French Lessons

By Jim Hoagland (THE WASHINGTON POST, 09/11/05):

"We are victims of our architecture," says Guillaume Parmentier, the head of a French institute, as he struggles to explain two weeks of rioting in the sterile high-rise ghettos populated by France's Muslim immigrants. True. But architecture is not the whole story.

The social explosions that have hit France are being watched nervously by the rest of Europe for signs that this could become something that so far it is not: a religiously motivated uprising by Muslim youths against their Christian and Jewish neighbors. But jihad -- or the assumed lack of it -- is not the whole story either.

The French -- and the angry, nihilistic Arab and African youths in their midst -- are also "victims" of that country's immigration and assimilation policies and, indirectly, its paternalistic social welfare system. Mark them as casualties of a particular brand of politically correct arrogance that French politicians have practiced for 30 years, and you begin to get something like a whole story.

France's upheaval is too important to be explained away by any single factor. And it is too important to be treated as a matter of satisfaction by Americans irritated by the French, on foreign policy or other grounds. France and its beautiful, troubled capital are proxies for all affluent nations that have elevated into an art form the habit of ignoring the world's poor, desperate and criminally inclined.

Our collective neglect lumps them all together, and it helps make the disadvantaged become prey or accomplice for criminals and Islamist fanatics. In that sense, we are all French right now. It is not just Paris that is burning. It is Africa, and the Middle East, and parts of Asia and Latin America, that are burning and showering flames on the Paris ghettos. And on London, Madrid, New York, Bali and Casablanca.

Hurricane Katrina helped Americans understand in sickening detail the failures of local and federal emergency-response bureaucracies. France's riots should illustrate to the French the dead-end nature of the physical and social architecture of building a tall fence around the country's 5 million to 10 million Muslim immigrants and their offspring, and then pretending they are essentially not there.

The French equivalents of New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward lie in 300 or more " zones de non-droit " (lawless areas), which sparked the national rioting. These are areas in the immigrant suburbs of Paris and other large cities where the police do not go as a matter of policy. They have instead for years established checkpoints on the perimeter of these islands of soulless high-rises and then let the inhabitants fend for themselves.

So now we know: Lawless areas can exist inside strong national boundaries as well as in the failed states of Africa and Asia. Governments can stumble into disaster by hoping for the best while letting serious problems fester in Clichy-sous-Bois as well as in New Orleans.

Television interviewers have descended on Clichy-sous-Bois and the other locales of arson and pillage to transmit the voice of the riot. Almost in unison and by rote, the perpetually unemployed children, and grandchildren, of North African immigrant workers who settled in France in economic boom times complain that they are marginalized and discriminated against -- even though they are as "French" as anyone in the country.

True. But the prejudice of others is not the whole story either.

The unemployment benefits that France's generous social welfare system provides to these youths may have bought the stylish clothes and grooming many of them display in the television interviews. But it has not bought their satisfaction or acquiescence in the system that feeds them and isolates them. Those payments may have enabled these youths to be as disdainful of the kind of work their parents eagerly came here to find as are the other "French."

The riots are in some ways a protest against what their parents have created (no surprise there) and against the enormous pressures that life in a Western society brings to bear on antiquated Muslim family structures. These youths lash out with molotov cocktails against the cultural crossfire that envelops them. And they become easy prey for the criminals and militants dumped into the failed townships of a proud and rich nation.

So there is no single explanation and no single answer. The United States has responded to the collapsing social and family structures of the Muslim Middle East and Central Asia with the fire and brimstone of war. The French respond to a related challenge within their borders with political insincerity and economic handouts. The failures of both countries have more in common than either is prepared to acknowledge today.

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