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Pagani: Embers Of Resentment Burn On In Paris

John Pagani: Embers Of Resentment Burn On In Paris

The odd English word 'curfew' comes from French, 'couvre-feu'. Literally 'smother fire'.

Some form of curfew has been introduced in forty small towns and larger suburbs around France since the state of emergency was announced on Wednesday. Mostly the rules prevent under-18s from assembling late at night.

Though rioters stoned the police in downtown Lyon last night, the level of unrest is waning.

Last night the bars and cafes in the entertainment districts were far quieter than usual. This was on a Saturday night when, as usual, Paris was alive with events - a major football test against Germany at Stade de France, rock concerts, shows and all the life of a world city.

Walking around the old Marais, where 65 years ago Nazi militants hurled incendiaries into Jewish homes, we saw the occasional squad of police. Exactly as normal. But then that is how the Paris streets have been throughout the seventeen days of unrest.

The world has watched live TV crosses from the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysees and wondered if these were the venues of the riots. But they are simply the most Parisien of back-drops for a stand-up. Its peaceful there and entirely calm.

Untrue headlines claim the city is 'under lock-down'. Expats have been phoned by anxious relatives and I've heard of companies worried about the safety of staff jetting in for meetings. It's nonsense. If visitors keep the TV switched off they won't see a thing. Paris itself feels the same as it did a month ago, six months ago.

The number of cars burned each night are a bizarre indicator of calm. When only a hundred were destroyed in the Paris suburbs, the 'banlieue', the police declared the night 'ordinary'. They're right but only because the 'banlieue' have bubbled with tension all year.

A poll shows seventy-one percent of French believe the President, Jaques Chirac, can't handle the social problems underlying the riots. They are almost as likely to have confidence in the xenophobic lunatic Jean Marie Le Pen.

Only thirteen percent are willing to say they understand or have sympathy with the rioters.

The TV talkshows are full of analysis - and this is a country with more current affairs talk shows than most. But in casual conversations there are few who accept or even recognise the depth of discrimination and alienation in the suburbs.

Perhaps that's not suprising. The rioters, after all, are hooligans. They are not representative of anyone. There are no useful political conclusions to be drawn from the wild intentions of young men throwing petrol bombs into cars.

Putting the rioters aside for a moment, the unrest has exposed in mass media deep seething resentment among many 'visible minorities' about racial discrimination and alienation from French society.

Conservative columnist Mark Steyn blames events on 'multiculturalism'. Mark Steyn might be the stupidest person on earth. It is rare to find someone who is so confident with opinions so totally eliminated of fact or reasoning.

France is not multicultural at all; it has absorbed multiple cultures in its borders and pressured them to assimilate. It won't even allow headscarves to be worn in schools; Muslim immigrants are told, 'when in France, be French'.

In a country where it is illegal to collect data on ethnicity, 'visible minorities' are often descendants of grandparents who emigrated from what were French territories - Senegal, Algeria and more. They are French, their parents were French, and the French claimed their grandparents were French. But too many are not accepted as French.

The romantic revolutionary slogan 'liberty, egalite, fraternite' has produced a conformist idea of 'egalite'. If you enter French society, the pressure is to behave as the French, look French, practice the French way. Yet it's too easy to call that xenophobic. France's insistence on the French way is what makes France, well, French.

Huge resources have been poured into deprived communities for decades. It fails for the same reason paying welfare benefits and Housing NZ subsidies to Ruatoria or Mangere fails to deliver long-term opportunity. Those communities need something more - respect and dignity, jobs, opportunity and celebration of their diversity.

Time and again it's been noted not a single mainland member of Parliament or television anchor is from a minority.

Discrimination is only one reason why unemployment is high in the banlieue. The so-called French social model has been blamed as well. Heavily walled job protections have made employers reluctant to hire.

I doubt petrol throwing car-burners are thinking anything so sociological. Their more immediate resentment is directed at police. Policing by quasi-military force has failed and there are glimmers of awareness that community-policing methods produce the best long-term results, just as 1981's Brixton riots shook up British policing. In the banlieue patrolling officers have been ordered to address people with the formal 'vous' rather than 'tu' as one uses to a child.

For police, as for the political leadership, there will be a delicate decision over when to lift the couvre-feu. It appears to be working for now but it is also damaging France, as authoritarian crisis measures do. Much of the damage is done.

The fire might be smothered but embers of resentment will smoulder for a long time.

'John Pagani is a Kiwi living in Paris and Europe correspondent on Radio New Zealand's nine to noon' program


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