested. There has been some organization by the rioters--Internet blogs and text messages. There has also been a copycat quality. The more incidents have been televised the more other incidents have taken place.

The French government has reacted with spectacular ineptness, losing control of the streets. French President Jacques Chirac remained above the fray and out of touch until he finally spoke Sunday and told the country: "The law must have the last word."

The breakdown in law and order may have appeared days in the making. It wasn't. More like years.

Resentment has long seethed among some on the outskirts of French cities, especially among young men, the offspring of immigrants, desperate for jobs and respect in a society that has offered too little of either. France has grappled with issues of poverty and housing, made real efforts to improve the lives of its poorest people. But it has failed to successfully integrate immigrants from African and Arab countries, leading to disillusionment.

There was a brief, flicker of hope in 1998 when France saw itself as a melting pot, as the French national team, composed of players from diverse backgrounds, won soccer's World Cup. The people in the city and its outskirts were united. But that triumph, and that hope, have long since faded away.

France isn't alone in facing difficulties of assimilation. This is a wider, European problem, felt in countries such as Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, where immigrant groups congregate in neighborhoods and often remain separate and apart from the wider society. Assimilation lies at the heart of the European Union's ambivalence about extending membership to Turkey, a Muslim country. Europe cannot ignore the Middle East, cannot ignore Africa and cannot ignore the migration of people across the globe.

For now, though, it is France that rumbles with unrest, rumbles as shame collides with glory. The riots will eventually stop. Torched cars will be hauled away. But the wounds in the society will be harder to heal.

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Oddly enough, the first thing I thought of when I heard of the French riots (sadly from the Boing Boing article about it that contains a stupid and pointless joke in the first sentence) was the Rodney King riots from 1992. Apparently Europe has the same pockets of poor that America has been struggling with for years.

I used to see the ghettos of the United States and call America a two and a half world country, since these little third world countries seemed worlds away from the richer parts of our country. But, I'm sad to say, this is looking more and more like the norm for developed nations, and that's just shameful.

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More on the Rodney King Riots from Wikipedia

Signal Vs. Noise has a clear and easy to understand editoral on the France riots

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Posted on 09 November, 2005 | E-mail this post

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