The French Riots dans les banlieux
On NPR--my only intelligent media outlet when internet is down--it wasn't until yesterday that the original French was referenced. I loathe Sarkozy, an Enarque who fancies himself hardcore because he talks like Giuliani, but this particular comment, while impolitic and misjudged, seems to have been universally mistranslated.
My dictionary has it as "rabble, riff-raff," and my experience would render it as "f*cking hoodlum trouble-makers." Self-avowed leftists (dark and light skinned) use the word to describe the young men who hang out in downtown Paris with nothing to do but harass girls. There's even a banlieusard version of the word, no less perogative: "caille-ra."
I'm not saying that a politician should have used this word in a public statement, but I wouldn't have translated it as "scum" without qualifiers.
Maybe the fact that qualifiers seem necessary to me is a testimony to how profoundly racist French society is--I know I was astonished to hear that this word, which I had only known from old novels, was still current, and I was uncomfortable to realize that it was being used predominately for Maghrebins.
Before I commit myself any more, without reading the thread carefully, I'd really caution anyone against fitting these riots into a narrative about Islam. Most of the second generation Maghrebins I met in France didn't care about Islam; their only real concern was racial discrimination, which was real enough. Hell, I knew a Francais-Francais guy with dreds who went through the rigamorale to get an apartment.
(More musing after the fold.)
My ex, who had a perfect French name, who had features that could be traced to Normadie, who was cute, who had well-established (white) parents, hopped to the front of a real estate line despite the utter dubiousness of his employment and credit. And he knew why. He was embarrassed about it--he often remarked on how few people of color were in the (huge) building--but he wasn't about to make a stink about getting a well-lit and laid-out Haussmannian apartment.
In 1999, a jewelry maker in the 6th told me that the Chinese were destroying craftsmanship in town. In 2000, a taxi-driver told me that Arab youths had made it unsafe for young women to travel at night. And this was in Paris.
In the countryside, the distrust and racism was even worse. In Orange, a city that voted majoritanian Front Nationale (a neo-fascist movement, let nobody convince you otherwise), I stayed in the 18th-century farmhouse of a woman who had resigned in protest. With the mansion, she had inherited old-school, heavy linen sheets; as we made up a bed for my ex and myself, tucking in the stiff corners, she feigned an apology, that "she had no other." I looked at her perfectly coiffed, blond head, I looked at the blanched, inherited sheets, I looked at the heavy, old stone walls and the wooden slats that would keep out the day's heat, and, remembering my position, I muttered, "Well, I think this'll be fine." And I didn't dare even think about the distance between my hostess's principled resistance to the FN and her obvious--and snobbish and isolationist--pride in her aristocratic heritage.
France remains a country when connections matter tremendously. I know a number of people who have sought to get their child into daycare--a state institution, if not a right--who have wearied of the waiting lists and then turned to what "piston" (pull? connections?) they could exercise. Most jobs, particularly in the lower sectors, are obtained through "piston." And it seems obvious that in such a society of connections, an immigrant community might have a hell of a time breaking through.
It's even worse than that. I mentioned above that Sarkozy is a graduate of l'ENA; he is an "enarque." To take him as an exemplar, his having graduated from this school means, primarily, that he passed an arduous entrance exam when he was about 19. This system of examining exams for qualification to the elite schools was set up by Napoleon in the attempt to form a new meritocracy, but it has become more and more clear that the privileged have been able to game the system. One year in Paris, I lived next to two schools that promised to prepare students for the qualifying exams. These schools, typically, offered 1-2 intensive prep courses, and since the exam was so background-blind, the massive fees in preparation were well worth it. Obviously, the poor, uneducated, and immigrant populations that such merit-based tests--idealistically conceived, let us have no doubt--tend not to perform as well as the prepared, trained, white, bourgeois kids. And here's the tragedy: once the kids pass into the "meritocratic" system, their future is made. They are the talking heads, the scholars, the politicians, the scientists, the research fellows, etc. I've seen French scholarly books (published!) whose authors have signed their credentials with nothing more than "Diplome-[Grande Ecole]."
Oh--and if you make it into a upper-division program in a public university in France, odds are that your average professor will be cynical about your chances. They know, after all, that the grandes ecoles candidates win more slots than do the public school candidates. They know that the grandes ecoles provide tutoring, provide stipends (which enable concentration). They know that their students, knowing that their options are limited, have already turned their ambitions elsewhere. Public schools provide a social status (student, which still means something in France) and a way-station, for young French citizens who might still have some hope for bettering their condition.
I'll leave it there for now, but a really, really important thing to consider is the difference between male and female reactions to being first- or second-generation. I have the impression that a substantial portion of the present discontent is about sexuality. First or second generation Maghrebines are able to buy sexy clothes and marry up and into Francais d'origine privilege, while their equivalent males are left to struggle, to complain, to rail against privilege, and to harrass and destroy what they can't have.
To wrench these musings back into the American narrative, it should be said that Islam is not a principal factor in these riots. The bored, frustrated kids propositioning and then just as rapidly insulting me on the street of Paris were not inspired by Islam--yet these kids were what my French friends referred to as "racaille," and it is very possible that such inept "drageurs" turned their frustrations into violence. These riots reflect a racism that has been brewing for a long damned time. I really don't see any Muslim content in them--unless such a content be forced upon dark-skinned, former-colonial people who otherwise would simply see themselves as advocativing for their rights.
In other words: let us tread softly on what we may not understand.