The violence commemorates violence, marking as it does the anniversary today of the last time violence erupted in the suburbs. Twelve months ago, if you’ll recall, more than 1,000 cars were torched in the Parisian banlieues and in other cities across France by vandals following the accidental deaths of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, two young men who were electrocuted while fleeing the police, the blame for which somehow fell on the French nation.
Today’s anniversary has been preceded by massive amounts of publicity, much of it resembling this [.pdf alert] special supplement in Le Monde. I like its groovy rock-concert feel. You’d think the press was feeding an insurgency or something. How could self-respecting arsonist help but be moved.
Sure enough, a few days ago, some thugs caught a bus, shoved off the passengers and driver, then set their getaway vehicle on fire. A couple more buses were burned Wednesday night. The press and Sarko’s Gaullist adversaries treated the event like — well, like the next bus, and jumped all over it. Le Monde’s breathless coverage, here, is a good example.
The renewed violence comes as no surprise to anyone, least of all Sarkozy, who has been urging his cabinet colleagues to ignore the anniversary and who has been critical of the French press for its year-long saturation coverage of the riots. Sarkozy’s UMP rivals haven’t been able to resist grandstanding. Instead of downplaying the anniversary and the recent events, Sarko’s chief nemesis, Dominque de Villepin, the silvery-maned self-published poet, Bonapartist and, incidentally, prime minister, even held his regular monthly photo-op in Cergy-Pontoise, one of the worst ghettos, near Charles DeGaulle Airport, only hours after the most recent incident. He didn’t say much — this must stop, and all that — but he didn’t have to. He was just doing his bit to light a candle against the darkness and drop it in the sea of gasoline that surrounds Paris.
Sarkozy’s comments last year described rabble-rousers as “rabble” — thus shocking the sensibilities of the French press who would never have thought of such a thing. De Villepin’s government promised improvements in the conditions in which immigrants live in France, but it was Sarkozy’s nonsensical and blunt approach that put him in the forefront of official reaction. In the year since, nothing much has changed—except Sarkozy’s credibility, which, despite demanding tougher delinquency laws, has suffered as a result of his recent softness on illegal immigrants.
Meanwhile, the front-runner for the Socialist Party nomination, Ségolène Royal, has avoided almost completely addressing the situation in the banlieues, leaving the Gaullist UMP to figure it out. She has continued, however, to look really great, and her hair looks far better than de Villepin’s. It’s a simple ’do, not the wavy-crazy thing Dominique wears. I digress, but so does the entire French ruling class: As Marianne points out, neither the right nor the left have much to offer except “vague words.”
As interior minister, Sarkozy, more than anyone else, is vulnerable to whatever happens next. So far today, reports L’Express, the suburbs are quiet, and French TV is broadcasting interviews with bus drivers who say things seem pretty calm. Of course that could change at any moment. The police already have said that they feel they are walking point in what feels to them like a civil war, so Sarkozy’s call to put police on public transport, as noted in Le Figaro, might have more impact if the bus drivers on the most dangerous routes had not gone on strike as a result of the violence. The police, no doubt, hope they stay off the job.
Disliked by the press, the news for Sarkozy isn’t ever likely to be good. So even if things remain calm, he may not emerge as the hero. But at least he won’t be despised as much as Chirac — or seen as vacuous as Royal. In the effete context of French politics, that’s probably a win.
However, if in the next couple of days the suburbs see a return of the kind of widespread rioting that took place last year, Sarkozy will be left holding the bag and his chances of gaining the French presidency next year will be badly damaged. It might even hand de Villepin the UMP nomination. That would truly gel French politics. In fact, the 2007 French elections could become a beautician’s fantasy.
— Denis Boyles is author of Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese.