RIOTS IN FRANCE
These last two weeks, a few friends, colleagues, and family members have expressed relief that I’m no longer in France and am back home…safely. They’ve been reading about and watching scenes of the urban violence that has gripped the French nation since the end of October. My father and I left Paris just as the violence was beginning; we weren’t actually aware of it until our return.
Those around me are kind in expressing relief for someone they care about, me, and in talking about the violence in France, they are bringing up a subject they know I care about, France. I point out that the violence has been confined to the immigrant ghettos that ring French cities. Tourists haven’t been targeted, and they never venture into those areas anyway. But I’m a little puzzled by the shock and surprise, even confusion, that I sense in conversation about the situation in France.
The riots in France come from within the economically and socially isolated postcolonial immigrant underclass, largely African and Muslim, in whose communities unemployment is more than three times the national average. The ugliness of racism, substandard housing, and harsh dealings with the police are daily realities. Additionally, the violence is set within the context of posturing for the upcoming French presidential elections in 2007, in which the ascending tough-talking Right offers what many view as inflammatory, insulting commentary about the immigrant communities in France; the more moderate centrist candidates talk of dialogue and action plans.
In thinking about what any kind of so-called action plan might look like, I’m reminded of the shared philosophy of former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who, in separate venues, both spoke recently of the political and human wisdom of extending generosity toward, of offering opportunities for those who face social and economic destitution. They both point out that, without hope, despairing people, whether rightly or wrongly, often turn to violence. And in many cases, as in France this month, that violence is turned inward onto the troubled community itself.
When I read about the riots across France, I see individual faces in my mind’s eye. Faces like the Arab men at the cybercafe around the corner from our Paris apartment. They run their own small business and are knit into the socio-economic fabric. But I wonder what they might turn to, what any one of us might turn to, had we no investment in the community in which we lived, no hope, no sense of a loving and promising future. I’ve seen it up close. My mother fit this exact profile. Her despair turned inward. She bought a revolver, and on December 14, 2002, pulled the trigger and ended her life.