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Urban upheaval à la française

Lori Foley
By Lori Foley
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, November 9, 2005
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France: land of the Eiffel tower, gastronomic feats, romantic men, beautiful women and ... burning cars?

After nearly two weeks of riots, the nation of fromagers and sommeliers has an image crisis on its hands - an image crisis that traces its roots to some deep and long-standing societal problems.

Monday marked the first fatality in the riots that have convulsed France for two weeks. The uprising began Oct. 27, after the deaths of two boys in a Paris suburb, electrocuted as they hid from police behind a transformer.

The police deny any responsibility for the boys' deaths. Residents accuse them of murder. The sad truth is that assigning blame in this specific incident is almost tangential.

Upheaval has been simmering for a long time in these impoverished and frequently forgotten suburbs, primarily inhabited by North African and Muslim populations who face both overt and covert discrimination in mainstream French society. Although the violence that has been rampant in the past few days is intolerable, it is also not surprising.

France has spent years trying desperately to believe that the maladies of Paris' poverty-stricken suburbs could be quarantined from the rest of the country. But the riots shaking the nation are a powerful and terrible reminder that there is really no such thing as an "isolated problem," nor are there isolated people. We each play substantial roles in others' lives as we interact - or specifically choose not to.

Even now, as violence engulfs the country, and spills over the borders into other European nations, French newspapers are headlining their articles on the issue "Crisis in the suburbs." Memo to France: This is no longer the suburb's crisis; this is the entire nation's crisis.

The suburbs have been defined in recent years by the racial, economic and religious strife rampant there. These problems don't exactly sit neatly under the banner of liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, brotherhood) that France envisions flying over its country.

These riots are partially a result of the fact that the suburbs of Paris are viewed as a separate world from Paris proper. The low-income housing, poverty and general unrest often associated with inner cities are consigned in Paris to its troubled suburbs. These densely populated, low-income neighborhoods are the heart of Paris' North African and Muslim immigrant communities.

The North African and Arab residents of suburban communities feel disenfranchised from the rest of French population. This is certainly not a shock in light of the fact that a political candidate advocating forced return for all "nonwhite" immigrants received 17 percent of the popular vote in the first round of presidential elections in 2002.

The disenfranchisement is economic as well; unemployment hovers around 30 percent in the suburbs, compared with 10 percent nationally. In certain suburban areas, it soars as high as 40 percent.

Mainstream French society has rejected the possibility that those living in these impoverished conditions have much to do with the rest of society, or that French society itself has contributed to the malaise in these areas.

On a visit to the suburbs in the middle of October, before the riots began, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy referred to the residents who caused trouble there as "rabble" that needed to be washed out. Language like this draws a clear divide between those who live in the suburbs - the poor, the immigrants - and the rest of the French populace.

Even President Jacques Chirac has regretfully acknowledged "the incapacity of French society to fully accept" the African and Arab youths of the suburbs. This is a societal problem, but it is one that plays itself out on the level of the individual: Rejection occurs on a person-to-person basis.

It's easy to look on in horror as riots seize France, to blame the French for a problem that is their own. But the truth is, this problem isn't uniquely France's. It's time for a look at our own lives. Whom do we reject? Whom do we alienate?

We only make France's crisis more tragic when we refuse to apply its lessons to ourselves. Let's remember that we are not isolated. Today is a day for each of us to build bridges.

Lori Foley is a senior majoring in French and English. She can be reached at

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