Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Paris in Flames

The national police chief, Michel Gaudin, said unrest had spread to some 300 cities and towns around France, with more than 4,700 vehicles destroyed and 1,200 people taken at least temporarily into custody since October 27.
For the past 12 nights or so, the"banlieus" of Paris are burning with social unrest of the marginalized. What started as a riot in the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois has now spread to other peripheries of the City of Lights as well as the banlieus of Dijon, Rouen and Marseilles all the way to the south.

The accidental deaths of two black youths while hiding from the police has opened a can of worms the French prefer to ignore but continues to fester anyway. Racial discrimination, police brutality, lack of equal opportunities, neglect. The birthplace of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights hasn't been so solicitous of its own migrant population.

While "suburbs" in the United States evoke images of white picket-fences and meticulously manicured lawns, the banlieu is the French version of the "ghetto" or "the projects" in the US. These are government housing to segregate France's immigrant, blue-collar workers from the big cities. Funny how I remember a former French professor who said the buildings of Salcedo Village in Makati remind him of them.

Perhaps one of the biggest misconception of France and the French is their strong sense of "nationhood." Second only to Americans, the French are expert in selling their culture as one of impeccable taste and class. Haute couture. Haute cuisine. French culture, it is said, is homogenous. Article 2 of the 1958 constitution proclaims it to be so:

[State Form and Symbols]
(1) France is an indivisible, secular, democratic, and social Republic. It ensures the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction as to origin, race, or religion. It respects all beliefs.

Ensuring the "equality of all citizens" also forbids any statistical data on ethnicity and religion. All French are alike in their Frenchness. No special distinction, therefore, is given to ethnic minorities.

In truth, post-war France is multi-cultural. They have their Spanish maids, their Arab janitors, their Asian cooks, their African criminals and of course, their Polish beggars. As of 2004, France has a population of 62.4 million. The CIA factbook estimates a 5-10% Muslim minority, which means 3-6 million Muslims of Algerian, Moroccan and West African descent. Whites are of various West and Eastern European origins.

As of September 2005, there are 2.6 million unemployed or 9.8% of the labor sector.

In an explosion of civil unrest reminiscent of the May 1968 insurrection where millions of students and workers went on strike, this looks to be another turning point in France's long history of dramatic social changes.

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