Tonight, three eminent Yale intellects — Frederic Vandenberghe, John Merriman and Seyla Benhabib — will discuss the causes of the riots in France and situate them in the broader context of Europe at its multicultural crossroads.
Following three explosive weeks of rioting in November, it was clear to all that France, and much of Europe along with it, faced an epochal moment. But the struggle over diagnosing the “profound malaise” rotting at Europe’s core — acknowledged by French President Chirac — is more contentious.
Bombings in London and assassinations in Amsterdam had already intensified a sense of imminent crisis festering in Europe’s immigrant quarters. Demagogic right-wing leaders across the continent masked their xenophobia by pointing to an even greater intolerance: the immigrants’ Islam — ghettoized, backward and fundamentally incompatible with the benign, enlightened values of a multicultural Europe. Accordingly, the clash of civilizations raged not only in devastated Afghanistan and Iraq, but in the rubble of a Madrid train station. And, if the pot had not already come to a boil, the uprisings of youth of North African and sub-Saharan descent in nearly 300 French cities and towns blew the lid right off. But the nearly unprecedented scale of the uprising itself revealed a deeper social problem, one that can’t be willed away by declarations of a culture war.
To this day, unemployment rates in the largely immigrant ghettoes rank five times higher than elsewhere. The youth, offspring of immigrants from France’s former colonies, remain frozen out of jobs and mainstream society by a state which categorically refuses even to recognize their minority identities in censuses and government documentation. Arguably, the riots were a last resort for those suffocated by their total marginalization and near invisibility in greater France. Now, even hawkish Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has recognized that France’s systemic racism can only be redressed through positive discrimination — concrete affirmative action for disenfranchised minorities.
But while Sarkozy pushes this platform as the centerpiece of a presidential campaign, many in France see him as the villain, not the hero. Mock posters sprang up in Paris in late December, displaying his face along with the caption “Vote Le Pen!” — thereby twinning the center-right Interior Minister with the leader of France’s far-right National Front. Jean-Marie Le Pen had long campaigned against the largely Muslim immigrant communities, championing a set of politics that perhaps took root during his days torturing detainees as a French paratrooper in the Algerian War for Independence. Now, as the French government just resurrected curfew and emergency laws first used in Algeria against the grandparents of many of the recent rioters, Le Pen’s extremist rhetoric has found tremendous traction amongst a substantial segment of the French population.
Sarkozy echoed Le Pen’s hardline sentiments, earlier declaring that he’d clean out Paris’ suburban projects with an industrial-strength power-hose. His position of “zero tolerance” and unmitigated support for repressive police measures pandered to Le Pen’s racist constituency and nationalist sympathizers, while stoking the flames of unrest in the disaffected immigrant estates. Branding the rioters “louts” and “scum,” Sarkozy insisted that all non-citizens arrested for rioting would be immediately deported, irrespective of the legality of their immigrant status.
Yet, while the riots bolstered the ranks of the National Front and vindicated Le Pen’s hyper-nationalism, it stirred other voices of French and European society as well. Amongst the more unlikely is Mathieu Kassovitz, the award-winning French director. Kassovitz’s directorial debut, “La Haine,” or “Hate” (1995) — which was screened by The Hippolytic following Thanksgiving break — chronicles a day in the life of three working-class immigrant youths after a night of rioting and looting lights up their suburban neighborhood. Comedic and coarse, the film sketches the youths’ friendship across a bleak landscape of alienation, shaped by sweeping police brutality and institutionalized racism.
Sensing the power of his own vision, Kassovitz chimed in with a public statement following the second week of rioting. He recognized that “sound and fury are the only means for many communities to make themselves heard.” Moreover, Kassovitz asserted, as “La Haine” suggests, “the repression of terror by terror never won wars; it only helped to sustain them.” He twinned grandstanding “Napoleonic” Sarkozy with the vastly unpopular George W. Bush, claiming that “like Bush, [Sarkozy] does not defend an idea, he responds to the fears that he himself instills in people’s heads.” The riots gripping France, therefore, are in Kassovitz’s words nothing short of an “Intifada” — an insurrection against a fundamentally unjust system. Only a real program of economic rejuvenation and social justice can build the civic solidarity that would address the root causes of the nationwide riots, and dispel the hopelessness and disaffection immortalized by “La Haine” a decade ago.
Ishaan Tharoor is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. He is editor-in-chief of The Hippolytic.