Friday, November 25, 2005

Provoked and Provoking

Having shared a train carriage this evening with a gang of ten or so smoking, rude and aggressive youths, quite a bit of my sympathy for the rioters of Paris has suddenly evaporated (if it ever existed).

These youths were trying to intimidate the passengers, leaning over them to pull down windows, asking one passenger if they could look at a newspaper and then tearing it up. I couldn't follow what they were saying, they spoke in the youth argot of the banlieues, but it wasn't nice. They swore when the train waited too long in a station, they jumped in and out of carriages and walked up and down, using interconnecting doors. In short, they were looking for trouble and enjoying the discomfort they were provoking in their fellow men and women.

It doesn't make sense to riot, does it, if your agenda really is to get a job, to get respect? Who will employ you after that? Much media space has been spent on the reaction to Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister responsible for the police force who called the rioters 'racailles'. My dictionary translates this word as: 'rabble, riffraff, scum'. 'Riffraff' is quite different to 'scum' to my mind, so I guess much of the meaning must have been in the intonation. Nonetheless, it caused outrage among the banlieue young. The most common call is that he show: 'more respect'.

What does one have to do to gain respect? It is not easy to gain respect. Firstly, you have to show respect to others.

One French magazine (Marianne) called the riots an 'intifada' on its front cover. The journalists of the magazine complained and the word was pulled from the cover, but unfortunately the command came too late to withdraw the word from the the posters advertising the magazine which have been decorating the city this week. 'Intifada' is a word of arabic origins which means 'uprising'. It has been mainly used for the Palestinian uprising.

I think it is a mistake to use it in relation to the Parisian riots. The youths on the train this evening were not arabic. They were clearly of different backgrounds, some white, some black africans. What they had in common is that they were all men, all young, all wearing trendy clothes, all with fancy hairstyles, all talking an argot that in itself was enough to separate them clearly from the rest of society.

They were the same people pictured in Paris Match magazine this week posing in a double page spread under the headline: 'Ils ont la rage' (they're furious). Although their faces are blurred you can see they are a mix of ethnic backgrounds including white, they wear trendy, expensive clothes and trainers, they carry designer iron bars and other nasty implements including tear gas canisters.

'Provoked and provoking' is the phrase that comes to mind. Sarkozy wants to be president and I think he is quite happy to play this affair to the hilt. He is undoubtedly a cut-throat politician and he knows that if he remains looking tough at the end of this (which he undoubtedly will) then he will be a popular figure for the presidential elections. Villepin, on the other hand, has come out of it looking red-faced. 20 Minutes magazine had a picture of him on the cover with the title 'Villepin-pon-pin' which is a play on childish name for a fireman.

To me, it doesn't look at all good. It will lead to more 'security' restrictions to our way of life and more intense discrimination. For there is, surely, discrimination in France. Everybody says it, and when you see the near absence of people of Maghreb origin in the white collar workplace, and pass yet another team of black street sweepers, you have to believe it.

A change will only come from active integration of all ethnicities into all stratas of society and more of an acceptance of the differences that people have due to their origins. In a multicultural country, you can't 'force' everyone to be French, you really can't. Society must be allowed to change, it must evolve. It is necessary to accept difference, to learn to appreciate it. It will be a huge effort for France, but it is the only real solution for a positive future.

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