Well, look who’s at war now.
A few months ago, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman jetted to Europe to interview people for a documentary with the provocative title, “Does Europe Hate Us?” French students lectured Friedman that “France is more tolerant” than the U.S. Unlike the cowboy George W. Bush, they insisted, few Frenchmen “believe you can liberate people by dropping bombs on them.” They -- like Sen. Ted Kennedy, who once described the war in Iraq as “a fraud … made up in Texas” -- clearly viewed the war on terror as an American creation.
Their smugness is probably gone now, at least if those students ever bother to journey out into the suburbs surrounding Paris. Every night for more than two weeks, angry Islamic youths trashed their French neighborhoods. Thousands of cars were torched and hundreds of buildings attacked. The violence didn’t ease until the French government declared a state of emergency.
Then again, maybe those French students remain unmoved, as some of their countrymen do. “People are shouting they want to be equal,” Christophe Bertossi, an immigration specialist at the French Institute for International Relations explained to The Washington Post. “And the government is treating them as if they were criminals or terrorists.”
It’s unclear how Bertossi would prefer that the violent young Muslims (invariably called “French youths” in the mainstream media) be treated. If torching cars and destroying schools isn’t criminal and terrorist behavior, nothing is.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy understands that. In the early days of the rioting, he called the youths engaging in it “scum,” which they certainly are. “For too long politicians have not used the right words to describe reality,” Sarkozy says.
By speaking the truth, Sarkozy made himself a target. “It won’t stop until he resigns!” a 17-year-old named Ahmed announced in the town of Stains. “Young people don’t like being called thugs,” whined a teenager named Bilal. Maybe they ought to stop acting like thugs, then.
Of course, it’s not just the rioters who sound a bit strange. “It’s important for people to try to understand how what these people are doing might seem, from their perspective, might seem like the logical, rational thing to do,” Susan Fiske, a professor at Princeton, said on CNN. “It’s too easy to dismiss them as irrational and emotional and a mob. But they’re people, too, and from their own particular perspective, this is what has to be done.”
Actually, as silly as Prof. Fiske might sound, she may be on to something here. From the Muslim youth’s perspective, destroying their country may be exactly what “has to be done.” Consider what two Muslim girls told Friedman in his documentary. “The person I respect the most is bin Laden,” one young woman said. Her friend agreed. “I’m for suicide bombers. The highest point in Islam is reserved for martyrs.” Keep in mind these young women were born and raised in France. So much for assimilation.
Aside from the violence, France faces the same long-term problems that plague all of Europe: Too much government and too few jobs.
Unemployment hovers near 10 percent, and is said to be much higher in the Muslim areas. Still the problem is “not unemployment, it’s the police,” as one young French Muslim said. “It’s not a problem of poverty,” agrees Alain Touraine, an expert on integration in France. “What we are living through is a general process of rapid reverse integration that is the result of failures on both sides.”
And the government, while bloated, is no help. As The Washington Post put it on Nov. 8, “Political analysts said government officials didn’t focus on the severity of the violence in its first days because many were on vacation or at their country houses celebrating the All Saints' Day holiday.” Well, at least they’re keeping their priorities in line.
The lesson of France is that the west can run, but it can’t hide. Terrorists don’t care what your nation’s stand on Iraq is. They don’t even care what your religion is -- the Nov. 9 bombings in Jordan targeted American-owned hotels, but killed more than 50 people, most of whom were certainly Muslim.
Whether they’re suicide bombers in Jordan or rock throwers in France, the terrorists want to kill, destroy and destabilize. The only way to defeat them is to fight back -- as the American-led coalition is doing in Iraq -- until they give up. It might be a long struggle, but just as the U.S. helped France survive both world wars, we’ll help them win this one as well.