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On Monday, two French colleagues and I were talking at a chi-chi café in Paris when we saw a group of police officers in battle regalia boarding a bus just outside our window. "I think we can guess where they're going," one of my friends remarked. Sharp inhalations all around, followed by raised eyebrows.
Our awkward and nervous reaction to those policemen initially struck me as somewhat pitifula stinging example of the French bourgeoisie's intellectual detachment from the riots in the city suburbs. Why were we sitting in this café? Why didn't we march to Clichy-Sous-Bois, or La Courneuve, or Aulnay-Sous-Bois, where some of the most violent protests were taking place?
But now, with the riots finally winding down, the café culture's reluctance to engage the riotsits choice of distance (or what the French call recul) seems the right response to the events of the past two weeks. As the cars stop burning and some semblance of order returns to the most troubled areas (albeit with the help of draconian curfew measures), now is as good a time as any to ask: Just what the hell happened? (And how did the American media paint such a distorted picture?)
To answer these questions, we have to first figure out what didn't happen. Contrary to the breathless dispatches from the American press, Paris was most certainly not burning. Those of us ensconced in the central part of the city could hardly tell anything was going on. ("This is not exactly the second French Revolution," another journalist colleague told me.) American media hyperbole served to heighten the distancing effect. Expounding on French social inequalities from their suites at the George V, the dashing reporters of CNN et al., their infographics a-blazin', created a sensationalized image of an entire country under siege.
Another thing the French riots were not: New Orleans on the Seine. It'd be easy to draw parallels between our countries' race-related woes (and indeed there are many), but to do so would belittle both tragedies. The New Orleans death toll was close to 1,000; the French riots produced fewer than ten. New Orleans was a localized event; the French riots touched many major metropolitan areas, including the suburbs of Nice, Lille, Toulouse, Lyon, and Rennes, in addition to spreading to Belgium and Germany.
Ultimately, New Orleans took the U.S. government by surprise; the French riots, meanwhile, were the not-totally-unexpected culmination of a contentious year between banlieue residents and hard-line right-wing Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who called project youths "scum" (racaille) just days before the riots began.
There is also the question of the French government's response to the rioting, which, unlike Bush's response to New Orleans, doesn't qualify as totally incompetent. "The government can't totally crack down on the rioters because it would be accused of being too harsh," a friend told me. "At the same time, it can't be too lenient. It has to show that it's doing something but it can't go too far either way." Give credit where it's due: The French government has minimized casualties and bloodshed. It has also restored state subsidies to impoverished neighborhoods and has lowered the apprenticeship age to 14 to help combat unemployment (which stands at almost 30 percent in certain cites).
On the other hand, France has resurrected long-dead military measures (like the curfew, which had its origins in the Algerian war for independence) and has stepped up arrests (close to 1,000 so far). Most recently, Sarkozy has promised to deport any non-citizen convicted of riot-related crimes, even if the person is in France legally.
To say that all of the French suburbs are hotbeds of radicalized passion (which TV images imply) is also an overstatement. In fact, reaction from banlieue residents to the riots ranges from angry to cynical to oddly hopeful. As one youth said on France 2 television, "The curfews are just a political maneuver. In reality, it's not going to keep kids at home." Another youth called the curfews "overdramatized" while another described them as "warlike and hostile."
Sorting out the details of the past two weeks is a crucial step in figuring out what went wrong in France. Herewith, a timeline of events starting with the death of two youths in the Clichy-Sous-Bois suburb of Paris that catalyzed the riots.
October 27 In the Clichy-Sous-Bois suburb in northern Paris, two adolescent boys, Ziad Bemma (age 17) and Banou Traore (age 15), are electrocuted in a power generator station as they were fleeing police who had caught them in an alleged act of burglary. A third person (age 21) is seriously injured.
Bemma and Traore were French-born citizens of Arab and African descent, respectively.
The same night, about 200 youths protest in Clichy-Sous-Bois, setting cars on fire and engaging in widespread vandalism.
October 28-29 Violence rises in Clichy-Sous-Bois, with altercations between rioters and police.
Residents of the neighborhood hold a peaceful rally in honor of Bemma and Traore.
October 30 A tear-gas bomb explodes in a mosque in Clichy-Sous-Bois. Residents say the police fired the bomb at the mosque while government officials deny responsibility.