- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 8, 2005

It seems to have been a time bomb waiting to go off. The arson and vandalism that has erupted in the past two weeks throughout poor immigrant neighborhoods in over 300 towns and villages all over France, including the suburbs of Paris, may have taken French police by surprise, but it is hardly a bolt out of the blue. It is criminal, destructive and vicious, but it is also the result of conditions that have been building toward this point for a long time.

The question is now whether other Muslim communities in Europe will catch the flying sparks as well; arsonists have struck in Germany and Belgium, too. As we learned after September 11, Muslim immigrant communities in Europe have become a source of disaffected, angry and radicalized terrorist prospects.

Several elements have gone into the making of France’s autumn of discontent. First of all, a mood of general malaise has settled over French society. During the debate this spring over the EU constitution, which French voters voted down in order to poke a finger in the eye of the French political elite, you heard comments about France being in a “pre-revolutionary state.” Every 40 years or so, France has traditionally endured a mighty political upheaval, and conditions were just about right for another one, some commentators argued. Popular dissatisfaction focused on high unemployment, economic doldrums and a social compact that did not seem to be working anymore. In France, political change has never come easy, and something seemed about to erupt.

Now it has. In the immigrant high-rise ghettoes that are home to the majority of France’s six million Muslims, discontent with life in France has reached explosive levels of frustration. Last summer, fires broke out in several of the slum tenements in Paris where immigrants are crowded together. Unemployment for young men stands at 40 percent, four times the national average. The promise of jobs that brought many here from Africa and North Africa in the 1960s has evaporated as the French economy has stagnated.

Though revolution seems such a big word for contemporary complacent Europe, a type of revolution as consequential as the student riots of 1968 could be what France might be seeing today — a revolution of the excluded, outsiders who cannot gain a foothold in these prosperous societies. Some of the arsonists seem to want to make a political statement; others no doubt are just in it for the fun of it with nothing to lose or fear.

Now, France, it will be recalled, has a history of violent revolution. The French Revolution itself was a bloodbath that decimated France’s aristocracy and intellectual class, and the 1968 student uprisings brought legendary battles between protesters and police. More recently, attacks on McDonald’s restaurants led by Jose Bove, an anarchist parading as a French farmer, have been examples of social activism by violence. French farmers routinely take to the streets when they feel their subsidies threatened. The rioters are working their destruction within a political tradition.

Even French President Jacques Chirac is now admitting that the French approach toward their immigrant population has failed. The French immigration policy has focused on assimilation into the secular French state, but this is more theory than practice.

The primary tool for assimilation has been the French public-school system, designed since the 19th century to build the secular French state. Mr. Chirac at first called the riots an “affront to the state,” which in France is very serious business indeed. Muslim headscarves for girls were banned last year in French public schools, along with other symbols of religious expression.

Meanwhile, what has been neglected in France and in some other European countries is the real engine for integration and assimilation: the labor market. While the social-welfare net ensures that no one starves, the failure of some European economies to produce jobs has taken a huge toll among immigrants who came in search of jobs. Interestingly, the European countries that are doing well economically — Britain, for instance — are also the ones that have allowed immigrants into their workforces. (This admittedly did not prevent Britain from producing its own homegrown terrorist plot last summer.) French communities are now imposing curfews and thousands of additional police have been called out. Some police chiefs have even talked of calling in NATO to help. But quelling the violence will only be the beginning. True integration and economic opportunity will be the solution in the long run.

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