I published a column on this topic today, "Reflections on the Revolution in France." Here are facts and thoughts that could not fit there or came later.
- That title alludes to Edmund Burke's classic 1790 book by the same name. I don't quite think there is a revolution underway in France at the moment but I used the title with a bit of poetic license.
- I use the phrase "first French intifada" in this blog because it seems very likely that this is not the last of its kind.
- Although much has been said about car burning as a characteristically French mode of protest, the same tactic has been used in other European countries. Consider this New York Times report from Rome by Brian Wingfield, "An Inferno of Vehicles Expands a City's Circle of Suffering," dated September 5, 2005, describing "a twisted phenomenon that has gripped the Eternal City this summer."
Arsonists have descended on Rome, and no one knows quite how to stop them. Nearly every night for the past two months, they have set fire to parked cars and motor scooters throughout the city, leaving close to 260 incinerated metal carcasses. On many mornings, the television news runs apocalyptic images of firebombed vehicles.
The police say the vandals, whose identity and motives remain a mystery, usually douse tires and car hoods with gasoline or oil, ignite the fire, then slip away into the darkness. The Italian press calls them pyromaniacs and "nerone," a nod to the mad Roman emperor Nero, who, legend has it, "fiddled" while his city burned on another summer night in the year A.D. 64. Many people say the culprits are wanton young hooligans. One thing is certain, said Col. Leonardo Alestra, whose paramilitary police forces are conducting a joint investigation with Rome's police and fire departments: "It's not of the same hand." To illustrate, he displayed a city map pinpointing where the vandals have struck, often in locations miles from one another on the same night.
A 26-year-old Roman who admitted to setting several fires has been arrested, and a 21-year-old man who was under investigation said he started two fires. This weekend, a 36-year-old Algerian man was also arrested, a Milan newspaper, Corriere della Sera, reported. But the blazes have continued, filling vehicle owners with dread. There were similar fires earlier this year on the outskirts of Rome and in the nearby beach town of Ostia, Colonel Alestra said. But the current wave of destruction began on the night of June 30, when vandals set fire to 12 vehicles. Two nights later, they laid waste to 59 more in a suburb close to the ancient Appian Way.
Since then, similar fires have erupted all across the city. On a particularly violent night in early August, the arsonists attacked 78 vehicles. In mid-August, when most Romans have fled the city for vacation, the vandals made their only attack in Rome's historic center, just off the Campo dei Fiori, a picturesque piazza that is usually buzzing with tourists. Newspaper reports describe groups of young men with Roman accents fleeing the crime scenes, sometimes on foot, but often by car or motorbike. The papers also say that people have had to flee their apartments as flames lapped at their windows.
Colonel Alestra, a chain-smoking bear of a man who appears unquestionably authoritative behind his immense desk, said he believed that the attackers "changed from a precise group to emulators" sometime from July to August. His forces have been using a helicopter outfitted with an infrared camera to hunt the arsonists. "Eventually, if we're fortunate, we'll catch them," he said.
In some cases, the skeletons of burned motor scooters remain abandoned where they were destroyed. The facades of nearby apartment buildings are singed and soot-stained. Cars and scooters parked close to the destroyed vehicles remain in place, with melted bumpers and windshields that liquefied under the heat.
Luigi Liolli, a fire official who witnessed three of the blazes, said they were particularly dangerous because the vehicles contained flammable fuel tanks. "There is a very violent combustion" when a tank explodes, he said. "The problem is, they burn very fast. If the vehicles are close, it's very difficult to stop it." In a recent edition of the Rome paper Il Messaggero, the city's fire chief, Guido Parisi, said, "The 'game' is beginning to become dangerous." Firefighters fear that an explosion from an overheated, pressurized fuel tank could set buildings aflame.
(November 8, 2005)
Nov. 14, 2005 update: Well, President Jacques Chirac has finally spoken on the rioting and, predictably, he blamed the French state, institutions, and society for the troubles, not the rioters. He not once mentions Muslims or Islam. Not understanding the causes of the problem means the wrong lessons will be learned from it, and things will only get worse. That's another reason why, as I wrote in my column, this "may be a turning point in European history."
Nov. 17, 2005 update: Because tongue-tied French politicians like Chirac cannot ascribe the riots to their obvious causes – an immigrant population that rejects the ways of the indigenous majority – the best one can hope for are euphemisms. Gérard Larcher, the employment minister, provided some when he deemed it inevitable that the children of large, polygamous families would have trouble finding work. "Since part of society displays this anti-social behavior, it is not surprising that some of them have difficulty finding work." Bernard Accoyer, parliamentary leader of the UMP party, agreed: some young people behave badly because of the absence of a father figure. He also noted that the French authorities are "strangely lax" with regard to the 30,000 polygynous households in the country.
Nov. 21, 2005 update: The French Ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte, told a meeting of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) that the riots were caused by teenagers acting out of social and economic hardship (video available here).
I would say it's less riots than social unrest triggered by the death of these two teenagers, and then it spread from one neighborhood to the other, from one teenager to the other, with a copycat phenomenon with the cell phones and the internet, or simply by seeing on the TV screens what was happening in the neighborhood of the next city. Then it was spreading, and it lasted two weeks. …
it was not about the role of Islam. It has nothing to do with the clash of religions or civilizations or cultures. I think it's very important to understand that. You may say 'but are you so sure'. Yes, I am. First, we have absolutely no information that there were organized movements with leaders. On the contrary, they were totally disorganized groups of teenagers without any leader, and it was one of the difficulties, because we had no interlocutors.
Second, religion played no role at all during these two weeks, either positive or negative. I say positive, because the leaders of the Muslim community in France did their best. The head of the organization within which all the Muslim organizations of France are represented issued a strong statement. The more radical Islamic group issued also the same kind of statement calling for the end of unrest, which was "un-Islamic". But nobody listened to them in these impoverished neighborhoods. Nobody listened. So religion didn't play a role, either positive or negative. Further, as you said, they were not only Muslims. It's too easy to say, oh, they are Muslims. No, the heaviest sentence which was delivered after this unrest was delivered to a young man, 20-year-old from Northern France. He's white. He's not a Muslim. He was sentenced for an arson attack and condemned to four years in prison.
It has nothing to do also with an Islamist threat. Some media made the connection between the terrorist attacks in Amman and the French impoverished neighborhoods. But we never saw any link, direct or indirect, any sympathizer of Al Qaeda in these neighborhoods. Absolutely no link with Al Qaida, absolutely no link with events in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the Middle East peace process. And by the way, it's interesting to note also that only one synagogue was attacked. Only one. I say that, because if you compare with the situation in 2000-2001 where there were a number of incidents against Jewish establishments, schools, synagogues, houses and so on, the situation is completely different now, even during these two weeks of unrest.
Rather, Levitte blamed the unrest on youngsters who want to be considered full French citizens:
these teenagers feel alienated and discriminated, both socially and economically. They don't want to affirm any difference, but they want to be considered as 100% French. They are demanding more liberty, equality, fraternity, and not less. They are not fighting to be recognized as a minority, either ethnic or religious, but on the contrary, they want to be accepted as full citizens of the French republic. They want to be part of the French dream.
Comment: MilitantIslamMonitor.org asks and I second the question: "If Islam and Muslims had nothing to do with the French riots why is the French ambassador explaining that to [leaders of] two of the largest radical Islamic groups in the United States?" (Salam Al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, MPAC, also participated in the panel.)
Nov. 23, 2005 update: The director of the Direction de la surveillance du territoire (DST), France's lead counterterrorist agency, says that "Islamism is not connected to the events in the suburbs, one has to find other causes." Pierre de Bousquet de Florian acknowledged that "Some of our 'clients' have a sympathy for this movement, but it is not their motivating force."
Dec. 7, 2005 update: Le Figaro notes how the minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the head of the Renseignements généraux (RG) differ in their interpretations of the riots. Sarkozy blames it basically on "mafias" whereas France's #1 policeman blames it on the rioters "being excluded from French society." If you ask me, this debate basically misses the point.
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