The Boys of Nowhere
A generation ago, it shall be recalled, the streets and the gangs of New York City gave us a memorable word for a riot of glee and mayhem: Wilding, it was called. Now, there is wilding in the banlieues of France. A young male population cooped up on the outskirts of France's cities has come forth in a riot of rage and destruction. For France, this is not a problem to be solved but a condition to be endured and acknowledged. The Republic, with its pride and smug belief in its revolutionary ideals, has to see France as it really is. A society that had taken in and assimilated immigrants of every stripe has sputtered out, and the France of memory is at variance with the country just beyond the elegant cities and their comfortable middle classes.
Anyone with a feel for the cruel cunning of history will see history's hand, and revenge, at work. France went on a colonial binge in the 19th century, striking into North Africa, implanting its language, culture--even its vineyards--in warmer climes. Now, the colonies have struck back. Those young rioters, at once so French and so alien, are today's revenge on that colonial binge.
Seductive culture. In retrospect, it was apt that President Jacques Chirac declared a state of emergency by invoking a law that dated to France's war in Algeria. The historians tell us that the whole entanglement of France in Algeria issued from a case of pique and royal caprice, in 1830. The bey, the local ruler of Algiers, had struck the French consul with his flywhisk in the heat of an argument. Anxious for a show of force, and for some diversion from troubles at home, Charles X, the last Bourbon king of France, sent troops to Algeria. That wild country was conquered, even as Charles was forced to flee his country and abdicate his throne. The colony remained; the French had shattered a world and would in time strike into the neighboring realms of Tunisia and Morocco. A seductive portable culture, replete with berets and baguettes and the ideals of the Republic, would play havoc with men's minds in Muslim societies hurled into the orbit of a culture they would yearn for but never quite claim.
There is no remedy to see France out of this affliction. Hitherto, France has given its disinherited Muslim population everything and nothing at the same time. The boys of the banlieues were indulged--Paris gave them a veritable veto over its policies toward the Palestinians and Iraq, and the former imperial power cast itself as a Mediterranean society at one with the Arabs and with Islam. But this policy came with total economic disinheritance of those suburbs now set to the torch by the young boys of mayhem. The French elite--pampered, sure of themselves, stamped by the great schools of the Republic--could not see the country's warts, let alone heal its rifts. Today, there is division that runs through the heart of the French administrative elite. The minister of interior, Nicolas Sarkozy--himself a child of immigration, hailing from a Hungarian family--proposes a break with that old mix of indulgence and exclusion toward the country's Muslim youth. Sarkozy is brave: He is done with doublespeak. He called the rioters "scum," as he advocated an affirmative action policy of the American variety. His principal rival is the vain and shallow Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister, known to Americans from the bitter debate that surrounded the American war in Iraq. Villepin's self-regard is legendary, and he embodies the worst of the ruling elite's behavior and mind-set. He proposes more of the same and seeks to drown the riots in the familiar escapism and denial.
The noted French analyst Dominique Moisi has aptly described these young, violent protesters as the product of "solitude and exclusion." That solitude has now been broken. The timid immigrants who arrived in France in the 1960s and early 1970s now yield to their angry children. They are not exactly Islamists, these young rioters, and they do not know the faith or the Scripture of Islam. But radicalized Islam adds to the fury of the eruption. It is true, of course, that the rioters are burning the ground on which they stand. But this is the logic of things--in France and in other European lands nervously anticipating Muslim upheavals of their own. It is a time of reckoning for the French ruling elite. And this time, it will not suffice to simply rail against those overbearing Americans venturing into Arab lands. Were it only that simple, for this time France is face to face with the history it has made.
This story appears in the November 21, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.