Some France-bashers are taking great delight in the Muslim riots that are burning French neighborhoods and claimed their first fatality Monday. But this 12-night rampage is no laughing -- or gloating -- matter. It is as tragic as it was inevitable.
Coverage of the riots by major American media has been incomplete. Headlines have referred to "angry French teens" and "angry immigrants." That's misleading. According to a French official, most of these rioters are French born -- the children or grandchildren of African and Arab immigrants. The word that is missing in the headlines, and that comes in later paragraphs in news stories, is: Muslim. Hence, the frequent rioters' cry: Allahu Akbar. God is great. Not that you'll read that in The New York Times.
About 10 percent of France's population is Muslim, largely the children and grandchildren of immigrants from North Africa. Unemployment is rampant among French Muslims, as high as 30 percent or greater, by some estimates. Many blame French prejudice against ethnic Arabs and Africans. The government's stated ideal of colorblind integration certainly has failed miserably, as unemployed families simply aren't going to integrate into a middle-class culture.
"It was not a question of if (the rioting) would occur, but when it would occur," noted former U.S. Ambassador to France Howard Leach from his San Francisco office. Leach went on to explain, "The reason it happened in France is that France has not made an active effort to assimilate these folks."
The rioting began after Oct. 27, when two teenagers, Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traore, 15, were electrocuted while hiding in a power substation from police in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. The government said that the police were not chasing the boys, but the community was outraged at the deaths. Riots ensued. Across France, angry rioters torched cars -- more than 3,500 vehicles, according to the Financial Times -- attacked individuals and fired at police. Authorities found a factory for homemade bombs in Evry, a town south of Paris.
A New York Times editorial predictably blamed Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy for calling the rioters "scum" and "riff raff." Sarkozy's biggest fault is that he is center-right. The editorial did not wag a finger at President Jacques Chirac, but did fault a policy he championed -- a ban on Muslim girls wearing head scarves at public schools.
It may turn out that the scarf ban tactically was a bad idea. Nonetheless, France has as much right to implement said ban as Muslim countries have to require women to wear the veil. Let me add that Muslim activists wanted far more than head scarves at public schools. They also wanted gender-segregated physical-education and history classes expunged of the Holocaust. Change the scarf policy, and they still will be dissatisfied.
Meanwhile, the Sarkozy-bashing is all wrong. Sarkozy, it should be noted, ordered police not to fire at rioters. How can critics call him polarizing when, as the Los Angeles Times reported Monday, rioters have fired at police about half a dozen times, but police have not fired back?
Leach sees Sarkozy as a constructive force, who unlike Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, embraces the sort of Anglo-American free-market economic reforms that should raise employment levels and offer opportunity to the economically disenfranchised.
De Villepin prefers the government-rich model -- government programs and job counseling -- and dismisses the Sarkozy approach as un-French.
There is such a thing as being too French, after all. High unemployment, for example, is very French. Les greves (strikes) are French. These riots are French.
And while critics point to France's shortcomings, violence erupts around the world. London's July bombings sadly demonstrate that a healthy attitude and low unemployment alone cannot ward off extremism. The very-inclusive Dutch were horrified last year when a Muslim jihadist shot, stabbed and almost beheaded filmmaker Theo van Gogh. The killer left a note that warned other jihadists were ready to kill "the enemies of Islam."
The entire planet has been endangered by rogue extremists who promote violence in the name of Islam. Angry young minds are so drawn to the cause that they ignore cooler words -- such as the fatwa issued by a leading French Muslim organization against the riots.
And while critics may gloat at Chirac's discomfit, sadly, it is France's poor that will have paid the highest price. As the Ministry of Tourism noted in a statement, "The violence has occurred mainly at night in districts inhabited by the underprivileged. These persons are themselves the principal victims."
As tempting as it is to blame the French, even Francophobes need to be aware: What started around Paris could happen anywhere.
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