Eye of the storm

POSTED AT 12:00 AM ON Nov. 2, 2006 


AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France -- Whenever I ask people in the posh city of Aix about last year's riots, they'd usually rather change the subject. Those who do talk tell me all about how the riots don't really represent France as a whole, how the media blew things out of proportion. Despite all the images of flaming Peugeots, the mostly upper-class French folks with whom I've spoken don't see it as a big deal. Saving the slums seems like the last thing on everyone's agenda.

Despite some special coverage of the one-year anniversary, most people seem more concerned with preventing repeat incidents than stopping the root problems of economic stagnancy and political impotence. The two leading candidates for the upcoming presidential election, Socialist Segolene Royal and Gaullist Nicholas Sarkozy, have demonstrated no real plans for the banlieues (suburban ghettos), except vague crackdowns on criminals. People just don't care.

I can't say I'm entirely surprised. Certainly, my scope of the situation is limited by my placement in one of France's richest cities. I mean, if you asked people in an upper-class Chicago suburb, like my hometown of Naperville, what they thought a year after the 1992 Rodney King riots, they'd probably shrug their shoulders, too. After all, how much can a person so removed from poverty and desperation discern about life in a welfare-state slum?

What strikes me is the total lack of urgency that locals feel toward this problem. It seems that the approach to the banlieues' problems involves crossing one's fingers and hoping that another spark doesn't go off. Each new bus burning sends a shiver down the white, upper-class spine of France's ruling class, yet no one is willing to do anything about the underlying causes in France's stagnant political climate.

When mostly white, privileged French students and unions march in the streets, they get exactly what they want. When the mostly African immigrant, unemployed French poor lash out against the government, they get nothing, except thousands more police descending into their neighborhoods. Incidentally, a police station is the only commitment the epicenter of the riots, Clichy-sous-Bois, got from the central government.

Changing minds in such a conservative culture is difficult, though. Instead of opening up a dialogue after all the promises in the wake of November's riots, the French response has been one of further isolation. While the suburb powder keg remains explosive as ever, leading French newspapers such as Le Monde to print stories about the semantic use of the word "riot" in describing November's car torching.

So what should France do? I'm not sure. Opening up public transit to the slums and unlocking the strict labor laws (that result in 50 percent unemployment in some areas) would be a start, but the real problem is psychological. The French need to see these kids as their countrymen, not dirt to be swept under a rug. Otherwise, the calm of this anniversary will be a mere reprieve in a tempest of discontent.


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