TCS Daily


The Riots in Retrospect

By Nidra Poller - December 29, 2005 12:00 AM

French insurance companies have announced they will file claims against the government for partial reimbursement of settlements of €200 million payable for damage incurred during the November riots. The media are too busy gushing with new-found multicultural faith to comment on the figure, or even to notice that insurance companies apparently expect the government to protect property--its own and that of its citizens. The €200 million were tossed out and lost in the shuffle. And no one thought to compare them with the $145 million mentioned in passing as the sum needed to feed starving West Africans.

It is difficult if not impossible to obtain precise information on what really happened during the three-week insurrection, resolutely qualified as "urban violence." As usual, reality is twisted, distorted, and diluted by an official version promoted jointly by government and media. For lack of an appropriate heading—guerilla warfare, junior jihad, copycat intifada—the statistics were filed under existing categories, giving a whopping total of 70,000 reported criminal incidents for the month of November. "Normal" center-city crime was radically reduced. Suggesting that muggers, pickpockets, Jew-bashers, and rapists were busy elsewhere. Busy how? Well, according to the official interpretation, busy trying to explain to fellow citizens their crying need to be accepted.

Once in awhile a bare fact pops up. Two high-level Israeli police officers were invited to advise their French counterparts on efficient methods of riot control. Such unorthodox cooperation is usually kept secret. This time the visit was openly announced. Dire predictions abound for New Year's Eve. For many years now Molotov cocktails have been competing with champagne for traditional festivities, and this year is expected to be particularly festive. The Socialist opposition, which has more or less cast its lot with the noble rebels, demanded that the state of emergency imposed in the last week of rioting be lifted. Harsh measures, they say, are the cause not the solution to violence. The motion was defeated.

The press reported parsimoniously on a November 21 meeting where police chiefs and domestic intelligence services compared notes and planned security strategy. Judging by two recent mini-riots it would seem that the strategies have yet to be implemented. A gypsy demonstration on December 5 left the boulevard Beaumarchais looking like a war zone. Ravers wreaked havoc last week in the old town of Rennes (Britanny). They burned cars, sacked boutiques, and battled riot police until seven in the morning. The gypsies were protesting imposition of a property tax on caravan sites. The "ravers" were furious because they had been denied permission to hold a monster techno concert out in the countryside.

As reported in the news weekly L'Express the police say rioting that began on October 27 took them by surprise. Though they had drawn up a contingency plan for "urban violence" in July, in the aftermath of the London subway bombings, they were shocked by the sheer numbers and extreme violence of the rioters, and stunned by the rapid, spontaneous spread from project to project and town to town.

More than 9,000 vehicles were burned, 96 public buildings were destroyed, 126 policemen and policewomen were injured...and it was all done so...spontaneously! Meager excerpts from the domestic intelligence (Renseignements Généraux) report have been made public. Supposedly based on intense, high class snooping, the findings just happen to confirm the orthodox interpretation of the "urban violence": it was not organized, not coordinated, not religiously inspired. The riots were a spontaneous outburst of frustration from youths burdened with unemployment, discrimination, and ghettoization. They were joined by misguided kids who came along for the fun and got carried away, admiring themselves in the media mirror, competing to burn more cars than the next guys. In short, a mixture of minority protest and boys will be boys rowdiness.

A few days into the rioting the police saw that their conventional standoff techniques were ineffective. Battalion formations were abandoned in favor of small mobile units. Teargas was replaced with new fangled crowd control weapons. Assailants were blumped, blintzed, phlumped, and spray painted. Battles were filmed, DNA data was collected, close to 3,000 people were arrested. The police claim that 80 percent of the young men who were arrested had already been tagged for delinquent behavior. This raises a thorny question that l'Express did not express: if the rebels were thugs, how do they represent the yearnings of earnest immigrants rejected by cruel French society? Left-leaning judges, playing on a technicality--a very small percentage of the rioters actually have records—plucked them out of the criminal category. And the judges will have the last word when the perpetrators come into court.

Quoting a police investigator, L'Express describes the "bomb factory," with its stock of two hundred Molotov cocktails, discovered in an abandoned former police station in Evreux outside of Paris. Six minors and a "big brother" with an impressive police record were arrested. And that's not all. The hard drive of their computer yielded vivid illustrations of their "culture": home movies in which they played at urban warfare, did target practice in garages, and posed, fully armed, next to stolen BMWs. Along with the bb guns, ski masks, and assorted weapons found in Evreux, the police were surprised to discover...sabers! No qur'ans? No orange jump suits? No snuff films? No religious influence, no organized insurrection, no coordination, no planning? Who knows?*

Meanwhile images of burning cars, bus depots, and warehouses have been replaced on the TV screen with personalities from the aggrieved communities. Blacks and Muslims are displayed in the kind of rosy light used in markets to make meats and vegetables look luscious and fresh. Some of them are clean cut, well dressed, soft spoken. Others are funky, surly, and barely articulate. Whatever the style, the message is one size fits all: Blacks and Muslims had every reason to revolt. Torching the town was a perfectly understandable reaction to the sufferings they endure. French society has got to change. The legislature should resemble the population in its diversity. And the economy, at every level, all the way up to the top, should reflect this diversity. As for the media, the new look is already in place. Well, not exactly. Most of the journalists are still...uh...well...not diverse. But they agree with their multicultural guests on the diagnosis and treatment of the ills exposed by "urban violence."

The message is: we hear you, brother. And of course the Jacques Chirac-Dominique de Villepin government is all benevolence and boost, pulling equal opportunity rabbits out of the hat, waving away the realities of the insurrection with its magic wand.

The soothing message is that nothing really terrible happened, it's all in the honored tradition of popular revolt and social progress, and French society is all the more prompt to react because it was just on the verge of applying the appropriate measures when the incidents broke out.

This contrasts sharply with what one hears on ground level.

Today, more than ever, the media are talking to themselves. The determined sociological packaging of the insurrection comes through as a last ditch effort to save appearances. Three weeks of mayhem, with promises of more and worse in the near future, cannot be wished away so easily. The people are fed up, including a good portion of the diverse populations in whose name, supposedly, the cities and banlieues were torched. They want stringent measures. They are disgusted with the normal everyday brutality they've been enduring for decades and outraged by the nihilistic mob violence that was allowed to run rampant for three weeks. Nicolas Sarkozy's popularity is running high despite concerted government and media attempts to make him disappear behind Villepin's ruffles and oratorical bluster. The far right reportedly saw a sharp rise in registration. Intellectual mob violence against the brilliant philosopher Alain Finkielkraut dared to articulate a different interpretation of the revolt is another sign of frantic denial.

And perhaps the most telling silence that tears through the image-making opinion-making multicultural media circus is the absence of a single word about the two Frenchmen beaten to death during those fateful days. For every "youth" whose banlieue blues are sung to high praise there is not even a footnote about the grieving families of these men. For all the prime time devoted to memorial marches for Ziad and Bunye, "dead for nothing," dead for hiding in an electrical power relay station, there isn't a word about the 56-year-old Frenchman beaten to death for taking a picture of a streetlight on someone else's turf, not a word about the Frenchman beaten to death for trying to put out a fire in the housing project where he lived. Sociologists are on call, making agile connections between the torching of day care centers and unemployment, but no one has asked them how young men learn to beat a human being to death in a few short minutes.

And the police, whatever they say to the contrary, are tracking down leads to see how the uprising was—spontaneously--planned, coordinated, and related to some sort of religious identity.

Twenty-five terrorists with ties to Zarqawi were arrested this week in different regions of France, and another three were arrested the other day in Seine St-Denis. An arms cache was found in a simple garage in Clichy-sous-Bois, where the riots began on October 27th, stocked with explosives, replicas of French commando uniforms, bulletproof vests, and military grade weapons. There was no mention of sabers.

*My hunch is confirmed by Rabbi Michel Serfaty, prime mover in a good-hearted campaign of Jewish-Muslim rapprochement, who knows his way around in the banlieue. Apparently it is common knowledge that the "big brother" of the Molotov cocktail factory is a religious extremist (L'Arche N° 572, December 2005)...

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