Thursday, November 10, 2005


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.


PaulD said...

It is good that you are back safe & sound, and more than that, that your trip was not marred by those upheavals, necessary as they may be. And now it is good also to get your fresh-from-there prespective.

With regard to the notion that Americans may present "shock and surprise, even confusion, conversation about the situation in France", I believe that is, in part, because Americans in general have too little knowledge of what real conditions are like in other parts of the world, and in particular, an idealized sense of advanced culture in places such as France. Indeed, we are then surprised when we learn that any government may fall short of their image, and that all people hold hope and aspiration for a better life.

I agree, Clinton had it exactly right the other night, and Carter is miles ahead of the rest.

In disillusionment and dispair some will turn their frustration outward, and of course, some will turn inwards.

PaulD said...

Sorry, in the haste of my hurried and scattered thinking I neglected to complete my thought on "shock and surprise" at situations around the world, and especially social disillusionment and revolt in modern western Europe.

I suspect that the "knowing too little" comes from our own great need to be focused on the massive amount information closer to home where most of us struggle to maintain our equilibrium if not our day-to-day existence. To the extent that we find ourselves that focused, we probably have less time than we need to search out conditions in the world community, much less travel to them.

Certain angst of course results, as we are presented more and more with those realities by the wonders of advanced technologies. And the angst often appears as shock and surprise. And now, Avery is awake and calling.

Felicity said...

My best friend is bipolar, and I worry about her despair turning inward like your mom. My friend is so social and shares her happiness (radiance?)with great joy, pulling you in on her adventures and latest findings. She truly is the most intelligent and intersting person I've evr met. When she is sad though, she quietly disappears from the radar. You suddenly think - oh that's funny, I haven't heard from her in a while. Fortunately gun laws are very strict in Australia, but the ocean surrounds her and calls to her often. I hope she lives into her sixties.