Why Is France Burning?

Riot policemen patrol the Grande Borne housing project in Grigny, south of Paris, late Wednesday, Nov. 9 2005 - the 14th night of riots in various towns in France.
This column was written by Doug Ireland.
The tsunami of vandalism, arson and riot by young people of color that began in the suburban ghettos of Paris – now in its twelfth night as I write – has rolled right across France, touching 274 cities and towns, and shows few signs of abating. It should have surprised no one, for it is the result of thirty years of government neglect – of the failure of the French political classes, both right and left, to make any serious effort to integrate its Muslim and black populations into the French economy and culture; and of the deep-seated, searing, soul-destroying racism that the unemployed and profoundly alienated young of the ghettos face every day of their lives, both from the police and when trying to find a job.

The ghettos where festering resentment has now burst into flames were created as a matter of industrial policy by the French state. Why is France's population of immigrant origin – mostly Arab, some black – today so large (more than 10 percent of the total population)? Because during the post-World War II boom years of reconstruction and economic expansion, which the French call les trentes glorieuses, the thirty glorious years, it was policy to recruit from France's colonies laborers and factory and menial workers. These immigrant workers, primarily from North Africa, were desperately needed to allow the French economy to expand, despite the shortage of manpower caused by the two world wars that had killed many Frenchmen and slashed the native French birthrates. Moreover, these immigrant workers were favored by industrial employers as passive and unlikely to join unions and strike.

This government-and-industry-sponsored influx of Arab workers was reinforced following Algerian independence by the arrival of the Harkis, native Algerians who fought for and worked with France during the anticolonial struggle for independence – and were horribly treated by France. Some 100,000 Harkis were killed by the Algerian National Liberation Front after the French shamelessly abandoned them to a lethal fate when the occupying army evacuated itself and French colonists from Algeria. Moreover, those Harki families who were saved (often at the initiative of individual military commanders who refused to obey orders not to evacuate them) were parked in filthy, crowded concentration camps in France for many long years and never benefited from any government aid – a nice reward for their sacrifices for France, of which they were, after all, legally citizens. Their ghettoized children and grandchildren, naturally, harbor certain resentments.

France's other immigrant workers were warehoused in huge high-rise, low-income ghettos – known as cites – specially built for them and deliberately placed out of sight in the suburbs around most of France's major urban agglomerations, so that their darker-skinned inhabitants wouldn't pollute the center cities. Now forty and fifty years old, these high-rise human warehouses are run-down, dilapidated, sinister places with broken elevators, heating systems left dysfunctional in winter, dirt and dog shit in the hallways and few commercial amenities. Shopping for basic necessities is often quite limited and difficult, while entertainment and recreational facilities for youth are truncated and inadequate when they exist at all. Apartments and schools (frequently staffed by weary, cynical, indifferent teachers) are terribly overcrowded.

December 3 marks the twenty-second anniversary of the Marche des Beurs (beur is French slang for "Arab"). I was present to see the cortege of 100,000 arrive in Paris – it was the Franco-Arab equivalent of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Marche des Beurs' central theme was the demand to be recognized as French comme les autres, like everyone else – a demand, in sum, for complete integration. But the dream of integration failed miserably.

For the mass of Franco-Arabs, little has changed since 1983, and the current rebellion is the anguished scream of a lost generation in search of an identity. When US cities burned in the 1960s, King said, "A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard." In France it's the language of adolescents, kids caught between two cultures and belonging to neither; of kids who, born in France and often speaking little Arabic, don't know the country where their parents were born but feel excluded, marginalized and invisible in the country where they live.