Friday, November 11, 2005

The French Riots dans les banlieux

Since when did the translation of "racaille" as "scum" become unproblematic in the US media?

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.


Blogger liberal japonicus:

this post roused me from my blog-matic slumber! Glad to see you out and about at ObWi. Will try and write a longer comment, but just testing the waters now.

11/11/2005 12:50:00 AM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Thanks! I've had nasty server troubles, but I hope those are all fixed for a while.

I'm glad you appreciated my rant about French culture and politics. Being cut off from the means to scream at the news meant that it came out all at once. I haven't often experienced the disconnect that so many people must experience: you're getting it all wrong; that's not it at all!

As a footnote to all sincere commenters, please don't get scared off by the human-verification. After a 14-day break, I found more than 160 comment spams--and they feed on each other!!! Hey, it's a free blogging software and an almost inevitable target.

11/11/2005 01:55:00 AM  
Blogger dutchmarbel:

I moderate my tiny dutch blog too - and continue to hate spammers fiercely...

I wholeheartedly agree with your estimation. I have never lived in France myself, only visited. But this is the feeling I had when visiting, or hearing others who HAVE lived there.

11/11/2005 06:23:00 AM  
Blogger liberal japonicus:

Brilliant comment. I lived in France for a year in the mid 80's, teaching a class prépas in Poitiers, and it seemed that there was at least a hopefulness that things were getting better in terms of racial relations. (though the warm glow that I view those times is probably in large part due to a golden nostalgie that settles over me when I think about that time) Regardless of whether my memories are accurate or not, it is truely disheartening to see that France has moved in the opposite direction, and I wager it is the rise of the right that has influenced this. I still have my 'La droit revien!' stickers somewhere (with the correct spelling) I suppose that I am doing exactly the same thing Charles is but in the opposite direction, but I can't help thinking that the center-right has used Le Pen and the National Front the same way the Republicans have used the religious right. I think this is borne out because when the 'freedom fries' bull was going on, I think it is telling that the left didn't rally around and start defending Chirac or the French government. While his stance against the war was correct, one wonders if he thought that it would be a winner with the populace, he would have jumped in with both feet (cf. Berlusconi)

Your comments about the purely meritocratic system that is then open to richer parents gaming the system reminds me of Japan, but Japan does not have to deal with a minority like the harkis and the background of the Algeria (the zainichi problem is different in scope and background)

Anyway, do mention your blog posts on ObWi and I'll try to be a regular visitor.

11/11/2005 08:34:00 AM  
Blogger dutchmarbel:

I actually experience the same feeling when I'm visiting friends in Belgium (mostly Brussels). Rising Right-wing, bad stereotyping of maroccans... And the last years it is on the rise in the Netherlands too, but not as far as that. Berbers have a bad rep too though, even though they have some good rolemodels.

Our schoolsystem is more egalitarian, if some schools are better than others we tend to fund the underperformers to keep them on the proper level. There is a difference in universities, but the entrance is mostly lottery-based. And of course children from well-to do middle class parents get a better change, if only because of the examples in the family and the 'richness' of the home-climate.

We have more immigrants of the first and second generation in our government, I always tell myself that is a good sign for integration. If only we could vote the proper government in... If only people listened more to ME... ;)

11/11/2005 08:56:00 AM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Crooked Timber is quite interesting on the riots; lots of smart people who've lived in lots of places. Daniel Davies's take is rudely appropriate (roughly: of course young French people with a political grevience are burning shit up, they're French!). Someone over there also talked about how local organizations--community groups, trade unions--have declined in power in the last decade, even as France has been hit with a massive economic slump. I think it's true that local political groups simply have little access to power these days and that that has left people in banlieux even further out in the cold.

I'm not really sure how the FN and the UMP have interacted. Le PEn's gains in 2002 scared the bejeezus out of all of my friends--but then, of course, they're mostly liberals. Sarkozy is probably more willing than Villepin or Chirac to play footsie with them. Le Pen himself has also given himself better PR--talking about immigration and unemployment rather than dirty Algerians, for example.

About the universities. They are a national disgrace. (I'm only being slightly hyperbolic.) All of the professors come out of the grandes ecoles, and they know full well that their students will never become academics, and yet they teach only what subjects interest them and their research interests. The public universities are holding pens for young people who, if they didn't have the student status, would go on the unemployment rolls. It's almost impossible even to become a high school teacher from the public universities. And it goes without saying that those who do qualify to become high school teachers, those upper-crust achievers of the grandes ecoles, are completely unequipped with the practical skills necessary to teach in the tough neighborhoods they inevitably get sent to when they enter the system. If they hang in there and get some senority, they'll move heaven and earth to get sent somewhere safer, richer, and whiter.

The German university I taught at was much, much better--and all of my colleagues lived in fear that the reforms then proposed (short version: funding magnet public universities) were going to send the university system down the French path.

Anyway, do mention your blog posts on ObWi and I'll try to be a regular visitor.
I usually try to respond to ObWi posts there, but this time my comment just got too damned long. But thanks again for the kind words!

11/11/2005 07:47:00 PM  
Blogger dutchmarbel:

In the Dutch Trouw was an article about one of our Imams. Though known as a 'radical' he strongly condemned the rioting in his sermon. Racist behaviour of the French police is no justification he said - tit for tat. Also he says the youth should count themselves lucky that they have not used more violence yet; in their lands of origin there would in all likelyhood be tanks rolling over their heads after riots like that.

He condemned the riots not just on principled, religious grounds, but also on logical grounds. "No matter how much the muslim religion will grow, we will still be a minority in Europe. What do we do when others start torching our poperty? Our daughters can savely travel the tram in the evening. What if a racist moment starts?"

He also said that the riots were partly due to a failure on the part of the moslim organisations, both in France and in the Netherlands, because they busy themselves more with getting government subsisied that with the problems in the muslim community. The youngsters didn't obey the fatwa's that condemned the violence because they never heard of the organisations issuing them before.

In the same paper (but not online) was an article with one of our police comissioners, who was safety-advisor in France end of the nineteennineties. He said you allready saw the problems because the police didn't enter the 'bad' area's anymore and didn't have contact with the population. And of course obvious racism.
We had a lot of campaigns to recruit minorities and women to the policeforce, and have a less authoritan approach.

11/13/2005 04:55:00 AM  
Blogger dutchmarbel:

"what if a racist MOVEMENT starts"

11/13/2005 04:56:00 AM  
Blogger dutchmarbel:

And "more with getting government subsiDIES THAN with the problems in the muslim community."

Darn typo's (it is still early in the morning for me - have to have more coffee...)

11/13/2005 04:58:00 AM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Your local iman seems to be both politically sensible and missing the point. In France (as I understand) only the squeaky wheel gets grease. I've heard teachers explain that if they don't demonstrate raucously every spring, some official will decide that their budget can be cut. (I've also heard the same argument used in favor of embezzling, say, tools and equipment from the Opera Bastille, so make of it what you will.) My point is that the racist movement already exist, the sociological studies of the disenfranchisement of French sons of North African immigrants already exist, and until these riots, nobody was willing to do anything.

I'm not excusing the rioters, but I do dispute their political seriousness. Had they been truly Frenchified, they would have erected at least a symbolic barracade. Had they been truly Muslim about their resistance, there would have been bombs, if not necessarily suicide bombers. Remember: this is all happening within a French context, where global evils are debated every day, where street violence is considered a valid form of political protest, where the Terror is seen as a necessary element of the foundational myth.

Racism is very real in France, but the religious narrative seems right now to be one imposed on it from outside. I'm going to be very skeptical about any reports about France that privilege the role of Islam.

I'm not saying that the divide couldn't go down a religious path some time in the future, but it seems to me that should it go that way, it would represent a monumental failure. The discriminated-against classes of France have yet to embrace radical Islam as a last-ditch revenge faith. We should be earnestly trying not to give them reason to do so.

11/13/2005 05:53:00 AM  
Blogger dutchmarbel:

Jackmormon: I think we are more or less fully in agreement ;)

I was more focussed on the fact that the religious angle was not the main motivator. That is also how I read the Imam's words (who, of course, speaks for a Dutch audience).

Riots do seem to be part of French culture, as well as strikes. Maybe that is all part of the creaking wheel; I come from a different culture ;)

The riots are just means to an end though. And I may have a problem with the means because the wheels here creak differently. But the problem of being 'cast out' is still one of the main roots of the problems in the banlieus - and have been for decades. What I ment to convey was that they appearantly are also 'cast out' by the mainstream in their religion (through choice or circumstances, that is a different debate), as well as in general French society.

11/13/2005 04:21:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Dutchmarbel, you're totally right about the significance of the imam's comment. I wasn't reading carefully enough.

This sentence--The youngsters didn't obey the fatwa's that condemned the violence because they never heard of the organisations issuing them before--deserved to be carefully savored for its delicious irony.

Now this--they appearantly are also 'cast out' by the mainstream in their religion (through choice or circumstances, that is a different debate)--is a fascinating question. A second-generation Algerian kid growing up in France might have a lot of reasons to feel estranged from traditional Islam. But why aren't more of them turning to the revanchist radical Islam?

Maybe they are, but below the radar. Maybe the political battle doesn't seem lost yet to key community figures. Maybe the omnipresence of an aggressively secular state has presented alternatives--or killed off some nascent urges of religosity. Academics have probably already conducted studies of this...

11/14/2005 01:18:00 AM  
Blogger dutchmarbel:

Trouble is that most academics don't agree ;)

I lack both time and adequate control of English to express my viewpoint on the matter - but saying it is just religion is too simple by far.

11/15/2005 05:33:00 PM  

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