Is Paris burning?
You bet it is, but not as badly as what you see on TV, just a bit more than on the average "hot" week-end night, and certainly out of most people's sight. As in South-Africa in the late 80s and early 90s, "normal" people can carry on living a "normal" life, ie. go to work so they can buy stuff they don't need, watch TV so they can complain there's nothing but crap on TV, go shopping on the week-end so they can buy more stuff they don't need, go on holiday to escape from the city, go back to work so they don't lose that job they hate but they're so grateful for having one...
The violence only affects the inhabitants of the ghettoes, and while a small proporting of the working population in France might have first hand knowledge of what is going on, or know somebody affected by the violence, the newsreports and their images are what's exciting the comments of the average French men and women.
In France, as in any "modern" country, there's the average population. Very average. They grumble and complain, but overall, they're scared of losing what they think they have. There's an underlying discontent, mostly unvoiced, and very few people have the will, the opportunity or the capacity to analyse the problems facing modern societies, least of all governments or politicians. The populus complain that nothing ever changes, and moodily switch their allegiance at election times, mostly as a show of discontent to the government, but they are too entrenched in the status quo to seriously rock the boat.
In England, there are Indians and Pakistanis. In the United States, the African Americans. In Italy, the Albanians. In France, we have the North Africans.
After the war, the workforce in France (as in most European countries) was insufficient to satisfy the demand for labour for the reconstruction and then the expansion of the sixties, so a lot of immigrants were brought in from North Africa, mostly from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
For a long time, these people were considered second-rate citizens. Time has passed, and now their children are considered second-rate citizens. France has always been considered a land of freedom, welcoming refugees and people from different cultures. It is. As a nation, it's one of the countries that has the most "foreign" residents. Unfortunately, the arrogance of French people makes them look at non-French people down their noses. The Arabs are a big component of the poor segment of the population.
In the 60s and 70s, when urbanisation was in full swing, the government and a lot of municipalities begrudgingly built low-cost housing in isolated parts of the towns. The prevaling logic is the same that led to the building of townships in South Africa, but with the cost of land being fairly high in France, it became more economical to "pile them up", and thus the birth of the high-rise low cost housing ("les HLM") created ghettoes in off-center areas of most French towns.
Because of the rampant racism in French society, the average economic condition of these ghetto inhabitants is significantly worse than the national average. Unemployment is a particularly revealing indicator, with rates being three to six times worse in the ghettoes than the national average.
Pressure started steadily this year, after the government decision to cut down on social expenses. The death of two youths triggered the current unrest, but it's not the cause, as most observators have underlined.
In any society, there will be divisions between the haves and the have-nots. Should a perception exist that the have-nots are overly marginalised, denied access and opportunities to join the ranks of the haves, then violence will errupt from those that perceive they have nothing to lose in doing so.
A few days after I wrote the above, the French President, Mr Jacques Chirac, made a public appearance on national TV and radios to call to all "sons and daugters of the republic" for order to be restored and for an effort to eliminate discrimination. Violence has already abated, not as a result of the speach, but probably because the youth exerting the violence are getting out of breath, and without a strong cause to fight fo, fighting against something doesn't provide the motivation to go the distance.
Last night, there were very few affrontments with the police, and "only" 160 cars were burn in the whole of France (an average of 90 cars burn on "normal" hot week-end nights), so I guess this whole episode will be over soon, and will leave behind a collection of half-hearted mesures, usual empty promises and the damages will be painted over.
It's too early to predict whether the President's words will have a long term effect on the French population, but the violence has certainly pushed a lot of people to the right of the political spectrum. I predict that we'll see a representant of the Front National in the 2007 elections...
(added later) ... have a look at this article from the Guardian
for an interesting comment.