‘But, What Country Is This?’

“Katrina’s devastation points the finger at Bush’s system . . . Issues forgotten for years are back to the fore: poverty, the state’s absence, latent racism.”
— Le Monde, Sept. 8, 2005

The quotation above appeared in a front-page article in France’s newspaper of record. Just below was a cartoon showing the American president watching TV footage of black corpses floating in the water. “But, what country is this?” the caption had him saying to his generals: “Is it far away? We absolutely have to do something!”

Unfortunately, this column does not come with its own cartoon attached, so I’m forced to describe the one I think Le Monde should print this week: A drawing of the French president, Jacques Chirac, watching black neighborhoods go up in smoke. The president is asking his generals, “But, what country is this? Is it far away? We absolutely have to do something!”

There are major differences, of course, between President Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina and Chirac’s response to the extraordinary wave of rioting that began in the impoverished suburbs of Paris almost two weeks ago and has now spread across the country. One difference is that it took two days for Bush to respond with a belated televised speech after Katrina made landfall, while it took Chirac 11 days to respond to the riots at all. Another difference is that Katrina inspired Americans to donate $2 billion to charity. But when Nicolas Sarkozy, the French interior minister, called the rioters “scum,” he failed to dent his own popularity, even though his words apparently spurred the rioters on to greater excess.

The deeper difference is that however ignored or mistreated America’s black underclass may be, most Americans do think of its members as Americans. By contrast, I doubt whether most Frenchmen even contemplate the possibility that the African and Arab immigrants and their offspring who make up their underclass, and who are both perpetrators and victims of these riots, could ever be truly French, even if they hold French passports (and millions do). Thus when the French trumpet the many successes of their social-market economy or their enlightened political culture, the many failures in the immigrant neighborhoods somehow don’t count. Famously, the late French president Francois Mitterrand once said that the Los Angeles riots could never happen in Paris, because “France is the country where the level of social protection is the highest in the world.”

If there weren’t dozens of cars burning across France even on ordinary weekends, Mitterrand’s delightfully blind comments would be funny. But in fact they illustrate the problem. For France’s immigrants are invisible: Not only do they live in places that most other French people never go, they also hardly participate in mainstream politics or culture, outside of sports. I was in Paris on the night of Chirac’s electoral victory over the National Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2002. Although the campaign had been dominated by immigration issues and race, vigorous channel-surfing produced not a single black or North African face on any of the post-election talk shows. That doesn’t excuse the violence, but it does help explain it.

Halting immigration isn’t the solution: France has had a restrictive immigration policy for two decades, but the rioters are mostly French-born. Formal attempts to recognize Islam as France’s “second religion” and to promote a native “French Islam” have failed, and not for lack of trying: To put it bluntly, France’s secularism sits badly with a religion that believes its own laws take precedence over others.

At the same time, the refusal of French politicians to lift restrictions on employers, to promote entrepreneurship or to deregulate make it impossible for young people to integrate through the economy, as immigrants do in this country, despite discrimination. The only real long-term solution — that France should join the dreaded “Anglo-Saxon” world market and open up its economy — is precisely the one that no French politician dare speak aloud.

But the insoluble violence in urban France should inspire more than just schadenfreude in this country. Although there isn’t yet evidence that this bout of rioting is Islamist in origin, it’s pretty clear that large, unintegrated, ungovernable and unemployed Islamic communities in Western Europe will continue to incubate radical Islam. Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker of Sept. 11, is a Frenchman of Moroccan dissent. The Madrid bombings and the London bombings were also proof that the war on terrorism was never as much about rogue nations in the Middle East as it was about the domestic polices of our closest allies.

It is in our own interest, then, to be magnanimous and to come up with ways to assist the French. We could, for example, help them to shatter the myth that they live in an enlightened society, insulated from racial tension, by mass-mailing them copies of Le Monde with the word “America” crossed out in all editorials and the word “France” substituted instead.

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