Peter Lunenfeld on Fri, 18 Nov 2005 08:51:10 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Paris Isn't Burning (but the Banlieues Did)

French blogs have been featuring two images from US cable news
networks. The first is purported to be a CNN graphic of France
showing the cities where the riots have been taking place. The only
problem is that the cities are all in the wrong place (Paris where
Lille really is, Lille is on the the coast, Toulouse is on the
Swiss-Italian border, etc.), and the country identifier, FRANCE, is
deep within Germany. There's some debate as to whether it actually
ran, or is some sort of meta-commentary on American geographical
ignorance. The second image appears to be more likely, though I
have only seen it as a screen grab so I can't vouch for it
personally. It is the story identifier for a Fox News piece titled
"Paris Burning," and it features one of those fantastic/plastic
blow dried anchorpersons in front of a supergraphic of the Eiffel
Tower with a wall of flames just behind it towering a hundred meters
into the air. As one more than one blogger noted, this was a visual
straight out of an effects driven disaster picture, hardly
photojournalism.  A blogger whose page offers both images asks of
this one, "Bruce Willis va-t-il sauver Paris?"
e -t-il]. What follows are some reactions to the events of the past
month here in France, unfortunately without any action heroes
coming to save the day.  

A temporary transplant from Los Angeles to Paris, I now consider
myself a seasoned veteran of urban rioting. Despite the fact that the
world media has since moved on, as they did from Katrina and the
Kashmiri quake, friends in LA are still sending frantic emails
wondering if my family and I are okay. But what went on here was
nothing like LA in '92, when everyone from Santa Monica to Pasadena,
from the Valley to Watts, was viscerally affected by the burnings,
the beatings, the lootings, and the sense of anarchy in the air.  In
central Paris, the rioting felt far, far away, restricted to the
outlying banlieues. These ex-urbs, as anyone watching the coverage
could see, are filled with dilapidated, dehumanizing housing
developments. They have become France's "somewhere else," designed to
separate the French underclass (read poor, black, Muslim, or often
all three) from my office in the chic 6th arrondissement, near the
shopper's paradise of the Left Bank, and even from our apartment in
the sleepy, tourist-free 15th.

It was strange to walk the streets and ride the metro but not to
feel any palpable sense of public anxiety, or even urgency. The
French, who delighted in their denunciations of the Bush
administration's callously inept response in New Orleans, were
humiliated by their own stasis in responding to the rioting in the
banlieues. President Jacques Chirac appeared only twice in the
national media, and his two rival heirs apparent, Prime Minister
Dominique de Villepin and Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy,
though both from the same party, offered schizophrenic responses. The
aristocratic Villepin, he of the impossibly perfect suits and mane of
silver hair, spoke as though he were leading a seminar at a school of
social work. Sarkozy, the grandson of Greek and Hungarian
nationals, took the role of the pit bull, calling the rioters
"thugs," thereby alienating the very immigrant communities he was
assiduously courting just a few moths ago in his bid for the
Presidency in 2007.  With things cooling down three weeks into
this crisis, the French establishment finally unified around the idea
of order, instituting a state of emergency last invoked in 1955,
against the Algerian grandparents of the contemporary Algerian-French
rioters and their African-French neighbors. Even during the
student-worker unrest in May 1968, the authorities did not go this
far. Then again, student leaders like Daniel Cohn-Bendit spoke the
same language of Enlightenment rationalism as the government (and so
many of that generation of =8C68, including Danny the Red himself,
now a Green in the European Parliament, have moved into positions of
power and privilege). The hope is that the present, apparently
leaderless unrest can be restrained from spreading to even more of
France, and throughout the rest of Europe beyond. But with cars on
fire in Brussels and Berlin, and rumors of no-go zones for the police
in Malmo and Copenhagen, the boundaries have been breached. 
Beyond reestablishing control, the authorities do not have much to
offer besides a dream. The future they say they seek is one in which
the rioting youths can be remade through the powers of the European
superstate into a model minority, one that draws from and contributes
to European economic markets, cultural production, and historical
values. What no one mentions is that one hundred years ago, Europe
had just such a model minority. Those people, who espoused a
different version of monotheism from their Christian neighbors,
integrated extremely well into the economy. They were
entrepreneurial, founding banks, running shops, and opening factories
that employed both their own people and their Christian neighbors.
They came to embrace European culture, and by the early 20th century
were creating defining works of fiction and philosophy, forging
scientific theories, and crafting beautiful music and art that we
still refer to as highpoints of European civilization. In the end,
was it any wonder that those people came to see themselves as more
German than the Germans, more French, even, than the French
themselves?  Those people, of course, were the European Jews, and
within a generation they were rounded up and handed over to the
Nazis. Their neighbors then looted their stores, stole their
furniture, and took over their empty dwellings. What Europe built in
the years since those horrific times is truly a wonder, a model of
soft power and civil society, balancing economic opportunity and
community cohesion. But this fall, the flames that I couldn't see
and the smoke that I couldn't smell in a Paris that wasn't
burning reminded me that the angel of history never flies too far
from the River Seine.

Peter Lunenfeld

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