Politics & Policy

You All Right, Jacques?

Chirac's strategy? Just you wait!

I don’t know what it is that gives people the urge to “check in” whenever there’s a blizzard or a subway bomb or a flood someplace, but I’m glad they do. Now, with riots erupting throughout France and elsewhere in Europe, the phone rings here in Kansas at odd hours and e-mails arrive like chain letters, forward after forward. I realize the odds will be kind. Nevertheless, I’m always glad to know everybody’s all right, including many people I didn’t even know I knew.

Yesterday, I finally heard from my friend the schoolmaster in Pas de Calais. He reports that all is quiet in his little commune of 150 souls. I was glad to know this, because there’s an actual Muslim in the village. He runs a little grocery, the only one open late at night and on Sundays for miles around. After reading the papers and watching the TV, I was worried he might wig out, break his shop window, set his little Peugeot alight and wait to get hosed by les pompiers. He didn’t, and so everyone I know in France is jake–including, of course, le plus grand jake himself, Monsieur le Président.

It is his style to be all right. According to Elaine Sciolino, the New York Times Paris correspondent, writing in the International Herald Tribune, “President Jacques Chirac has never been one to shun the spotlight. But in the face of the most serious social crisis of his 10-year presidency, the 72-year-old French leader seems like the invisible man.”

I can’t remember when Sciolino first went to France to report for the Times, but if she thinks this is the “most serious social crisis” Chirac has faced, she’s as wrong as she is when she says he’s never been one to shun the spotlight. The award for “most serious social crisis” must go to the 2003 heatwave in which a collapse of government services resulted in the deaths of 15,000-old people in the space of about three weeks–that’s five 9/11s, one every four days–while Chirac lounged through his holiday, far from every spotlight. Maybe she forgot. Or, more likely, she just didn’t see it for what it was.

She’s certainly not alone. I’ve written about this event often because 15,000 deaths by governmental negligence is what you call serious, social-crisis-wise. It’s overlooked or ignored now, as it was then, because it’s an cautionary tale embarrassing to the Left: It clearly illustrates what happens to you and your loved ones if you become accustomed to relying on the government–and especially the French one–to meet your personal responsibilities. The French learned then what Tocqueville knew long ago, that by the time you learn to depend on your government to save you, you’re already a goner. The crisis of 2003 was not only a social crisis, for the Left, it was an ideological and spiritual one.

During that awful summer, as bodies choked morgues and doctors begged for help, Chirac said and did nothing for weeks–nothing at all, except to have his functionaries announce there was no crisis and punish those who said there was. After the crisis peaked, Chirac went on TV from his vacation home but only to tell the country not to worry. A year after the event, the health minister resigned and the government announced that in future heatwaves, everybody should go to the movies because they’re air-conditioned. Otherwise, that most serious of social crises caused absolutely no visible change in French political life. A country that can shrug off manslaughter on a massive scale can easily overlook a few weeks of juvenile mischief. If they’re smart, next year they’ll just declare it a holiday. Or perhaps the French government will produce a typically Gallic remedy and ban the rioters’ traditional headcoverings so we won’t be able to tell the Muslims from the Marxists.

So far, the death toll from the rioting has mercifully light, unless you count heart attacks suffered by auto-insurance adjusters. Unlike the heatwave, which took place when most journalists and politicians were away on their summer holidays, the riots are being covered extensively. They are the kind of very special “social crisis” beloved by the Left. In fact, they’re the only kind they really recognize. Packs of reporters visit the grim, gray suburbs where they see the big fires, the Muslim kids with their rocks and rifles, read the stats showing joblessness and segregation and pronounce the riots a major catastrophe. By contract, even reporting the 2003 catastrophe was called “shameful” by the Boston Globe.

Every Frenchman knows that as French crises go, these riots are petites frites. Despite all the fire and smoke and hooliganism, the riots in the Paris banlieues and elsewhere in the country are not catastrophic because they are not yet significant enough to change anything. They are not even genuine crises. They are inconveniences, embarrassments, annoyances, outrages, even. But as a turning point, they’re nowhere and they’ll change nothing. The obvious solution–creating an energetic culture of enterprise and opportunity–is impossible to realize today. Let’s go to the Ouija:

‐Villepin will propose grandiose but meaningless “reforms”–his latest, assailed in Le Monde, is a return to good, old-fashioned child labor, since French public schools, according to remarks made in the IHT last year by the education minister, are failures anyway.

‐Sarkozy, his rival, will continue to say impolite things–like calling the rioters “rabble” just because they riot in the streets, shoot at police, vandalize their own neighborhoods, and burn the cars they would normally be stealing.

‐The Left will follow Libération’s lead, wring their hands and complain about the government’s elfin attempts at imposing order.

It’s doubtful that the army will be called out, since Paris is now so violent and dangerous that France may have to withdraw its military. Besides, the prospect of rolling tanks into the suburban ghettos is also deeply humiliating to the French government.

Anyway these aren’t the kind of rioters who overthrow governments. However, they may have one victory in sight. The demand made by angry young Muslims for local autonomy free from official French control may indeed be met temporarily: All the rioters have to do is stay in Paris and wait for August. But if you’re looking for a “serious social crisis” involving Muslim rioters, you’ll have to wait for decades–in fact, until the riot that puts a cranky Grand Mufti in the Elysée to tell all the women in France to put their damn clothes on.

It’s not going to happen now. This “serious social crisis” will be solved exactly the same way Chirac solved that far more serious social crisis two years ago: by lying low and waiting it out. The summer of 2003, after all, finally waned. The weather broke and the crisis was solved, by God. Curfews won’t cut it now. One of these nights, the rioters will run out of matches and Citroens, the weather will turn cold, and Chirac’s France will once again be at peace.

Denis Boyles is author of Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese.

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...


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