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Tomdispatch: As the World Burns

Tomdispatch.com is a news and analysis site run by Tom Englehardt at the Nation Institute. The following is an excerpt of a recent introduction and article from Tomdispatch about the rioting in France.

Introduction

After two weeks of car-burning riots, not just the French but all of us in this fractured, globalizing world of ours have received what UPI's Martin Walker calls a "crash-course... in the sociology of the black and brown underclass" that rings France's cities. Much of what was to be quickly learned about this "rising up of one small part of a Western underclass culture that reaches from Paris to London to Los Angeles and beyond" was unexpected (though Americans who remember our far more violent urban riots of the late 1960s should be less than shocked). As Walker and Juan Cole point out, for instance, many of the immigrant poor, who came to France for jobs and whose children or grandchildren now find themselves jobless in that country's "outer cities," were neither Arab, nor Muslim, but black and originally from sub-Saharan Africa. During the riots, responding to those they sarcastically mocked as the "Gauls" (as in the classic French primary school history lesson which began, "Our ancestors, the Gauls..."), the young routinely ignored the calming voices of local Islamic leaders and their proclamations against rioting. As yet, this is neither a clash of religions, nor of civilizations. Whether, as in the post-1960s United States, a racist backlash and a right-wing movement sweep France into another political universe remains to be seen. In the U.S., if you wanted to stretch a point only slightly, you might say that what began locally and politically in the 1960s as anything but a clash of civilizations has ended with an occupying army in the Middle East led by a crusader President.

In any case, it's none too early to try to put the events in France into some perspective as both Francoise Mouly and Mark LeVine do below. Mouly, the art editor for the New Yorker and a chevalier in France's Order of Arts and Letters, reminds us that cars haven't been the only thing burning in France; that, in the human brain, words burn too -- and brightly at that. LeVine, a professor of Islamic studies who writes regularly for Tomdispatch, puts the recent riots and the response to them into the context of globalization and warns of the possibility of a grim backlash future on all sides. Tom

Semantic Attacks The War of Words in France By Françoise Mouly

Although we have seen countless images of cars burning in the poor and segregated suburbs of France, we have not heard much about the war of words that has accompanied them. Yet when you pay attention to the words, you begin to realize that the second and third generation French-African and French-Arab youths burning cars are a lot more French than they may be willing to acknowledge. As true Frenchmen, they understand the importance of discourse. Maybe to their detriment, they seem to parse the fine nuances of every word; then they fight back bitterly -- especially over having the last word, le dernier mot.

Facing off against them in the prolonged verbal sparring are three hommes d'état (statesmen), each using a very different verbal strategy. The President, Jacques Chirac, may have acknowledged early on that "the absence of dialogue could lead to a dangerous confrontation," but then he neither spoke, nor encouraged his minions to speak. The haughty silence Chirac's government dispensed in response to night after night of provocative TV images was received as the ultimate affront by the "nine-three" -- the poor inhabitants of the Parisian department of Seine Saint-Denis where it all started. They clearly got the message: They were not even worthy of being talked to.

Chirac could afford to say nothing: After leading the French right-wing Gaullist party for the past thirty years and being president for the past ten, he will finally step down in time for the 2007 presidential election. This has created a heated contest between his two presumptive heirs, Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. Although all three players are on the right, only Sarkozy is an economic neoliberal who advocates "openness, suppleness, and letting citizens make their own choices." A second-generation immigrant with a Greek-Jewish mother and a Hungarian father, Sarkozy openly admires American neoliberalism, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Rudolph Giuliani. He regularly counteracted the lofty pronouncements of the patrician Chirac with comments like "I do what works." As one French ghetto kid put it, "He acts and speaks like a gang leader."

Earlier this year, as Sarkozy's popularity soared, many predicted he would replace Chirac in 2007. (At the moment, the French Left, with no viable candidate, seems to prefer to remain in opposition.) That was before Chirac brought de Villepin into the picture by appointing him prime minister. Besides being handsome, polished, and using the optional "de" in his last name (hence pegging himself as landed gentry), de Villepin, who was born in the former French colony of Morocco, is the consummate politician, a man who went to all the right schools and played by all the right rules. By September, polls were indicating that, though Sarkozy's brash "I'm telling it like it is" approach still appealed to working class supporters of the extreme right-wing Jean-Marie Le Pen and his Front National, the electoral pendulum had abruptly swung toward De Villepin.

To read the rest of this article on Tomdispatch, click here.


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