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The Suburbs Are Burning
Is France a failed state?


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EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the December 5, 2005, issue of National Review.

For the last two weeks, the French have been watching the numbers of cars burnt the night before in the suburbs the way New Yorkers watch the Dow Jones index. Does 463 mean that the riots are now in recession, or is the reduction compared with the previous night merely what stockbrokers call a technical correction? Could the senior policeman be right who said that the downward trend was “the beginning of a classic mobilization at the weekend”? In other words, could les jeunes be conserving their energy for a further assault on French complacency?

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Certainly, the police intercepted e-mails calling on les jeunes to assemble in the Champs-Elysées and under the Eiffel Tower, which would really set the matches among the gasoline. The French Social Model would then have no choice but to swing into action, and send in the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (the feared CRS), all batons flailing: the continuation of social work by other means.

It must be admitted that les jeunes have a strange way of trying to prove to the world that they are not what the outspoken interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, so perceptively (but unadvisedly) called scum. Having long pondered the delicately balanced question of whether it is more humiliating to be justly or unjustly accused, I suspect that les jeunes have reacted with such fury to M. Sarkozy’s epithet precisely because they knew themselves that it was accurate. For how else do you describe people who are prepared to burn the cars of 6,000 of their neighbors, and a bus with a 56-year-old handicapped woman in it who was unable to escape and was severely burned as a result; people who did not take this horrific incident as an indication to desist, and whose subculture is a transposition of that of the American underclass at its worst?

But a descriptive term is not an explanation, unless you believe — as I do not — that large numbers of people are scum by nature, by unchangeable essence (and even that essence would require explanation) . . .

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