By Timothy Garton Ash (THE GUARDIAN, 10/11/05):
In the Bible, we read that God guided his people out of Egypt with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Now the impoverished youth of France's outer-city ghettoes are speaking to all of us through a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. Their pillars are made of burning cars - some 6,000 to date - yet this apparently pointless violence has as clear a message as the one Moses followed. Europe, which to their immigrant parents seemed like the promised land, has turned into a new bondage.
"You know," a young man called Bilal told a reporter at Housing Project 112 in Aubervilliers, "when you brandish a Molotov cocktail, you are saying 'help!' One doesn't have the words to say what one resents; one only knows how to talk by setting fire." So they know what they are doing. They speak through fire.
To say this is not to justify the resort to violence. Nothing in the world can justify the beating to death of an elderly, innocent bystander, Jean-Jacques le Chenadec, a retired car worker who was reportedly just trying to extinguish a fire in a rubbish bin near his home. Nothing. But even as a fragile social peace is, we hope, restored through the drastic means of declaring a state of emergency, we have to start understanding what is being said through the flames.
Some commentators have contrasted peaceful, multicultural Britain with explosive, monocultural France. That seems to me dangerous complacency. Of course, the message of the burning Renaults and Citroëns is directed first and foremost at France's leaders. No country in Europe has a larger proportion of men and women of immigrant descent, mainly from the African continent and mainly Muslim: an estimated six to seven million of them, or more than 10% of the population.
In few other European countries are those of immigrant descent so heavily ghettoised as they are in impoverished housing estates like No 112 at Aubervilliers. In few other countries could an interior minister denounce the rioters as "rabble" who deserve to be sand-blasted, and yet remain one of the most popular politicians in the land. That the French prime minister at such a moment is an unelected aristocrat, with a pen frequently dipped in purple ink, makes it hard to resist talk of an ancien regime. Indeed, few European countries have a more exclusive metropolitan elite.
Just a few descendants of France's postwar trans-Mediterranean immigrants appear in public life. Their position was perfectly summed up for me by a recent picture in Le Monde which showed the silver-haired prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, greeting Mr Azouz Begag, the minister for the promotion of equality of opportunity, by patting him on the head. Pat, pat, nice little Azouz. Meanwhile, the social reality of "equal opportunity" is best summarised in the title of a book by a Moroccan-born businessman, The Social Elevator is Broken; I Took the Stairs. The evidence of endemic racism in the French labour market is overwhelming. The British writer Jonathan Fenby tells the story of an entertainer in one of those housing estates who wrote two job application letters to a state television channel. One gave his African name and his real address; the other, a French name and a better address. The first received a refusal, the second an invitation for an interview.
Moreover, France represents the European extreme of attempted assimilation. No other European state has been so aggressively rigorous in its banning of the Islamic headscarf. None has made fewer concessions to cultural difference. As Alain Duhamel observes in his book French Disarray, "the only community France recognises is the national community".
All this is peculiar to, or at least most extremely represented by, the French Republic. But have no illusions: this is a problem that afflicts the whole of Europe. It was second-generation immigrants in peaceful, multicultural Britain who perpetrated the far-worse atrocity of the July bombings in London. Indeed, in the form of their revolt, Bilal and his comrades are in a way speaking old-fashioned French, albeit French without words. For spectacular but not ultimately very bloody protests, with road blocks and barricades, are part of a more than 200-year-old French revolutionary tradition. France's second-generation immigrant youths burned cars; ours burned human beings. Which would you prefer? And it was peaceful, multicultural Holland which last year saw the ritual murder of Theo van Gogh.
Most west European societies have large, dissatisfied communities of immigrant descent. We brought them here in the first place, partly as the legacy of our retreating European empires, partly as workers to perform the menial jobs native Europeans did not want to do, in the years of impressive economic growth after 1945. We kept them, for the most part, at arm's length, treating them as denizens rather than full citizens of Europe. In Germany, for example, most of the so-called Gastarbeiter from Turkey were, until recently, not invited to take up German citizenship, even if they had lived there for 30 years. And the post-9/11 "war on terror" has added new grounds for alienation.
This is an all-European problem. I'm tempted to say it's the all-European problem; or at least, first-equal with that of creating more jobs. The two are closely related. In many of the housing estates now speaking through fire, unemployment is as much as 40%, while the average age is under 30. Meanwhile, the older, native-European unemployed are strongly represented among the electorate of Jean-Marie le Pen's National Front, and other anti-immigrant parties across Europe. This has all the makings of a downward spiral.
On all reasonable assumptions, Europe's population of immigrant descent and Muslim culture will grow significantly over the next decade, both through higher relative birth rates and further immigration. If we cannot make even those who have lived in Europe since birth feel at home here, there will be all hell to pay. Six thousand burning cars will seem like nothing more than an hors-d'oeuvre.
Addressing their socio-economic problems is half the answer, but very difficult, since the key is jobs and jobs are being created in Asia and America more than in Europe. The other half has to do with citizenship, identity and the everyday attitudes of each and every one of their fellow citizens.
Being European should be the overarching civic identity which allows immigrants and those of immigrant descent to feel at home. Indeed, it should, in theory, be easier to feel Turkish-European, Algerian-European or Moroccan-European than it is to feel Turkish-German, Algerian-French or Moroccan-Spanish, because being European is by definition a broader, more all-embracing identity. But it isn't easier.
Somehow, Europeanness doesn't work like that. Native-born Europeans can feel French-European, German-European or Spanish-European. Some - we happy few, we band of brothers - even feel British-European. And there are examples of people who definitely do feel, say, Pakistani-British or Tunisian-French. But the direct hyphenation rarely works. To address the greatest problem of our continent, and not just of France, we need to do nothing less than to redefine what it means to be a European.