What happens when people who live in close proximity share nothing that unites them into some semblance of a community? France is discovering the troubling answer.
In early July, young men, most of them Muslim, who live in the bleak public housing projects of Lille, a large northern French city, staged a violent protest against a court decision that reduced the charge against a policeman, Stephane Andolina, from voluntary to involuntary homicide and gave him a suspended sentence of three years. Andolina had shot and killed a youth, Riad Hamlaoui, after stopping him in a stolen car. The policeman argued in his defense that he was tired, frightened, and inexperienced, and that visibility was poor.
Lille, reported the leftist newspaper Liberation, responded with “a growl of rage.” Youths threw stones and Molotov cocktails, burnt 20 cars, and set fire to a police station. According to a social worker interviewed by the newspaper, the riot was not entirely spontaneous. “The young ones feel they are at war with the state and think of the Middle East. Some of the older ones stir them up. They light the fire and then return home.”
It is not only with the state that the youths are at war: they are at war with society itself. Those who attended the Molotov cocktail party believed themselves so oppressed that, by definition, they could do no wrong—though many of them carried cell phones, not previously symbols of economic destitution. For these youths, what society sees as good they see as bad, and vice versa: they have never yet been known to riot at the acquittal or lenient sentencing of one of their own number who has committed many serious crimes, even when the victims (as is usually the case) were also their confreres. For them, crime is law, and law is crime.
The rioters were all dependent on the state—for their cell phones and their cars, as well as for their food and lodging—but it is highly unlikely that this combination of dependency and alienation will give the French intellectual elite pause for thought. It has long convinced itself that welfare benefits and compassion are coterminous. Never mind that entire generations are enclosed in a world of radical hopelessness, nihilism, and resentment.