PERIGUEUX, France—France’s elites in the media and the political class, and some of the young immigrants from the places that President Jacques Chirac calls “zones in difficulty” have reacted favorably to his diagnosis of “profound national malaise” in his address to the nation Monday. And they warmed to his pledge to the young immigrants that they were “all sons and daughters of the Republic.”
But watching his address over dinner in the home of an old friend, a local police chief and his wife, the impression was rather different.
“Chirac does not seem to live in the same country that we do,” said the wife, Francine. “This isn’t just about his ‘zones in difficulty.’ The whole country is fed up. We have had this immigration for 20 years and nothing seems to change. We spend more and more money on these zones, we rebuild them, we decorate them, we install playgrounds and social workers and nothing changes.”
“They get unemployment pay and then they get family assistance money for their children. Their rent is free. Their children eat free at school. When we go to the dentist or to the pharmacy, we have to pay a proportion of the bill because the insurance does not cover everything, and if your family needs spectacles, the insurance pays hardly anything. But for them it is all free. And then they get extra money for their holidays.”
“Last winter we went down to the Pyrenees to ski, staying in a cheap bread and breakfast place, because it was all we could afford. And staying in the hotel, with full board, were these kids from ‘zones in difficulty’ having free holidays, free lift tickets, free ski instructors,” he said.
“And in reality, it is we who pay for all this with taxes that seem to go up and up, and now Chirac tells us that we have to make special efforts to give jobs to these young criminals who have been setting fire to cars and throwing rocks at the police. I can tell you what the local businessmen around here think about that. There is no way they are going to hire somebody like that, who has no education, no qualification, and who thinks everything in life should be given to them for free.”
In his address to the nation, Chirac tried to pick a middle way, saying discrimination “drains the foundations of our Republic” but also insisting on law and order. “Those who attack must know that in a republic, one cannot break the law without being caught, judged and punished,” he said.
The president called on companies and trades unions to encourage diversity and support employment for immigrant youths, and announced the formation of a national volunteer corps that would offer training for 50,000 youths by 2007 and help them to get jobs.
“Everyone must commit themselves, companies too—how many applications end up in the bin because of the applicant’s name or address?” he asked.
AUBERVILLIERS, France—It still smells of smoke along the Rue Henri-Barbusse in the French suburb of Aubervilliers, but the skeletons of burned-out cars are cold now and look oddly like randomly parked pieces of modern sculpture in the shadow of the giant Quatre-Chemins housing estate that saw some of the worst riots in the two-week spasm of riots that swept France.
The sullen faces that gaze on the handiwork of the local rioters and sneer at the vans of the riot police are black rather than brown: Africans from Mali and Martinique rather than Arabs from Algeria and Morocco.
Dressed in expensive sneakers and track suits with designer logos, with the white wires of iPod headphones snaking from their ears, they look neither poor nor much intimidated by the police patrols that now dominate their quarter. The young blacks refuse to talk to white reporters, turning silently away to spit and talk among themselves.
“You (expletives) wouldn’t dare show your faces round here if it wasn’t for the (expletive) cops,” says one, using the slang term “keufs” for the police.
He may be right. Taxi drivers will not come here. Black adults seem cowed by the gangs of their own young people, glancing at them nervously if they stop to talk.
One of the striking features of the two weeks of rage that swept France is that so many of the rioters are black rather than Arab, though North Africans from Algeria and Morocco and Tunisia make up more than two-thirds of the estimated 6 million immigrants, their families included, in France.
“Traditional parental control has disappeared, along with the traditional family. Many Muslim households are headed by a single parent. Elders, imams, teachers and social workers have lost control,” Roy argues.
Experts who work with France’s black community point to a different kind of family breakdown. Sonia Imloul of Respect 93, a non-governmental organization, says one of the biggest problems is polygamy, and cites the example of one family she knows with one father, four wives and thirty children, all living in the same standard 4-room apartment of French public housing.