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John Pagani: A Kiwi Impression Of Paris Burning

John Pagani: A Kiwi Impression Of Paris Burning

By John Pagani

I'm a long way from the riots to date, bolted behind layers of security as Paris apartment dwellers are. And though I rented a car for this weekend, I don't have one parked on the street to be burned by the hordes.

Last night, police say thirteen hundred cars were set alight.

There was a feeling Saturday night would erupt into the worst night yet. There were battalions of police, hundreds have been arrested and yet the suburbs still burned and the riots spread, to the South of the city, to the centre and to other centres - Toulouse, Strasbourg, Nannies, Normandy. Cars, schools, businesses, shops are being attacked with molotov cocktails.

Most of the action is out beyond the Periphique in the 'banlieu', the suburbs. It's beyond the arrondisements, beyond the limits of the metro lines, served by suburban rail. There have been confrontations out there all year. On Bastille Day two hundred cars were burned and police used tear gas and rubber bullets. So far this year, twenty thousand cars have been set alight.

These areas are poor, badly served, isolated. There are housing projects packed with jobless young immigrants. In the burning suburbs, most are Arab or Muslim - but not all.

They are ignored by the political elites, except to be scape-goated, blamed and derided.

This is a country beleaguered by a vicious class system, and a few who have a sense of national superiority. Five million immigrants feel shut out and often unwelcome.

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Unemployment in France is over ten percent. In the banlieu it's more than double that. Among immigrants in the banlieu it's 35 percent. Among the young Arab men it's approaching fifty.

Despite the size of the constituency virtually no elected officials in France are Muslim or even immigrant. So what an easy target they are when reporters go out to the communities, and collect quotes like:

"All the politicians care about are laws for homosexuals and all those immoral things. They are against headscarves, against beards and against the mosques."

The Interior Minister, Nicholas Sarkozy, is an ambitious little upstart with the manner of a ferret on cocaine. He fancies himself as the next President; until this started, so did a majority of voters. Much of what he says sounds like fresh air - loosening up the constricted, sclerotic centralism; he's pro-American. But he has also scratched the law and order itch. His government has been cutting services in the poor suburbs, it does nothing about unemployment and it attacked Muslims for looking different (banning headscarves in schools? There's a priority issue). It has insisted on assimilation and done nothing to help them assimilate. The problem is not only the Government's. The socialist opposition here, and the unions, are objectively pro-unemployment too.

Sarkozy has called the rioters scum. Well they are scum, but the attempt to sound tough has sounded like abuse of the entire community.

The police are little better integrated than the political institutions. There are more police per head of population in France than anywhere else in Europe. They ride around on pushbikes and even roller-skates, and turn up to trouble in huge numbers, heavily and conspicuously armed. But they're not there when the trouble goes away. Where Kiwis see in our police defenders of our own side, too many communities here seem to see an opponent.

So it's no wonder authorities can't control the criminal hooligans on the rampage. They don't know them.

The more they fail, the more those communities feel let down by those authorities, and the more young hooligans with little to lose seem to feel this is licence and motive to join the destruction.

They are burning their own communities. Their own neighbours are losing their small possessions. How hard do you have to work in those places to build something up? It's so easily taken away.

Today I drove out for a day in the countryside, motoring past the estates, the ugly high rises, the graffiti scarred walls and broken pieces. These places are far from the elegant Paris apartment blocks, the leafy rues and the wide avenues. I drove and wondered how my family would cope living in those blocks. How would we manage with a family and a typical income confronting the wealth barriers surrounding the suburbs unseen? How would we cope when we know as we do now the adjustment problems this society takes for granted as part of the price of membership?

These riots may be put down soon. They need to be. But the conditions that let hooligans loose take much more patience and wisdom. We'll see whether there is an appetite for it soon.


John Pagani is a Euro-Based commentator and former chief press secretary for the Alliance.


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