Revolution is the democratization of violence. It is gives the common man the very same power as law enforcement and strips away the illusion that violence is the sole province of autocrats and politicians.
The uprising we see in Paris is not simply hooliganism, nor is it religiously motivated. It is, in fact, a flat rejection of the institutional racism and segregationist policies that have pervaded French society for decades. North African Muslims make up nearly 10% of the French population, and yet they are shunted off into massive high-rise ghettos in the suburbs that keep them from integrating or benefiting from France's prosperity. Their sequestered existence has spawned all of the endemic problems associated with ghetto life; drug abuse, unemployment and gangs.
The widespread violence, which has now affected 30 cities from the Mediterranean to the German border, is a consequence of Europe's failure to integrate its immigrant population. France has unwittingly created a permanent underclass and reinforced a de facto apartheid system with the tragic results now spilling out onto the streets.
Former President Francois Mitterrand summarized the desperation of these Arab youths when he said in 1990, "What hope does a young person have who's been born in a quarter without a soul, who lives in an unspeakably ugly high rise, surrounded by more ugliness, imprisoned by gray walls in a gray wasteland and condemned to a gray life, with all around a society that prefers to look away until its time to get mad, time to punish". (Doug Ireland's "Why is France Burning"; Direland)
Mitterrand's comments show that some French leaders are keenly aware of the inequities and divisions have resulted from their neglect. Unfortunately, nothing has been done to "level the playing field" or to minimize the frustration of the discarded and disenfranchised Arab youths.
Police brutality and harassment have further exacerbated the bitterness. The man who embodies this callousness and disdain more than any other is the widely reviled Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy personifies the tough-talking, "law and order" cop. His disparaging remarks have echoed throughout the media and aren't worth repeating here. He's had a relatively free-hand to restore the peace, but has had only minimal success in doing so. Now, Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin has joined the effort and declared a state of emergency, invoking the same repressive measures that were used during the Algerian War.
The new powers create a 10 o' clock curfew and allow the police to perform raids and searches without warrants. De Villepin has promised to address the problems of the ghettos, but has offered no concrete proposals. Instead, he stated provocatively that, "The republic is at a moment of truth" implying that order will be restored regardless of the cost to civil liberties.
The mayhem has continued for 13 days and has knocked the Iraq war and the Asian earthquake off the front page. We have a macabre fascination with the prospect of a social meltdown; of angry throngs taking to the streets and wreaking havoc. But, although the grievances are real and deep-seated in the immigrant community, there's nothing here to suggest that long term chaos or revolution is forthcoming. Most likely, the government will adjust its inflexible position on "equality" and allow affirmative action programs to be put in place. The French, as a rule, have strictly forbidden special treatment of ethnic groups whether they've had difficulty assimilating or not. Now they'll have to revisit that thinking and amend their policies accordingly. We should expect to see the federal government become more proactive in initiating programs that provide greater access to higher education, job training and loans for small businesses.
So, it could turn out that there's a silver lining to the fit of violence that threatened to engulf the city. Like Thomas Jefferson said, "A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing". That could be the case here.
Society will always have groups which are marginalized by the system. Sometimes the only way they can attract attention is by flailing out blindly at the symbols of their oppression. Obviously, the owners of the cars that were torched in the riots have nothing to do with government policy. Never the less, we all have a responsibility to ensure we have a just society and share in the culpability when some are left behind because of their race or religion.
Martin Luther King said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
The rioting in France illustrates what happens when we ignore our interconnectedness and deny our "inescapable network of mutuality". The French political landscape is manifestly exclusionary. These young men aren't trying to overthrow the government. They're trying to be accepted into society. Presently, there is not one Arab or Muslim representative in the entire National Assembly. This has to change. Violence is inevitable where people have no voice in government. Politics alone provides access to the democratic process. If people are barred from the system, then their needs and aspirations cannot be known, and the cycle of conflict and turmoil are bound to persist.