Monday, November 07, 2005

Paris riots - burnin’ down the house

Two weeks ago, we spent the day in St Denis - the suburb at the center of the current Paris riots. The buildings are a bit run down but the neighborhood is bustling - we toured the church of St Denis (see here), then had a wonderful lunch couscous with spicy Merguez sausage.

After lunch we strolled through the crowded market streets of St Denis, which featured street vendors roasting corn over charcoal stoves and shops selling honey-covered pastries surrounded by swarms of people and (no kidding) bees. During the day, it felt like walking through the mission district of San Francisco - exotic, a bit dirty but safe.

At night, however, things are different.

My first week in Paris, a friend pulled me aside and said “the night in Paris belongs to the Arab youth.” He had been beaten up twice in the last several years by Arab street thugs who he felt were less interested in his money than in brute intimidation.

Like so many things in this wonderfully dysfunctional country, the angry Arab youth is something that everyone knows but nobody talks about. The back story is that there was a large migration of “temporary” workers from Africa in the 50s to provide cheap labor to help France’s postwar expansion. Only they never did make that return trip and now their unemployed grandchildren are raising hell with Zippo lighters all over France.

The newspapers here, while giving the story lots of ink, are at the same time somewhat blasé about these pesky street urchins, who seem to have nothing better to do while waiting for their unemployment checks than torch 1,300+ cars and a few score buses.

Le Figaro assures its readers that all of these delinquents are well-known to the police, as though the police are just about to but haven’t quite gotten around to rounding them up yet. I think the reality is deeper and darker – the zeitgeist seems to be calling marginalized young Arabs around the world to self-destructive acts whose primary purpose is to display how angry they are with the world they find themselves in.

As a signal flare of rage, these kids are torching their parents cars, and the buses they burn eliminate the only way for many people in their neighborhoods to get to work. Like the volcanic eruptions that issue every ten years or so from the slums of Philadelphia or LA or New Orleans and shake the American self-identity, France is experiencing the rage of the underclass. covers the status of the Paris riots here, and the blog, and fistful of euros discusses the political roots here.

Go here for an extraordinary multi-media presentation of the paris riots. Here is a look at the rumor mills.