Rioting in France

What’s Wrong With Europe?
Spiegel | November 7, 2005

By Rüdiger Falksohn, Thomas Hüetlin, Romain Leick, Alexander Smoltczyk and Gerald Traufetter

For 11 nights running, French police and firefighters have battled rioters on the streets of Paris suburbs — and the violence seems to be spreading. But the unrest in France is only the latest chapter in the difficulties Europe has been having integrating its immigrants.

Mayor Claude Dilain sits on the edge of his chair in his community’s wedding banquet hall. His hands are folded on the table in front of him, and his face is a tortured reflection of the doubts and fears inside him.

For the past 10 years, Claude Dilain, 57, has been the mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois, a suburb in northeastern Paris with 28,100 inhabitants, mostly immigrants. Dilain calls it “a powder keg.” He slightly resembles the French author Michel Houellebecq, but today he is paler than even the author normally is. The strain of the last few nights is no doubt part of it. But so too is a growing suspicion — that the modern welfare state may be fully incapable of addressing some of his community’s most pressing problems.

Dilain is a socialist and the vice-president of the French Convention of Municipal Authorities. He has been a proactive mayor, setting up free soccer training for local youth, appointing youth leaders as mediators and making sure that the community’s waste collection service functions properly. Clichy-sous-Bois is an amalgam of schools, daycare centers, welfare offices, parks and a college that looks like something out of an architecture competition. The community library is currently sponsoring a writing contest themed “I come from afar, I like my country.”

By any measure, Claude Dilain has done everything right. But these days he is filled with an ominous sense that doing things right may not be good enough.

What good is education without enough jobs?

Television news programs portray Clichy essentially as a Ramallah-sous-Bois, a place where young people in sneakers and hooded sweatshirts are trying their hand at revolution. They depict riot police armed with rubber bullets and tear gas patrolling streets lined with burning vehicles and garbage cans. A spokesman for the police officers’ union is calling for the government to bring in the military. And all this against the backdrop of concrete walls covered in brightly painted murals, the work of local children in a program sponsored by the mayor’s office.

Clichy-sous-Bois serves as evidence that the French route of soft integration has failed miserably. Of what use is education when there are no jobs? The hardnosed approach French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has taken has only made matters worse. And when Sarkozy, who has ambitions of becoming France’s president, called the youth gangs “scum” and “riffraff” who must be dealt with severely, he was only adding fuel to the fire.

The French capital has an intifada unfolding on its doorstep. For 11 nights running, garbage containers and vehicles have been burning in Departement Seine-Saint-Denis. Night after night, gangs of teenagers storm through their neighborhoods, throwing Molotov cocktails into carpet shops and nursery schools, turning vehicles into bonfires — 250 in one night, then 315 the next night, and 500 the next.

On October 27, two local teenagers died in circumstances that have yet to be clarified. They had been running from the police, it is said — although officials have since denied this was the case — and they ended up in a dead-end alley at the end of which was an electricity substation. The warning sign Mayor Dilain had had affixed to the building’s entrance — featuring comic book characters for the area’s youth — was no deterrent to 15-year-old Banou from Mali and his 17-year-old Tunisian friend, Ziad. They were electrocuted to death. A third boy survived but was seriously injured.

A rumor that the police had driven the two boys to their deaths quickly began to spread. There have been street riots every night since, and the French government is in a state of crisis.

The authorities have had trouble catching these urban guerillas. The number of arrests — 230 by last Friday, with even fewer convictions — has been small compared to the scope of the violence and destruction. On Sunday night, though, fully 190 people were taken into custody by French police after they were fired on by demonstrators in Grigny just south of Paris.

A grave danger for the republic

French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin remained silent on the matter for five days, creating the impression that they were passively looking on as the violence threatened to vaporize Sarkozy’s political ambitions. But then they recognized that the dramatic events in Clichy-sous-Bois could in fact pose a grave danger for the entire republic.

President Chirac was urged to speak directly to the French public in a televised address, which he finally did on Sunday evening. “Law and order must have the last word,” insisted Prime Minister de Villepin. The dynamic Sarkozy eventually came to life and cancelled all foreign trips, as did de Villepin. All three seem to have realized that integration à la française — which has transformed newcomers into citizens since the French Revolution — has failed.

The rioters are the children of immigrants from North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. Schools have been on holiday in France, giving these youths even more time on their hands, and it’s also the end of the Ramadan fasting period, a time when nerves are already on edge. Their rebellion is directed against anything that even remotely reminds them of state authority, even the mailman. They are beyond reason, and no one, not their parents, not their teachers and least of all the authorities can get through to them.

Social divisions in today’s French society run along ethnic and religious lines, and they also signify deep cultural rifts. The ideal of the French republic — the nation as a community of the willing, of citizens who enjoy equal rights, regardless of their ethnic origins or religious beliefs — is giving way to a volatile co-existence among communities that want to retain their identities and live according to their own rules. The official French position has always been to condemn multiculturalism — and yet the state must now deal with the consequences.

Between “us” and “them”

The strict separation of church and state, a sacrosanct pillar of French government, has become an illusion. Jihad may not be what’s inspiring the rioters, but Islam is undeniably an inseparable component of their self-identity. Islam strengthens their sense of solidarity, gives them the appearance of legitimacy and draws an unmistakable line between them and the others, the “French.”

Suddenly “big brothers” — devout bearded men from the mosques who wear long traditional robes — are positioning themselves between the authorities and the rioters in Clichy-sous-Bois, calling for order in the name of Allah. As thousands of voices shout “Allahu Akbar” from the windows of high-rise apartment buildings, shivers run down the spines of television viewers in their seemingly safe living rooms.

As welcome as these self-appointed keepers of the peace may be, worried authorities think they have detected something akin to a Muslim law enforcement group — perhaps even the beginnings of an Islamic militia. “The logic behind this unrest,” says one police officer, “is secession.” If he’s right, it would be a nightmare scenario of entire neighborhoods and communities separating themselves from the state and essentially declaring their independence, creating zones with their own laws, areas to which the authorities no longer have access unless they wish to be perceived as hostile intruders.

For the past 25 years, France has had special programs, plans and suburban ministries for its troubled neighborhoods. Indeed, the French have become almost accustomed to the sight of burning garbage containers in the poverty-stricken suburbs of cities like Paris, Lyon, Strasbourg and Marseille.

But the problems have now escalated, with authorities registering 70,000 cases of vandalism, arson and gang violence this year alone. No less than 28,000 vehicles — mostly belonging to the poor — have been set on fire.

The Molotov cocktails, the stone throwers and the fanaticism are all reminiscent of the student riots of 1968. But this time the rioters are not the avant-garde, their leaders no leftist intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre or Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

Generation Jihad

What is shaking the public order in Europe’s cities today is seething desperation that has erupted in directionless violence. The rioters’ targets can just as easily be the government in Paris as other members of the underclass, as was recently the case in Birmingham. Of course, the terrorist attacks in Madrid and London are also fresh in people’s minds.

It was merely a coincidence that Queen Elizabeth and British Prime Minister Tony Blair met with the family members of the 52 victims of the London subway and bus bombings last Tuesday to officially mourn their deaths on July 7. And it was also nothing but a coincidence that last Wednesday was the anniversary of the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist. But these are highly symbolic coincidences that have not gone unnoticed, as evidenced by a recent story in Time magazine that describes a “Generation Jihad” forming in Old Europe.

The events in Birmingham and the Paris suburbs are unrelated to terrorism. The riots are not about jihad, Iran or Palestine. But they have given rise to growing concerns that this urban violence could easily become a breeding ground for terrorist organizations like al-Qaida and other extremist groups.

According to official figures, France is home to a little over 5 million Muslims, the largest per capita concentration of Muslims in any country in the European Union. However, the official count is viewed as unreliable; religious affiliation is not recorded in the French census. France’s Muslims feel marginalized, as do millions of other immigrants from former colonies throughout Europe, many of whom are unemployed. They live in suburban ghettos, unable to afford better neighborhoods. Now, with the ghettos turning in to battlefields, the notion that immigrants will voluntarily assimilate is proving questionable.

Of course, part of the problem lies in the sheer numbers of immigrants — and the fact that they tend to all live in the same place. Metropolitan Birmingham, Britain’s second-largest city, has a population of about a million, and just under a third are of African or Asian descent. Statisticians believe that Birmingham’s traditional white majority could become a minority in the next decade, and the same holds true for Amsterdam, now home to about 150 different nationalities.

Bowing to Mecca in Disneyland

Some Americans are calling this new Europe “Eurabia,” a reference to the growing influence of Islam and Arabic culture in Old Europe, despite its political and cultural roots in Christianity. Indeed, one out of 10 Dutch citizens was born abroad. Disneyland near Paris even offers prayer rooms for French Muslims. In Britain, immigrants from former colonies have mostly slipped into the poverty of ghettos.

How can the members of this “desperate and dangerous new underclass,” as social workers in Leeds call them, become responsible citizens? Who is preventing them from attacking one another, as was the case two weeks ago in Birmingham?

It doesn’t take much for violence to erupt. The recent unrest in Lozells, one of Birmingham’s poorest neighborhoods, claimed 2 lives, 20 injured and a large number of smashed windows and torched vehicles. The violence erupted when young Asians, most of whose parents came from Pakistan and India, clashed with the children of immigrants from the Caribbean.

In Birmingham, the violence was triggered by a rumor that Ajaib Hussein, the owner of a successful cosmetics business, had caught a 14-year-old Jamaican girl shoplifting and then, joined by up to 25 acquaintances and employees, raped the girl. There is no evidence that the incident ever occurred, nor that the alleged victim even existed. But the suspicion alone — just as in Clichy-sous-Bois — was enough to ignite the worst violence in Birmingham in more than 20 years, evidence of the enormous tensions in suburbs with a similar social makeup.

In Lozells, home to about 30,000 people, more than half of residents are of Asian origin and 20 percent are Caribbean. The district’s 22 percent unemployment rate is almost three times as high as in the entire Birmingham region. “People here have to fight for every crumb that falls from the tables of the wealthy,” says black Bishop Joe Aldred.

The violence is fed by street gangs like the “Muslim Birmingham Panthers” and the “Burger Bar Boys,” groups that originally formed to protect residents against racist attacks. They have since turned into crime syndicates, and Lozells has become a metaphor for Britain’s failed integration and immigration policies, a community that the government can only control through tough policing. Ghettos like those in Chicago and Miami have appeared, say experts, and the anger of those who live there is directed at neighbors with different skin colors and bigger television sets — and not at the “infidels of the West.”

“Black holes”

Britain’s white establishment, warns Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality, is “sleep-walking” into a future where cites will be full of “black holes.” Recent surveys conclude that 95 percent of all white Britons have exclusively white friends, that 37 percent of non-white residents also prefer to socialize with their own, and that this trend is on the rise, especially among young people. In places like Lozells, only one in 15 children succeeds in climbing the social ladder.

Such neighborhoods are fertile recruiting grounds for fundamentalists, because “the majority of Muslims in Great Britain are frustrated but cannot talk about it,” says Sayid Sharif, 37, an immigrant and construction engineer from North London. “They would never publicly express approval of the London attacks, but they secretly believe that Great Britain got what it deserved.”

Official Britain mourned the victims of the July 7 bombings just last week — psychologists recommended not marking the attacks earlier. A few days later on the other side of the channel, the Netherlands marked the first anniversary of the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. He was killed by an unemployed Moroccan extremist.

The Dutch also face the ruins of their own integration policy, long considered exemplary. Indeed, for American terrorism expert Jessica Stern, the Netherlands is “a laboratory that’s especially well-suited for studying the development of fear.” Stern is astonished at how the murder of a single individual can affect an entire country. “How can a nation suddenly become so consumed by self-doubt? And how can it be that not just the Muslims, but also the native Dutch find themselves in such an identity crisis?

Is this integration? Sixty percent of the Netherlands’ 1 million Muslims see themselves as Moroccans or Turks first, are often proud of their norms and values and seek comfort in their own communities. This creates parallel worlds so disparate that immigrant children speak of “the Dutch” as enemies. Their siblings attend Koran schools and more and more Muslim women now wear head scarves in public. Interactions between Muslims and the native Dutch are becoming increasingly abrasive, especially in public places like Amsterdam’s shopping streets.

No more tea

Journalists, attorneys and politicians of every stripe have been receiving anonymous threats. Even Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen, named one of Time magazine’s “European heroes” of 2005 because of his conciliatory stance, now needs bodyguards. And Dutch authorities are installing more and more surveillance cameras in the country’s most volatile urban neighborhoods.

“We were too soft. The days of drinking tea are over,” says Dutch Minister of Immigration Rita Verdonk, who has adopted a hard-line approach toward troublemakers. Her officials have increasingly taken to deporting rejected asylum seekers, including those who were previously tolerated and whose children even attended Dutch schools.

According to a statistic compiled by the Anne Frank Foundation, there have been 106 reciprocal acts of revenge since the Van Gogh murder, including the firebombing of the Muslim Bedir Elementary School in the tranquil town of Uden by a youth gang that left behind a clear message to the country’s Muslims: “White Power.”

The combat zone is expanding, mirroring the scenario pale author Michel Houellebecq described in his latest bestseller. And it seems as if Europe’s rootless immigrants are changing life on the continent in dramatic ways, with Birmingham and the Paris suburbs providing a taste of what may well be in Europe’s future.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

 

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