Driving through France as the riots continued, I found myself struck by the atmosphere not so much of crisis as of indifference. It was a case of out of sight, out of mind: life in the countryside and the center of towns and cities went on as if nothing untoward were happening nearby. Perhaps everyone was quietly confident that, if worst came to worst, and les jeunes attempted to leave their housing projects for fancier urban areas, the forces of law and order could contain themthat is, beat them to a pulp.
As we dined one night in an excellent restaurant in the beautiful Alsatian city of Colmar, a few of les jeunes expressed their frustrations on the city outskirts by burning three of their neighbors cars. Brought before the courts the next morning, and asked why they had done it, they offered no explanation.
I suspect they might well have been unable to do so. The frustrations of les jeunes are inchoate, and though they might mutter about lack of work, it is unlikelyafter years of a drifting life on welfare, in which time is their own and they suffer no acute deprivationsthat they would take with anything like alacrity to any unskilled job offered them. Certainly, I would not like to be a boss giving them orders. For them, the use of the imperative mood would indicate lack of respect, and become a casus belli.
The more the rioters rioted, the more cars they burned and the more écoles maternelles they wrecked, the higher rose the stock of the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. His characterization of les jeunes as racaille, scum, proved especially popular. Polls now suggest that 70 percent of French adults would vote for him in a presidential election. Whether he has any solution, other than fierce repression when necessary, to the intractable social problem created by mass immigration from North Africa and the welfare state (to which the French remain fiercely attached), is an open question.
Driving to the Netherlands, I was surprised by how much the political atmosphere there had changed. Not long ago, the Dutch seemed insufferably complacent, regarding the rest of the world de haut en bas, as if it had not yet reached Dutch levels of enlightenment and generosity. It is amazing what a couple of assassinations can do. The Dutch are now the only people in Europe who are thinking, and thinking hard. It is as if they had awakened from a pleasant but unrealistic daydream.
To my amazement, the Dutch Ministry of Justice asked me to give a talk. The audience proved intelligent, respectful, but not supinely uncritical. Such a thing had never happened to me in my native Britain. Of course, the French riots were on Dutch minds. Could such a thing happen there? Probably not. For one thing, the Dutch had presciently demolished their high-rise housing projects a few years ago.
In the audience was a young immigrant who told me that he had relatives in the banlieues of French cities. A cousin had his car burned by les jeunes, but told him over the phone that if losing his car helped improve conditions in the banlieues, it would have been worth it. I have no doubt that the young man reported accurately what his cousin said. In reply, however, I wondered whether the generous decision of French insurers to compensate the owners of the 9,000 burned cars, despite the fact that all policies exclude civil disturbance, had something to do with his cousins broad-mindedness over his loss.
The insurers decision amounts to a de facto tax on French driversunless the companies pay the compensation out of their profits, which seems unlikely. The message to the rioters, therefore, is: You burn, they pay.
Had the insurers not compensated owners of burned cars, would the cousin have been less sympathetic to les jeunes? Would he have blamed them? Perhaps not. The human capacity for resentment being what it is, he would probably have blamed the hard-heartedness of the insurers, yet another instance of the rotten hand France had dealt out to immigrants, and another good reason to hate it.