You may have wondered if I was even aware of the rioting that erupted several days ago in the poor neighborhoods around Paris, since I have yet to mention it here. Well, now the rioting has apparently spread to other cities around France, and I feel compelled to write about it. I don't think that anyone French or who has lived in France is terribly surprised, since these problems have been brewing for decades. I am somewhat surprised, however, at the event that apparently sparked the rioting, the accidental deaths of two young men who thought they were being pursued by the police. That struck me as random and odd.
When we lived outside Paris and on subsequent trips, I have had countless unpleasant run-ins with les casseurs, as they are called, disaffected young men, mostly North Africans. These include verbal assaults on public trains (where they wander through the cars, marking the seats and windows with graffiti tags) and on the street, having firecrackers lobbed at my head on the night of the 14th of July, and indeed having a leased car broken in to, burglarized, and totally destroyed when it was parked – unwisely – on a street near the train station in Mantes-La-Jolie. In fact, in the latter case, the police actually towed the car to a holding lot to prevent it from being torched. (The attack on Jean-Hugues Anglade along the Seine, by two people and a dog, had all the hallmarks, although it was never stated openly.)
The fact that the same angry young men are now burning several hundred cars a night and have even set fire to a nursery school is shocking in its scope but certainly not unforeseen. In fact, this sort of violence was already the subject of the excellent movie La Haine by Matthieu Kassovitz. Before these riots broke out, it was the subject that almost no one in France wanted to address. Now I have read French mayors describing the situation in their towns as "une véritable situation de guérilla, d'insurrection urbaine" (truly a guerilla-style urban insurrection).
As usual for all things French, I turn to Corine Lesnes, a correspondent for Le Monde based in New York, who blogs at Big Picture. In her Friday post, she translated from the CNN coverage of the riots:
OK, let's start over. "These riots are far away from the Eiffel Tower?" That was the first question in the CNN report this morning. "Oh, yes," the special envoyé confirmed. "It has nothing to do with the beautiful neighborhoods you see behind me."As her commenters point out, such a question is ignorant on the surface but actually points out the nature of the problem. Now that bands of teenagers with Molotov cocktails have been arrested on the boulevards of Paris, France cannot ignore the problem. At least not right now.