Friday, November 04, 2005

The Paris Intifada

The French riots are now charging ahead full steam into their second week, and seem if anything to be growing. Almost every night the early press dispatches indicate that things are getting better, and by the next morning it is clear that they are not. Most recently, small-scale violence has spread out of metro Paris and into Dijon, Marseille and Rouen.

In discussing them it is probably best to start with some perspective. The destruction and death (no one has yet died in the France riots) were far greater in the 1992 Los Angeles riots and in those all across the country in the late 1960s. But it is also true that in the L.A. case order was restored within days (the riots began on a Wednesday, and the curfew was lifted on Sunday, after things had more or less calmed down by Saturday). That French law enforcement appears to be so inadequate to the task is a sign, perhaps, that French tax revenues are already spoken for, that the French government was utterly naïve about the amount of rebellion in the air in the banlieues, or both. But that the French state is performing so badly (more and more across the nation) in its most basic function, preserving order, is ominous. It is a sign of the fragility of civilization’s thin blue line, reminiscent of our own recent experiences in New Orleans.

Here are some facts about France, none of which are particularly comforting for its future. Unemployment has exceeded eight percent for over twenty years. As of 2004, according to the OECD, 41.6 percent of the unemployed had been unemployed for at least a year. (The comparable figure for the U.S. is 12.7 percent.) The unemployment rate for those under 25 is 22.7 percent. Press reports indicate that for young Arab and African men it is more like 35 percent.

Numerous reports, particularly outside the Legacy Media, are depicting the events as a specifically Islamic rebellion. (Here, for example.) I am not convinced. Many of the press photos depict young blacks, who are often descendants of people who came from West Africa and, I assume, are often not Muslim themselves. (During the shocking assault on thousands of protesting high-school students in Paris in March there was a similar mix of blacks and Arabs.) It is hard to know for sure about the tribal composition of the rioters because the French government, in the name of a (largely fictitious) pursuit of a French citizenship that is above and beyond tribe, refuses to collect racial and religious data in its censuses. That is a fine policy based on sound post-tribal principles, but at times like this I regret the lack of better data. Many people speculate that a lot of the violence is by small-time criminal gangs eager to expand their domains by expelling the police. These riots may be more in the nature of the L.A. riots, which after the first few hours stopped being about anger over the Rodney King verdict and quickly became an opportunity to clean out every merchant with anything worth taking, than a pure insurrection. But if you are someone whose store has been burned, or a disabled woman covered with gasoline and set on fire, the motivation is immaterial. And drug traffickers and hoodlums are just as eager to defend their interests as any religiously motivated warrior, and so over the next few years this will get worse before it gets better.

It is broadly speaking in the nature of young men everywhere and at all times to be tribalistic and to tend toward violence and impulsiveness. Indeed, one of the primary functions of civilization is to bring these instincts under control and channel them toward more productive ends (e.g., achievement through peaceful competition, in the market or elsewhere). Because the residents of the suburbs are residents of a society that makes choices that cuts off all opportunities for them (and indeed many French of all tribes and neighborhoods) to work while contemptuously buying them off by smothering them with the welfare state, civilization in France is increasingly unable to perform this function. The inability of the rioters to become normal, self-supporting people in charge of their own destiny because of the sickly French economy, the confinement into these gigantic ghettoes (which lower the organizing costs of rebellion) and the willful denial until recently by French authorities of the spread of an ideology and a mindset that rejects any allegiance to their republic make for poisonous seeds that are now bearing bitter fruit. The French government seems to be reverting to what it knows best, getting ready to offer more make-work, more benefits, more multiculturalism. But that is what got them into this mess, and is at this point merely a recipe for making it worse.


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