Troubling questions for France

City of lights, city of love, city of perfumes, city of style. To its many tags, Paris added an unromantic one this past week — city of riots.

For over 10 days, angry youth smashing and torching shops, schools, cars, and buses and fighting pitched urban battles with police have turned parts of the French capital into no-go areas. These are the neighbourhoods that the millions of foreign tourists who throng Paris never get to see. They are home to the other category of `foreigners’ in the city, immigrants, mostly from North and West African countries that used to be French colonies.

The rioting began in an immigrant suburb when two teenaged boys of African origin were accidentally electrocuted as they hid from police. It spread quickly to areas that ring Paris, and later to other French towns with significant immigrant populations. The violence, which has claimed one life and according to latest reports is spreading to other cities in Europe, has exposed the dark side of Paris chic.

The discontent of French immigrant youth, the poverty and unemployment rampant among people of foreign origin who call France home, and the discrimination they face in their day-to-day lives have created a pressure-cooker situation in the bleak and rundown suburban housing estates where a majority of them live. For the youth, the violence, which erupted spontaneously at first and led to several copycat incidents, appears to have been a way to call attention to their plight. For the French Government, the events since October 27, when the troubles began, raise disturbing questions about racism, prejudice, and inequity in the homeland of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

At another level, the riots, and the apparent inability of the police to pull the situation back from the brink, have spotlighted political battles within the French Cabinet and in the ruling party. The rival camps in the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) are positioning themselves for the 2007 presidential contest. On one side is Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister, who made public his presidential ambitions two years ago. He has emerged as one of France’s most popular politicians, appealing to both the Right and the Left with his ability to talk tough on politically explosive issues such as law and order and immigration while advocating affirmative action for immigrants.

Mr. Sarkozy, a maverick son of Hungarian immigrant parents, has been accused of aggravating the violence for political gain with his pledge to “hose down” rioters whom he described as “scum.” It earned him a veiled reprimand from President Jacques Chirac, who called for moderation in language. The President (assuming he will not be seeking a fifth term) is expected to back Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin for the UMP nomination as presidential candidate. It is clear that whoever wins this fight, the French Government must get its act together to end the fighting in the immigrant housing estates and put in place long-term measures that will prevent a recurrence.


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