The Magazine

Mugged by la Réalité

From the April 11, 2005 issue: The unreported race riot in France.

Apr 11, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 28 • By OLIVIER GUITTA
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FR D RIC ENCEL, PROFESSOR OF international relations at the prestigious Ecole Nationale d'Administration in Paris and a man not known for crying wolf, recently stated that France is becoming a new Lebanon. The implication, far-fetched though it may seem, was that civil upheaval might be no more than a few years off, sparked by growing ethnic and religious polarization. In recent weeks, a series of events has underlined this ominous trend.

On March 8, tens of thousands of high school students marched through central Paris to protest education reforms announced by the government. Repeatedly, peaceful demonstrators were attacked by bands of black and Arab youths--about 1,000 in all, according to police estimates. The eyewitness accounts of victims, teachers, and most interestingly the attackers themselves gathered by the left-wing daily Le Monde confirm the motivation: racism.

Some of the attackers openly expressed their hatred of "little French people." One 18-year-old named Heikel, a dual citizen of France and Tunisia, was proud of his actions. He explained that he had joined in just to "beat people up," especially "little Frenchmen who look like victims." He added with a satisfied smile that he had "a pleasant memory" of repeatedly kicking a student, already defenseless on the ground.

Another attacker explained the violence by saying that "little whites" don't know how to fight and "are afraid because they are cowards." Rachid, an Arab attacker, added that even an Arab can be considered a "little white" if he "has a French mindset." The general sentiment was a desire to "take revenge on whites."

Sometimes petty theft appeared to be the initial motivation. One or two bullies would approach a student and ask for money or a cell phone. Even if the victim complied right away, they would start beating him or her. A striking account was provided by Luc Colpart, a history and geography teacher and member of the far-left union SUD. Colpart said the scenes of violence were so disturbing that he could not sleep for days. He saw students being beaten or pulled by the hair. He stressed that assailants who stole cell phones smashed them in front of their victims: "It was a game. Hatred and fun."

Colpart, who is active in anti-racist causes, confirmed that "these were racial assaults," and the attackers used "far-right slurs, violent and racist." One black student he saw come to the defense of a fellow student under attack by three blacks was called "a white sellout" by the assailants. Some scores of victims were taken to hospitals. Those who were interviewed confirmed that they had been caught up in an "anti-white" rampage and that the cops did nothing to protect them.

In response to this event, a group of leading public figures, along with 1,000 high school students, issued a statement denouncing "anti-white" pogroms. Among them were the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, the journalist Jacques Julliard from the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, former minister of public health and founder of Doctors Without Borders Bernard Kouchner, bestselling Iranian-born author Chahdortt Djavann, the journalist Ghaleb Bencheikh, and the film director Elie Chouraqui. At a press conference announcing the release of the statement on March 25, Finkielkraut denounced Francophobia and Judeophobia.

Julliard, writing in the Nouvel Observateur, expressed dismay at the lack of public outcry over this display of racial hatred. He added that the left had already made the mistake of not denouncing violence in schools or soaring crime rates. And he sharply rejected the view endorsed by most left-wing organizations and individuals that the violence was an expression of class struggle, a clash between rich and poor. "Anyone should be ashamed," Julliard wrote, "after all we went through in the 20th century, to offer such a coarse explanation. . . . There is no good and bad racism."

Interestingly enough, Serge Romano, a leading representative of the black community who did not sign the public statement, readily admitted, "The young people came to beat up whites." He called the event "a catastrophe," but added, "we unfortunately expected it." One of the major anti-racist organizations, LICRA (Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et l'Antisémitisme), pointed out that the same people and organizations who failed to recognize the wave of anti-Semitism in France beginning in 2000-2001 are today unwilling to face up to an outbreak of racial violence.