Residential areas around France are burning. Cars are being torched. Local commerce is being reduced to broken glass, ash and smoke-damaged furniture and fittings. For the last couple of weeks, there have been a number of events around Paris which have caused widespread alarm.
The initial event which seems to have sparked off the violence is the case of a couple of boys who died after being allegedly chased by the police. The ran and climbed into an electricity substation and were electrocuted. Police denials and poor political followup only served to fuel the fire.
At the centre of the political issues is the French home office / internal affairs minister Nicolas Sarkozy (fr), a right-wing politician famously quoted in a previous case of urban unrest as saying “we’ll have to clean up these areas with Karchers”. (Karcher is an industrial cleaning machine manufacturer.) Sarkozy is pushing hard to improve conditions via radical methods in these “difficult areas”. What he means are those mainly poor areas with high percentages of first, second and third generation immigrant families, which are labelled “difficult” by the press and by politicians alike. Sadly, Sarkozy’s hard stance and unfortunate vocabulary is probably doing more harm than good. He is right to say that something must be done, but suggesting things involving industrial cleaners or using other language like “racaille (fr)” which can be interpreted as “yob” by some and “counter-culture” or “bohemian” by others instead of using words like “casseurs” (those who break things) is making him move further to the right and exciting the extremists who are rallying behind the fascist national front.
The violence is spreading at the current time, and some of it is happening quite close to me in neighbouring towns and communities. Yet again the French policy of areas of high rise housing where immigrants and the poor are grouped together coupled with low urban investment is raising its ugly head. France is not a cool place to be when you have the hard right rearing their heads and speaking out against immigrants. Especially when this fuels urban violence around areas where the young and old alike are reduced to auto-destruction of their own areas in order to be heard. I have to face the fact that many French businesses, state services (like town halls, etc) and the middle class are totally out of tune with the difficulties faced daily by those people who are poor, under educated, and living in a parallel economy in their ghettos.
Image credit: Reuters