Friday, November 04, 2005

It was saddening to me to hear the glee on the part of conservatives on the radio today about the riots in Paris, France, now entering their ninth day. And as usual, they got it all wrong.

The reason for their glee was the assertion that the thousands of young Algerian men now running rampant in a Paris surburb was caused by the fact that France was 'socialist, weak and tolerant.' In other words, because the French did not back President Bush before his misguided Iraq adventure, they were therefore reaping what they had sowed.

This is precisely backwards reasoning. To begin with, Mr. Chirac is a conservative, not a socialist. He has run a conservative government from his first day in office. A Socialist government would not have let the conditions these people are living in deteriorate to such a level of squalor, and it is the economic and social discrimination they face that they are protesting. And it is true that they are overwhelmingly muslim, but they are from ALGERIA, which has NOTHING AT ALL to do with IRAQ (which is over two thousand miles away from Algeria). Jacques Chirac's government is at fault for the riots, but not because of the reasons that conservatives claim. They are at fault for their conservative domestic policies which have robbed these people of a decent living standard today, and the hope for a better future. Pure and simple.

And if the French had gone in with us on our war with Iraq, and showed themselves, as conservatives see it, 'strong'? How exactly would that have prevented this riot? The fundamental flaw on the part of conservatives is in their imagining that there is some fundamentalist Islamic conspiracy which controls the actions of every muslim (or at least every muslim community) in the world, and that they can at will say, 'go riot in France' and it will happen. Whether the French foreign legion is in Iraq, at home in Corsica, or anywhere else in the world, has no impact on the day to day life of young, outcast muslim men in Paris and makes no difference in what they plan to do tomorrow.

So socialism? No. Weakness? No. Then what about tolerance?

Well, the French government has not proven to be universally tolerant, for example recently handing down a decision that young muslim girls in schools cannot wear head scarves. And racism against immigrants and especially Africans, including Algerians, is hardly a new phenomenon in France. In fact, in his last election, Mr. Chirac was forced into a runoff, but not against Socialist Lionel Jospin, who finished third in the initial round of voting. Instead, it was against ultranationalist Jean Marie le Pen, whose diatribes against Jews, muslims, immigrants and anyone else who wasn't 'French enough' earned him the votes of roughly one of every five French voters. Then a couple of years ago, Jewish cemeteries, including some where victims of the holocaust were buried, were painted with swastikas and otherwise desecrated and a couple of synagogues were torched. There are certainly some tolerant people in France as elsewhere, but it is a stretch to claim that France as a whole is a tolerant place. And it is clear from the reports of people on the scene that what they are largely protesting against is not too much tolerance, but too much intolerance.

So it may be that conservatives are too quick to place blame for the riots. In terms of penny pinching social policy that ignores people living in poverty, in terms of a foreign policy that for better or worse, seems to take a higher place than domestic policy, and in terms of a significant undercurrent of intolerance and bigotry, the causes are exactly the opposite of what they suggest, but perhaps not all that different from the conditions that exist in their own communities.

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