The beginning of the end?

Are the French riots a passing phenomenon, or the shadow of something worse?

“Chaos,” “disorder,” “random violence,” “rampant lawlessness,” and “mayhem.” These are but a few of the colorful terms used to describe the urban warfare that erupted throughout the French Republic over two weeks ago.

While the French riots certainly saw an increase in the intensity of urban violence, though, the actual incidents of malfeasance—burning cars, pelting police and firemen with rocks and bottles—are very common. Despite the popular stereotypes of American cities as drug-infested dens of violence and European cities as clean, safe, and egalitarian, crime rates in European cities have been skyrocketing for the past decade and have equaled—and in many cases surpassed—those of their American counterparts.

Part of the reason that the riots were so difficult for many to comprehend here is that they cut against so many ingrained prejudices and preconceptions about America and Europe. We, and not the Europeans, are supposed to be racist, stagnant, and repressive. We are the ones who supposedly shunt away our unwanted and care only for certain types of citizens. We are the ones that segregated the races. Most of all we, and not our enlightened European brethren, are the violent and the crude.

Reality, however, even long-suppressed and denied reality, has a nasty habit of rearing its head. As we have all been told by the Associated Press and other mainstream media, the mayhem that swept through neglected and impoverished neighborhoods with large African and Arab communities has been building for decades. Although this is accepted wisdom now, had one suggested the possibility of such an enormous outburst of violence a month ago, he would have been labeled a fool, a Cassandra, or, more likely, a racist.

The truly frightening thing about the current situation in France is that a fringe figure like Jean-Marie Le Pen sounds the most realistic about the extent of the problem. While de Villepin, Chirac, and even the hardheaded Sarkozy sound conciliatory, spinning the riots as a passing phenomenon, Le Pen notes that rather obvious fact that the recent riots are “just the start” of conflicts caused by “massive immigration from countries of the Third World” that will affect “not just France but the whole continent.”

On this point it is hard to see how Le Pen could be wrong. If enough discontent exists to inspire two weeks of rioting in 300 different cities and towns among six million or so foreigners in a wider population of around 60 million, what will happen when the number of foreigners grows to 12 million or to 18? The number of foreigners, and, more importantly, their proportion to the population as a whole, will increase dramatically over the next 20 to 30 years. Simply pretending this isn’t going to occur or that it will have no consequences does nothing to solve the problem.

Le Pen is a tactless and sometimes foolish old man, if not the fascist monster he is made out to be, but he is right to note the serious problems associated with a “French” society and culture slowly but surely becoming something else. This doesn’t mean there aren’t ways around the problems—a lessening of France’s now-infamous racism would probably do a lot to help—but, to state the obvious fact, history has no real examples of how a society formerly of one cultural, linguistic, and ethnic mode can transform into a society where a significant number of citizens don’t accept or even actively attack the societal norms.

Europe is now witnessing the first serious consequences of its collective holiday from reality. Finally it is becoming clear that the continent’s social models as currently constructed are unsustainable, as is the isolation and marginalization of burgeoning foreign populations. As a major center of economic and political power, we should hope that Europe finds a way to avoid the catastrophe that is so clearly looming ahead. Europe’s abject failure to solve or even publicly debate any of the serious challenges awaiting it, however, leaves little room for optimism.

Mark A. Adomanis ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Eliot House.