French Riots: Symptoms of a Kind of Colonialism in Reverse?

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French Riots: Symptoms of a Kind of Colonialism in Reverse?

by Manuel L. Quezon III

As of this writing, riots have been taking place in France; there has already been one fatality (a woman trying to escape the mayhem, who was doused with gasoline and set on fire), and opinion, both in France (among and between Christians and Muslims) and the world, is divided.

Muslims and Christians have tried to dissociate religion from the growing unrest. France’s leading Muslim teachers have issued a fatwa condemning the violence; Christian writers have condemned the violence as well, but pointed out that decades of neglect and suspicion have fueled disorder.

Is there a Muslim revolt taking place in France? The New York Times has taken pains to report that this isn’t necessarily the case: “Youths in the neighborhoods say second-generation Portuguese immigrants and even some children of native French have taken part,” one article says. On the other hand, other reports by other news organizations focus on Christian churches being set to the torch, and of gangs of youth bellowing “God is Great,” as they hurl rocks at the police and set automobiles alight. Rioters, a few days into the growing disturbances in France, were quoted as demanding French authorities withdraw from “occupied territories” — heavily Muslim enclaves in the Paris suburbs.

There are commentators, whether in mainstream media or on blogs, who have taken to calling the unrest “an ongoing intifada in Europe.” A term familiar to the World War II generation, and which originated with the Spanish Civil War, has been resurrected: “Fifth columnists,” which is what American conservative commentator Pat Buchanan calls Muslims in Europe.

The most reasonable explanations I’ve heard, however, point to the riots as symptoms of a kind of colonialism in reverse. The subjects of Europe’s former colonial possessions have been colonizing Europe for decades; and just as the colonial overlords of decades past established enclaves in which their own culture reigned supreme and refused to meaningfully interact with the local population, so too, have decades of immigration resulted in outposts for former colonial subjects in the lands that once ruled their forefathers.

The descendants of the colonized peoples of French Morocco or Algeria, who were subjected to France’s “ouvre civilisatrice,” or self-proclaimed “civilizing mission” of the 19th and early 20th centuries, save for perhaps part of their collaborationist elite, rejected French and European civilization even when imposed by force. While they may not be aware of it, they continue to reject that mission, even if now they live and work in France. This is not to justify that stubborn resistance: It was patriotic to do so in Africa, with regards to a colonial power, but in the post-colonial age and as immigrants, some sort of bare minimum of assimilation should not only be desired, but be expected. The larger problem, however, may lie with a France — or any European nation and culture — that takes for granted that its “civilizing mission,” though a failure in overseas colonies, should at least be a powerful force at home. This is clearly not the case, at least in the eyes of the rioters, and many spectators. One wonders if those hurling terms such as “intifada” and “fifth columnist” around aren’t displaying a grisly delight in France’s woes, into an extended case of wishful thinking for Europe.

It began with these (mainly American) commentators recalling how French President Jacques Chirac remarked that something like the Los Angeles riots of the 1990s would be impossible in France. Look, these commentators cackle, it’s happening to France, 300 towns as of the last count, and is taking place too in places like Denmark, Germany, and Belgium.

John Lichfield of The Independent argues that the rioters’ “allegiance is to their quartier and their gang. Their main demand, so far as can be established, is to be left alone by police and the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, to continue with their life of low-level violence and drugs trading.” The rioting, then, in a word, is very Parisian, very French. The great-great-great grandchild of the Parisians who have been rioting and erecting barricades since the Middle Ages, to the exasperation and anger of authorities, whether of the monarchy, the Revolution, the Empire or the five republics France has had. After all, the current generation of French leaders came of age at the time of the 1968 riots that eventually resulted in the fall from power of the father of modern France, Charles de Gaulle.

Could it be, then, that despite the self-conscious proclamation by some rioters, of a cause larger than an anarchic desire to wreak destruction and engage in general hooliganism, that the marauding bands of youth throughout France are actually living up to some of the oldest traditions of French political behavior?

And the same could be said for Germany, Holland, and even Belgium, which continue to cherish, among other things, the memory of the upheavals of 1848, a year of riots and revolutions. The political and social culture of the Western world is imbued with what could be said to be a tradition of rioting by members of the underclasses, the poor, ignored, ignorant and angry; the impoverished and excluded who, in many cases, had religions different from the ones professed by their rulers. It may be premature to say the clash of civilizations has erupted in the streets of Europe; what has reared its ugly head, instead, may be an older, but validly European tradition, of unrest on the part of the poor.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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