Not the Paris Intifada

4 November 2005

Not the Paris Intifada

 By Gwynne Dyer

“Scum,” French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy called the rioters who have seized control of many working-class “suburbs” around Paris every night since 27 October, when two teenagers died in an accident that many blame on the police. Accused of pouring fuel on the flames, Sarkozy responded: “For too long politicians have not used the right words to describe reality.”

Sarkozy plans to run for the presidency next year, and he wants to seem even tougher on crime and on immigrants (two separate issues that he regularly conflates) than his main rival, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. But his conviction that the policy of multiculturalism has failed has become the new popular wisdom in France, where right-wing commentators refer to the riots as the “Paris intifada” — as if the rioters were all Muslims.

Nothing as bad as the Paris riots has happened in Britain, but last month gangs of Afro-Caribbean and South Asian youth fought each other in the Birmingham suburb of Handsworth-Lozells and many Asian businesses were looted or destroyed. The talk in the media was all of “ghettoisation,” and even Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality and himself of Caribbean descent, was carried away by the panic.

“America is not our dream but our nightmare,” Phillips said, referring to the existence of a permanent underclass in the United States, largely defined by race, which periodically rises in hopeless revolt and burns down parts of American cities. Britain must not allow American-style racial ghettoes to emerge in its cities, he warned, and linked that risk to multiculturalism: “We have allowed tolerance of diversity to harden into the effective isolation of communities.”

Meanwhile, right-wing American commentators gloat over the notion that the French, who refused to follow the Bush administration on its crusade against alleged Islamic extremists in the Middle East (you know, like Saddam Hussein), now faced a Muslim uprising at home. Multiculturalism, as an alternative to the US “melting pot” approach in which second- or third-generation immigrants eventually lose their old identities and merge into the majority, is now under attack everywhere.

Even William Pfaff, the best informed of American commentators, has stopped believing that people with profoundly different traditions can live side by side in the same country. Writing in “The Observer” after the terrorist bombs in London in July, he said that “A half-century of well-intentioned but catastrophically mistaken policy of multiculturalism, indifferent or even hostile to social and cultural integration, has produced in Britain and much of Europe a technologically educated but culturally and morally unassimilated immigrant demi-intelligentsia.”

He was in effect arguing that the London bombs would not have happened if British immigration policy over the past fifty years had extinguished any sense of solidarity between the descendants of Muslim immigrants to Britain and Muslims elsewhere. That is no doubt true, so far as it goes, but not invading Iraq would have prevented the London bombs at a much lower cost.

The real problem with all this ranting about the failures of multiculturalism is that the Paris riots are actually a splendid demonstration of the successful integration of immigrants into French culture (which has, after all, a long tradition of insurrection and revolution). The riots in Paris are not a Muslim uprising. They are not even race riots. They are an outburst of resentment and frustration by the marginalised and the unemployed of every ethnic group.

The low-income housing estates that ring Paris and other big French cities are the dumping ground for everybody that hasn’t made it in the cool 21st-century France of the urban centres, and they include the old white working class as well as immigrants from France’s former colonies in Arabic-speaking North Africa and sub-Saharan black Africa and from all the poorer countries of Europe. Unemployment there is often twice the national average of 10 percent. But they are not Muslim majority communities, or even non-white majority.

Every ethnic group lives jumbled together in the apartment towers. The kid gangs that dominate the estates steal from strangers and residents alike and fight among themselves for control of the drug trade, but they are models of racial and cultural integration. This can be little consolation to the owners of the 28,000 vehicles that have been burned on those estates so far this year, but what is happening now is neither an intifada nor a race riot.

It is a incoherent revolt by kids, many of them gang members, who would once have formed the next generation of the French working class. They are no longer needed in that role and they have no future, so they are very angry. But they are not politically organised, so after a few more nights the violence will die down again for a while.

In Britain, where unemployment is half the French level and the council estates are less grim and less isolated geographically, there is much less anger. There haven’t been French-style riots in Germany either, although many Germans have deeply racist attitudes towards non-Christian and non-white immigrants, but German cities also do not concentrate their poor people, immigrant and non-immigrant, in densely populated one-class “suburbs.”

The French have little to be proud of in their immigration policy, but what has been happening there since late October is neither American-style race riots nor a Muslim rebellion. About half the kids burning the cars and the buildings are white, working-class, post-Christian French, and they get along with the black and Muslim kids just fine.


To shorten to 750 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Even William…lower cost”) Paragaph 5 can also be dropped.