Riots in France

by Boris Kagarlitsky; November 11, 2005
For two weeks now, France has been rocked by street violence and arson. And for two weeks, Russian commentators have held forth about the "Muslim factor" and "ethnic conflicts."

It's easier to spout cliches than to figure out what's really happening, of course. But if our talking heads had taken the time to watch the television news more attentively, they would have realized that at least a third of the rampaging youths in France are not Arabs but the children of black African immigrants. And if a few of these wise men and women had bothered to stray from the usual tourist spots or to talk with the locals on their trips to Paris, they would have discovered that the Arab teenagers living in the working-class suburbs not only speak no language other than French, but they also have no clue about Islam. This is doubly true of young French blacks.

It goes without saying that there are plenty of orthodox Muslims in France who observe Ramadan, never let alcohol pass their lips and forbid their daughters from appearing in public with their heads uncovered. But these people have absolutely nothing to do with the current unrest. Conservative French Muslims keep their distance from the rest of society. They do not allow their children to adopt depraved local mores and attempt to shield them from contact with Christians. Such orthodox Muslims present no problem for the authorities. Like any other conservative community, they seek to avoid contact with the outside world. By attempting to bar Muslim girls from attending school in headscarves, the authorities did much to provoke a conflict, but this is another matter. There is a big difference between the complaints of religious conservatives and teenagers rioting in the streets.

Russian analysts love a good conspiracy theory. It is generally assumed that someone has instigated, ordered and/or bankrolled every major crisis that comes along. Strangely enough, however, they didn't take this line with regard to the events in France, although The International Herald Tribune noted on Nov. 3 that "like everything else that happens in France these days, the rioting has become embroiled in the political succession war between the prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, and the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, both of whom canceled foreign trips to deal with the crisis." The riots have proven disastrous for the prime minister, while they have given Sarkozy grounds for demanding additional powers. This may explain the strange ineffectiveness of the police during the early days of the uprising.

In fact, the causes of the crisis must be sought not in the areas of religion, culture or backroom political maneuvering. Around 150 years ago Europe was shaken by riots very similar to those we're seeing today. In France the unrest occurred in the very same suburbs, the same streets. No cars were torched back then because they didn't yet exist, of course. And police, not yet constrained by any concern for humane conduct, opened fire on the unruly crowds without much warning.

Fashionable sociologists have long been discussing the "disappearance of the proletariat" in Western countries. What they seem not to have noticed is that the proletariat has returned to these countries in its original form and has inhabited the same depressed suburbs in which the current middle class began its rise up the social ladder. Just like the proletariat of the mid-19th century, today's working poor have few rights, no native country and nothing to lose but their chains. This huge group of people doomed to labor in low-paying jobs when they can find work at all are naturally not distinguished by any particular loyalty to the state or respect for the law.

Benjamin Disraeli described the rich and the poor as two separate nations. Today, this is quite literally true, since the proletariat and the bourgeoisie generally belong to different ethnic groups. As a result, liberal society can close its eyes to social conflict by attributing all of the problems that arise to religious and cultural differences and the difficulties of assimilation. No one wants to see that the teenagers in the streets of France today are fully assimilated. They have broken with their cultural and religious roots and become part of European society, but they have not gained equal rights, and this is why they are rioting.

A shift in social policy to the left or the right will change nothing at this point. The only way to solve the problems of the proletariat is to change society, a point made more than a century ago by an immigrant living in London: Karl Marx.