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Why France is burning

November 09, 2005 14:45 IST

I love Paris in the springtime
I love Paris in the fall
I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles
I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles

Cole Porter's standard, sung by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald, perhaps symbolises the kind of romanticism the world associates with France, and its capital. You normally think of Riviera luxuries, easy working hours, wine, music, literature, art -- the finer things in life -- when you think of France.  

But now, with arson, rioting and killing sweeping the nation for 12 consecutive days, the country that gave birth to the lofty ideals of humanism -- Liberty, Equality, Fraternity -- is facing questions it has perhaps never faced since the Bastille fell, 216 years ago, and the French Revolution marked an important step in human evolution.

If bits and pieces have left you craving for the full course on why Paris is burning, read on:

How did the riots begin?

On October 27, two young men -- 15-year-old Bouna Traore and 17-year-old Zyed Benna -- were electrocuted at a power station while fleeing from the police. A third teenager was injured. The incident provided the spark to the tinderbox of loathing and anti-government feelings in the suburban ghettos of Paris. 

How can just one incident spark off so much hatred?

The situation was worsened by a remark of French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who called the rioters 'scum'. In fact, one rioter told The Guardian, 'Les keufs, man, the cops. They're Sarkozy's and Sarkozy must go, he has to shut his mouth, say sorry or just f**k off. He shows no respect. He calls us animals, he says he'll clean the cités with a power hose. He's made it worse, man. Every car that goes up, that's one more message for him.'

Why have the police not been able to control the violence?

Because it has been in spurts, sort of like guerrilla warfare. The rioters gather at night, set government establishments, shops, cars, trash cans -- anything and everything -- afire and scoot. Anyone who tries to douse the fires is attacked. One man has been killed and an elederly woman was set on fire.  

Why such deep-rooted hatred?

Most analysts feel it is because France as a country has failed to integrate the very ideals it gave to the world -- Liberty, Equality and Fraternity -- into its own social fabric.

After the Second World War, France went through what the French call 'les trentes glorieuses' (the 30 golden years). During this time of economic boom, scores of workers were recruited from North Africa -- especially former French colonies like Algeria -- for menial jobs. They fed the engines of the First World country, but themselves lived in Third World conditions -- in slums, in ghettos.

The second generation of these North Africans, mostly Muslims, now are a significant part of the French population, but their condition has remained the same. They have no jobs, no future, no feeling of being one with the majority of a country that goes on mass vacation every summer. These beurs -- French slang for Arabs, which encompasses French Africans -- are the usual suspects for every crime. They are the dope peddlers, they are the pimps, they are the ones rounded up all the time.

France has no State affirmative action like India or the United States do. In other words, there is no reservation for ethnic minorities. And the on-paper 'everyone is equally French' philosophy of integration has not worked in practice. Mainstream France remains deeply distrusting of the other France -- of the migrants, who face racial discrimination in every walk of life. And the migrants are now hitting back the only way they can -- with blind, mindless anger.  

Are the French authorities aware of the problem?

Most analysts, and the rioters themselves, believe the politicans are aware, and yet have done nothing to change things. Ironically The interior minister is one politician who has in the past admitted to the problem of the migrants and advocated affirmative action. Sarkozy will in all likelihood run for President in about two years time. His political opponent, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, too has now admitted racial and religious divides are a reality in the country.

What has the French government done?

French President Jacques Chirac has declared a state of emergency. The last time such a measure was declared was during France's war in Algeria in 1955.

France aflame: A brief history of unrest

October 25: French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy is pelted with stones and bottles at Argenteuil, a Paris suburb. Sarkozy vows to clean criminal infested neighbourhoods 'with a power hose'. He calls mischief-makers 'gangrene' and 'rabble'.
October 27:
Zyed Benna, 15, and Bouna Traore, 17, are electrocuted in Clichy-sous-Bois, a Paris suburb, while hiding from the police. The cops deny, but the news triggers riots. Fifteen vehicles are torched.
October 29:
Silent march in memory of Zyed and Bouna is held in Clichy-sous-Bois. Arson continues.
October 30:
A tear gas grenade explodes in a Clichy-sous-Bois mosque, fuelling more anger. Sarkozy vows 'zero tolerance' of rioting.
November 1:
French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin meets Zyed and Bouna's families, promises probe. Rioting spreads to more regions in Paris.
November 2:
Rioters attack a police station at Aulnay-sous-Bois. Police are fired upon.
November 3:
Violence spreads beyond Paris.
November 6:
President Jacques Chirac convenes emergency meeting, vows to restore order. Riots escalate, 1,500 vehicles are torched, two policemen are seriously injured.
November 7:
A 61-year-old man, Jean-Jacques Le Chenadec, dies after being attacked by rioters.
November 8: Chirac declares state of emergency.

Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

rediff Features Desk