lundi, novembre 07, 2005

Letter From The Barricades

Dear Pal Peter,

Ah, the riots. You are getting gleefully hysterical coverage in the U.S., I think. Here it is the opposite. Imagine the emotional state of the average U.S. citizen if car-torching rioters were on their 12th day of a rampage that had destroyed almost 6,000 cars, plus churches, schools, buses and buildings--imagine also that these riots had started in D.C. (well, New York would be a better analogy), but then spread to LA, Miami, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, and, just for the hell of it, Provo. Well, take that imagined level of U.S. outrage, hysteria, and downright nastiness ("Shoot to kill!"), and then invert it. Flip it around 180 degrees.

That's France.

I have had a devil of a time finding news about these riots on French TV, (though the papers do devote major coverage to the story); when I do, the tone sounds calm, the faces look resigned. People in the suburbs are interviewed with an anthropologist's detachment. Much of the coverage centers on the contest between Sarkozy and de Villepin, the two leading candidates to succeed Chirac as president, and how each of them are faring politically in relation to "the crisis". Maybe the news will show a few fast clips of nighttime flames, firemen at work, and then the ubiquitous "morning after" shot of an ashen automobile carcass. It's not much. With the pronounced coverage in the States, it feels a little like a reverse of the disparity in Iraq war coverage between here and at home: over here the Iraq reports show much more violence, death and destruction; at home, much less so. Why the dif? Pleasure taken in the woes of others, I'm sure (get yr schadenfreude on). But, as far as this non-French speaking, non-citizen can tell, there is a dispassionate, cerebral tone prevailing, both in the discourse and the wrist-slapping response, and it baffles me. Where is the National Guard? Where are the air strikes?! There's a lot of angst over the fact that certain towns are being empowered to enact a curfew, this provision having come from the year 1955, enacted at the beginning of the Algerian "troubles." Seems to be much hand-wringing over the propriety of this step. Over a curfew. With 12 days of riots. With 6,000 plus cars burnt across the country.

There is no way such a muted "law and order" response would be tolerated in the US, from the personal level on up. I'm not saying the U.S. response would solve anything (I don't think the U.S. would be worried about solving anything at this point—they'd be worried about STOPPING this), nor am I saying the U.S. approach would be better, long term or short, than the French: I'm just amazed at the stark difference between our societies.

My impression is that the riots got out of hand early because there was a real reluctance and/or inability to squelch the initial uprising. Like the looting in Baghdad. The problem is almost the opposite of New Orleans: in New Orleans incompetence prevented effective action, and poverty exacerbated this; here apathy precluded the commitment of competency—though again, all exacerbated by poverty.

I don't think anybody here cares too much if the poor burn down their own methodically isolated ghettos. And this ambivalence kept the response weak. But now that cars are being burnt in the Marais (an old district in central Paris), and burnt in almost every major city in France, self-preservation kicks in. There is talk on the TV about the problems in immigrant communities, lots of high-minded rhetoric, I take it. There is real distaste for the ugly task of crackin' heads, and I suppose that's good. But you can't have the rule of law if you don't enforce it. And while I am very happy immigrants are having their problems put on the front burner (this is essential, but it was just as essential BEFORE these riots, and I was talking about this IN AMERICA before we even got over here--and I know NOTHING about France, so it's not like this is out of the blue), I don't think there's anything liberating about setting a 53 year old woman on fire in a bus, or beating a 61 year old man to death.

I feel there was a tacit acceptance of the riots, a shrugging response that acknowledged on the one hand that real problems exist for these immigrants, and that real grievances are behind the riots, and on the other hand, a sense of profound separation, a sense not only that these were not Frenchmen committing these acts of arson and assault, but that this wasn't happening in France. I think the regular French citizen not only views the perpetrators of these acts as aliens, but they feel these aliens live in alien territory, a sort of "Little Algiers" that may be within the Republique, but isn't really a part of it. I don't know how else to explain the weird indifference I've seen.

One thing's fer sure, in the U.S. there would be a lot more bodies droppin'.

Two policemen were shot in an ambush last night, but they were hit with buckshot, not 9mm bullets from a handgun or rifle. The low level of gun ownership here seems to have suppressed the level of personal violence—for instance, looting in the U.S. starts at the gun counter (look at New Orleans, with dudes shooting at rescue helicopters—very un-French), and once the guns and ammo get circulated, people have a way of "getting dead." Over here there have been no deaths until today, and that one from beating. On the other hand, if I lived out in the suburbs right now, and I saw the police unable to stop attacks, I would be looking to buy or borrow a Bazooka.

When there's a riot over racial problems in the U.S., it grieves me personally as a manifestation of inequality among citizens. I think most people who aren't outright bigots feel the same pain, when evidence is put before us that all are not equal in our State. That the aggrieved parties are citizens is never in doubt, and is, in fact, the source of the pain for the bystanders. I don't get the sense people here look at these so-called "immigrants" in the same way—as fellow citizens. They talk about this fact, but I think they only see them as citizens when they become recognizably French. Citizenship here is intertwined with an ethnic identity. Happily integrating immigrants into the Republique seems to suffer because of this.

All this analysis makes me sound slightly hysterical. Not at all. I have my Bazooka by my bedside.

I think I'll excerpt major portions of this letter for the blog, EUROCHINO. I will leave out the dirty bits, like ... and ....

We are fine. The center of the city remains safe, and daytime is quiet. Went to the Louvre today. Did some drawings. Hey, do you really mean it about bringing something over for me? I'd love a damn Apple wireless keyboard, the Bluetooth model. Can I have one sent to your casa? And then you can hand ferry it over for me?

Lots of Molotov Love,
Daivis Chino