Politics & Policy

“They Burn, Therefore They Are”

Simply criminal Frenchmen.

Of the Muslim rioting that began in poor suburbs of Paris on October 27, Mohammed Rezzoug, caretaker of the municipal athletics center in Le Blanc-Mesnil, says, “It’s not a political revolution or a Muslim revolution… There’s a lot of rage. Through this burning, they’re saying, ‘I exist, I’m here.’”

Obviously, Rezzoug is well integrated into French culture–or at least into its habit of ad nauseam theorizing over everything. However, things in France are not what they used to be–hence the decline from Rene Descartes’s famous 17th-century dictum, “Cogito ergo sum” to Rezzoug’s new aphorism, “They burn, therefore they are.”

And burn they do. Youth gangs, overwhelmingly French-born and Muslim, have engaged in a nation-wide rampage that by November 7 had burned 3,500 vehicles, a few schools, kindergartens, police stations, shopping malls, and post offices. Police officers have been wounded and an older man beaten to death. Some 800 individuals have been arrested and a curfew locally imposed to stem this anomic wave of gang violence that is spreading all over France–and beyond. The riots increasingly (and alarmingly) suggest that Islamist radicals see criminality as an opportunity for recruitment, while criminals see Islam as a legitimizer.

There are gangs and gangs….

The Independent tells of how in one Paris suburb, Aulnay-sous-Bois, 20-year-old Abdelkarim, the caid (leader in Arabic) of the local gang, boasts of the 2,000 euros he makes on each car stolen: “You want prostitutes, DVD players, jewelry? I can get anything you want.” His talk is of poverty, discrimination, and his family’s Morocco, but also of his anti-Semitism and hashish habit. “‘Look around you–there is nothing here. We live four to a room. Our parents go to work like zombies. But we have nothing. Even the jobs around here go to people from elsewhere. This parking lot is like our living room,’ he said. One of his friends… held a mobile phone. ‘Come and look,’ he gestured, laughing. It was a short film of a Chechen guerrilla cutting off the head of a Russian soldier.”

If one replaces names like Abdelkarim or Karim with Pablo or Deshawn and Aulnay-sous-Bois with Watts or South Bronx, with a few extraordinary exceptions we have a similar profile: uneducated young men from broken families, deep involvement in criminality, contempt for their parents’ low-paying jobs, identification with gangs, resentment of outsiders–in short, the lost urban youth of the West. When a father from Aulnay-sous-Bois complains, “How am I supposed to inculcate the work ethic in my son, when his friends have Nikes given to them by their drug-dealer fathers?” that should sound very familiar to many parents in urban America.

However, while American gangs like the Hispanic Mara Salvatrucha, the Jamaican Posse, and the Crips or Bloods are racist (anti-white, anti-Hispanic, or both, as the case may be), violent, and antisocial, their exclusive goals are money and turf control. That is also true of their French (or British) confreres. But in the latter cases, Islamist beliefs play or could soon play a decisive justifying role. These exceptions, however, are essential if we are to understand the importance of the events taking place in France’s cities these past weeks. The most important of those exceptions are the gangs’ religious identity and the elite’s cultural attitudes. The criminally dysfunctional youths of la banlieue are made more potent because they operate in an increasingly dysfunctional society, which in the United States may be local but in France is national. And, as a British observer put it, “Mexicans are not Moroccans (think religion). . . . Nor are the fires of disintegration already burning, as they are in [Interior Minister Nicolas] Sarkozy’s France.”

Abdelkarim says “From my window I can see the Eiffel Tower . . . . But Paris is another world. This is Baghdad.” He exaggerates (so far), but should be taken seriously. Especially when Jean-Louis Debré, the speaker of the national assembly and mayor of Evreux, seems to agree, calling the unrest “a true episode of urban guerrilla.” Meanwhile, the police union chimed in with its own alarmism: “Nothing seems to be able to stop the civil war that spreads a bit more every day across the whole country,” it said, advocating the intervention of the army.

The “evil” Minister

Naturally enough, for the hoods in the banlieues, “Ever since Sarko came into the government, life has been s**t,” said Abdelkarim’s friend Kamel, age 16. “He treats us like dogs. Well, we’ll show him how dogs can react.” On this point, he and the outspoken minister, who talks of “cleaning out” the racaille (riff-raff), are speaking the same language. The latter sees the riots as a clear attempt by the gang leaders to keep control, which he is determined to regain. The problem is that the false sense of victimhood felt by the gangsters is shared by many more Muslims . Thus, Murad, a Muslim leader in Aulnay, says “Islam has been insulted [by a tear gas canister which landed in front of a mosque] and nobody has yet asked forgiveness… If there would have been a tear gas canister in a church or synagogue, Sarkozy would have gone there to apologize.” (Never mind that on November 7 a church in Lens was firebombed and no Muslim apologies were forthcoming).

Worse still, the leftist opposition–socialists, Greens, Communists, human-rights activists, and most of the intellectual elites also agree with Kamel, that the problem is not the gangs of arsonists but “the system”: law and order, the police, and, especially, Sarkozy.

Le Monde writes, “To the provocations of Nicolas Sarkozy answers the stupidity of teenagers, who ruin the fragile economic tissue and burn the buses borrowed by their families. Some of the arsonists were victims of a system, before becoming small mafiosos taking advantage of the situation.” So, the mayhem was an “answer” to the interior minister’s calling the criminals “criminals and hooligans”? Criminality becomes “stupidity” and criminals become “victims.” It is precisely this kind of language to which philosopher Jean-François Mattei refers below:

The betrayal of the language: when one does not have the courage to face things, one speaks to better obscure them. We apply the usual meaning of words to the violence we know in the urbanized banlieues and elsewhere. In France one does not speak anymore of “riots” but of “harassment actions”; not of “delinquents” but of “youths”; not of “drug trafficking” but of “parallel economy”; not of “policemen” but of “provocateurs”;… not of “lawless zones” but of “sensitive neighborhoods”; not of “infringement of the right” to work: but of “movement of legitimate demands.”

Or from the statement of the “anti-racist” MRAP (Movement against Racism and for Friendship among Peoples):

MRAP has compassion for the victims of the riots [but] the words crime or riot are never used. Instead, all is explained through “social, ethnic and territorial ‘apartheid,’ the refusal to respond to a social fracture expanded by an ethnic one. If police were attacked, it is because there are ‘tensions’ between this daily victimized population and police. As for law, well, the only thing to do is check the circumstances of the deaths of the two teenagers self-electrocuted [in hiding from the police at a power station, which set off the riots] and of the tear gas canister falling in front of a Clichy mosque. Most importantly, MRAP demands ‘total mobilization against racist discrimination’ and against “any racist exploitation of these dramas and sufferings generated by violence.”

And then there is the Communist newspaper L’Humanite:

Nicolas Sarkozy’s arrogance evidently has no limits… After having deliberately lit the fuse, he happily surveys the damage, and wants time to think about it… The suburbs are not a special case. The suburbs are France, the France that suffers at work, is unemployed…. The future of the French model of social justice–of all our futures–lies in the suburbs. That is why Nicolas Sarkozy wants to break them… Rather than endless images of burnt cars, we must give a voice to the suburbs. And we must listen to them!

Once again, criminals have nothing to do with it. In fact, the banlieues “are France.” And it was the Interior Minister’s fault for insulting the rioters. As for the leader of the opposition, Socialist-party leader François Hollande, he made it clear that he considers “intolerable” Sarkozy’s words. His party asked President Jacques Chirac to make “strong gestures” and “apologies” in order to calm the violence.

All of these “analyses” and solutions coming from the French Left–the very same Left that was in power for most of the past quarter of century–are unconvincing, to say the least. The Left did try to “solve” the Muslim immigrant problem the only way it knows: by spending. Clichy-sous-Bois’s mayor, Claude Dilain, a socialist and the vice president of the French Convention of Municipal Authorities, is said to be “a proactive mayor, setting up free soccer training for local youth, appointing youth leaders as mediators and making sure that the community’s waste collection service functions properly. Clichy-sous-Bois is an amalgam of schools, daycare centers, welfare offices, parks and a college that looks like something out of an architecture competition. The community library is currently sponsoring a writing contest themed ‘I come from afar, I like my country.’” Result? The current wave of violence started in his very town.

As for the minister, his answer is quite simple: “I ask that we assess correctly the fundamental role of police presence in the suburbs. The police are the Republic’s police. They keep order in the republic. If they don’t do it, what order will replace them? That of the Mafias or fundamentalists.” Obviously, it is the latter.

Enter the Islamists

For many years, in the Paris region, Islamist ideology has tried to take advantage of unemployment and unrest. “It is time to open our eyes.” Now, youths crying “God is great” rampage and demand that areas where Muslims form a majority be reorganized on the basis of the millet (religious community) system of the Ottoman Empire, with each millet enjoying the right to organize its life in accordance with its religious beliefs. In parts of France, a de facto millet system is already in place, with women obliged to wear the hijab and men to grow beards; alcohol and pork products forbidden; “places of sin” such as cinemas closed down; and local administration seized. The message in the suburbs is that French authorities should keep out. Who will replace them? We have already some clear indications, as Amir Taheri writes in the New York Post:

Suddenly “big brothers”–devout bearded men from the mosques who wear long traditional robes–are positioning themselves between the authorities and the rioters in Clichy-sous-Bois, calling for order in the name of Allah. As thousands of voices shout “Allahu Akbar” from the windows of high-rise apartment buildings, shivers run down the spines of television viewers in their seemingly safe living rooms.

Those citizens have good reasons to worry indeed. First, in France (as well as in Denmark, the United Kingdom, Germany) Muslims are wildly over-represented in prisons. In France they make a majority of inmates, and in jails close to the banlieues as much as 80 percent.

Second, Islamist terrorists from France (and Spain, the Netherlands, and Belgium) have a profile quite distinct from that of their counterparts in the Muslim world, inasmuch as they contain a far more significant number of (usually petty) criminals. The available data suggest that Islamist criminality in France has a history at least a decade long. Thus, Khaled Khelkal, considered the mastermind of the wave of bombings in France in the mid-1990s, who was shot by police in 1995, became a hero in the banlieues. Born near Lyons to Algerian parents, Khelkhal went to the prestigious La Martinière lycée in that city but, he claimed, dropped out and engaged in a criminal career because he could not “tolerate being marginal and rejected by the others”–and because he chose to follow the example of his brother, Nouredine, who was already in jail for armed robbery. More recently, two French-born Algerian and two Tunisian immigrants were arrested in July 2005 for alleged terrorism and links to the main Algerian Islamist terrorist organization, which is part of the Al Qaeda nebula, while also being linked to a prostitution racket.

It remains to be seen how many of the hundreds arrested so far will become Islamists once they complete their ridiculously short prison sentences–usually a few months–and how that prison time will help them on their paths. What is clear is that the mass of present arsonists will vastly reinforce the ranks of Islamists in France and beyond.


The reasons for all this are often attributed to factors like “alienation from both parental roots and country of origin, and the society in which they live,” as Stephen Castle wrote in the Belfast Telegraph. Sociologists call this phenomenon re-Islamization, and it is increasing in intensity among second- and third-generation Muslims in Western Europe. Those young Muslims who were born in Europe lost their ties with the country of their parents, while at the same time their families suffered the same disintegration as native ones, with parents losing control over their children, who then turned to gangs and/or Islamists. Hence, such youths are no more Algerians, Moroccans, or Pakistanis, but neither are they French or British. For them Islam, however understood or misunderstood, has become the default identity. Indeed, complaining of high unemployment and using it as an “explanation” of Muslim violence and refusal to integrate misses the point. Leaving aside the obvious fact that, since they are mostly teenagers and thus should be in school, not on the job market, these youths, “French against their will, products of Arab-African immigration, intend to maintain their cultural and religious specificities,” as one commentator put it. “Far from wanting to mix and integrate in a scared France which confuses indulgence with tolerance, they continuously look to their close origins, due to modern means of communication, and refuse to come out from their identity ghetto.”

Second, unemployment is not a result of “discrimination.” Hence, when Hugues Lagrange of l’Observatoire sociologique du changement (CNRS) claims that “the main reason for these tendencies [to violence] lies in the unemployment of unskilled youths,” he misses the irony. Could it be that they are unemployed because, instead of staying in schools, they prefer to skip or burn them and thus remain unskilled?

None of this is to say that unemployment, which has been running at 10 percent in recent years for those who actually want to work, is not a major problem in France. It is, and that is the result of France’s massive rejection of capitalism. A recent poll shows that 61 percent of professionals, 68 percent of employees, 70 percent of industrial workers, a majority of merchants and artisans, and 60 percent of youths between 18 and 34 years of age oppose it. That, and many Muslims’ rejection of integration, are the two main reasons why is so hard to be optimistic about any short-term improvement in France’s situation–and indeed Europe’s.

Why Europe, and not France?

The fundamental problems of the French banlieues are far from unique. Romano Prodi, the leader of the Italian leftist opposition, has already stated that similar developments in his country are a matter of when, not if. Nor are the European elites’ confusion and inability to leave political correctness behind different from France’s. The even more serious problem is the “democratic deficit” within the European Union. Brussels and many national elites show disregard, if not contempt, for the anxieties of the majority, and for reality. A recent European Union Commission paper presented by Franco Frattini, the vice-president of the commission, echoes the French Left’s approach: “In an attempt to ensure that the vast majority of peaceful Muslims are not portrayed as terrorist sympathizers, the paper says: ‘The commission believes there is no such thing as ‘Islamic terrorism,’ nor ‘Catholic’, nor ‘red’ terrorism… The fact that some individuals unscrupulously attempt to justify their crimes in the name of a religion or ideology cannot be allowed in any way . . . to cast a shadow upon such a religion or ideology.”

This, after the very same commission identified a “crisis of identity” among young people born to immigrant parents as a key danger. “The document describes radicalization as “a modern kind of dictatorship”, likens it to neo-Nazism or nationalism, and says the internet, university campuses, and places of worship are tools of recruitment. It says second-generation immigrants often feel little connection to their parents’ country or culture but may also encounter discrimination in European countriesIn short, the Commission correctly identified the nature of the threat–Islamist terrorism–but lacked the courage to name it. How very Brussels.

France has long been seen, and still sees itself, as a model for Europe. The present developments may well prove that Francophiles are right, but not for the reasons they usually have in mind. Geography, size, and number of Muslims all make France a pivotal element in what amounts to a cultural conflict of continental dimensions. Added to the Madrid bombings of 3/11/04 and the London bombings of 7/11/05, the riots in France force the old continent to realize that there is a “Muslim problem” related to, but not just to, the Islamist terrorist problem. So far, only hesitant steps have been taken toward recognition of the former. France, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Austria have already witnessed, through the political rise of populist, nationalist parties, what happens when governing elites persist in denying the problem. In democracies, someone will always offer a solution when the public demands one. The present spectacle in France is not encouraging.

Michael Radu is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.


The Latest