In the wake of the L.A. riots, the French rushed to accuse the U.S. of racism—les Américains were incapable of dealing with their minorities fairly. It was always lynchings, beatings, violence à la Rodney King. And when l’affaire Katrina occurred, who was first to critique the U.S. for its shortcomings? Why, the French newspapers, naturellement. Libération was typical: the hurricane had “revealed America’s weaknesses: its racial divisions, the poverty of those left behind by its society.”
Such things, the French press haughtily implied, could never happen in the country of Voltaire, Hugo, and Proust. And then came the infamous night of October 27, 2005, when two Muslim teens fled a police identity check in a banlieue—a run-down Paris suburb called Clichy-sous-Bois. They scaled the wall of an electrical relay station and touched a transformer, which electrocuted them on the spot. Youths, mostly unemployed Muslims, heard the news and—as everyone now knows—rampaged. They burned cars, vandalized buildings, and pelted police with stones and bottles.
The violence spread to other banlieues outside Paris, and then to some 300 other French cities. Rifles went off, Molotov cocktails exploded, and people wound up burned and beaten, sometimes fatally. Cries of “Allahu Akbar” rang through the air, as did talk of turning Paris into “Baghdad-sur-Seine.” An Islamic website informed readers, “The cops are petrified of us. Everything must burn.” A young leader of the Arab European League spoke for many colleagues when he demanded that France allow Arab sections to govern themselves. “We reject integration when it leads to assimilation,” he stated. “We are at home here, and whatever we consider our culture to be, also belongs to our chosen country. I’m in my country, not the country of the Westerners.”
Before the riots literally burned themselves out four weeks later, more than a thousand vehicles had been destroyed, along with property worth millions of euros. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy called the rioters “scum,” but Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, one of the most vitriolic detractors of the U.S. administration, rushed to correct his colleague: “Let’s avoid stigmatizing areas.” For his part, President Jacques Chirac imposed a state of emergency and then engaged in some extravagant soul-searching. In an “I-feel-your pain” speech, he condemned racism, declared, “we are all aware” of discrimination, and called for equal opportunities for the young.
Hélas, high-sounding phrases will not help France recover from the problem it faces in integrating its millions of young, welfare-dependent, and increasingly alienated Muslims. France’s unemployment rate stands at about 10 percent, roughly twice the U.S. rate. The economy grows slowly—under 2 percent. Few new jobs are available for the angry and unskilled (except, of course, in the arts of destruction). Absent economic reform, the private sector is unlikely to create any jobs this year or next year or the ones after that.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, the fascist French politico, made an impressive showing against Chirac in the last election. He lost, but insisted that the pendulum would soon swing his way. It is already in motion. The man who thought that the Holocaust was just “a detail of history” has all sorts of planks in his platform, but his real issue is immigration. Appraising Muslim ghettos long before the riots, he noted, “Massive immigration has just begun. It is the biggest problem facing France, Europe, and probably the world. We risk being submerged.”
Unless mainstream French politicians address that problem, conditions are ripe for Le Pen, and for others like him, to find enthusiastic audiences next time around. Meantime, the Islamic fuse grows shorter. Less than a month after the riots, in Clichy-sous-Bois, where the troubles had begun, French police seized illegal rifles, dynamite, and TNT from an Islamic militant group, said to have ties to al-Qaida’s leader in Iraq.
Denis Boyles’s recent book, Vile France, analyzed some troubling demographics. “Sometime this century,” the author predicted, “France will become a Muslim state, at which time France’s war with America will take an interesting turn.” A preview of what could be in store was on display in the fall of 2005. All viewers had to do was click on their remotes and watch la belle France, no longer smug, in a heads-on battle with its future.