The Magazine

Paris When It Sizzles

The intifada comes to France.

Nov 14, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 09 • By OLIVIER GUITTA
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What's more, none of this is any secret. It's years since the first chilling firsthand accounts of what goes on in the worst ethnic slums were published. As early as 1984, President François Mitterrand made "sensitive neighborhoods policy" the fourth priority of his government. In 1990, after the first Vaulx-en-Velin riots, the newsmagazine Le Point trumpeted the headline: "These neighborhoods are scaring France." Politicians warned that the events were just a foretaste of the explosions to come. Eight years later, in a report ordered by the Interior Ministry, two sociologists wrote: "Cops working in the difficult neighborhoods feel themselves to be, and are seen as, occupation forces in enemy territory."

A particularly fearsome firsthand account of life in a Muslim slum was a bestseller in 2002. Entitled Dans l'enfer des tournantes (In Gang Rape Hell), it recounts the life of a courageous French Muslim teenager, Samira Bellil, who was repeatedly gang-raped, and in order to survive became a "racaille" (hooligan), beating up other girls to get protection and respect. Teenage girls are the most frequent victims of violence, especially rape, which sometimes happens inside public schools. As one Tunisian mother testified recently, public schools turn out to be not a haven but one more nightmare for families. She lamented, "The Republic no longer protects its children." In fact, mothers sometimes enlist the toughest thugs to protect their daughters. The culture of violence is reinforced on every side, by the anti-police, anti-West gangsta rap kids listen to, and by the blogs where young thugs parade their exploits of arson or mugging at gunpoint, thereby becoming neighborhood "stars" and raising the stakes for other gangs.

An underground economy flourishes in the worst African and Muslim neighborhoods, with trafficking in drugs and stolen goods going on unimpeded and rival gangs fighting over loot. Communal tensions are equally pervasive, pitting white French (or "Gaulois") against Arab and Black, Black against Arab, and Muslim against Jew. In light of this, it is no coincidence that France saw a record number of anti-Semitic incidents in 2004 (970, well over 2 a day), most of them committed by young Muslims from the suburbs.

In extreme cases, these neighborhoods might as well be foreign countries, with their own laws and value systems. Thus, good students are treated as pariahs, while outlaws get respect. Matters have reached the point where some young "Gauloises" have testified that, in a kind of inverse assimilation process, they converted to Islam to escape harassment by Muslim thugs.

Some intellectuals speak of the Lebanonization of French society. Others speculate about civil war in ten years if nothing is done. Michel Gurfinkiel, editor of the news magazine Valeurs Actuelles, likens France today to the Weimar republic just before the rise of Nazism.

Interior Minister Sarkozy wants to turn a new leaf. He expresses determination to end the laissez-faire attitude toward the pathologies of the "banlieues sensibles" that has prevailed for decades, under governments of both left and right, with the possible exception of his own previous stint as interior minister, in 2002-04. Facing down rock throwers in Argenteuil, another hotspot, last week, he vowed to rid the suburbs of the "racaille."

Sarkozy has been widely criticized for using that term, even by members of his own party, who accuse him of adding fuel to the fire. Much hangs on the success of his Giuliani-like "zero tolerance" approach. As of now, he seems to be the only politician willing to tackle the thorny issues of immigration and security. Soon enough, French voters will have a chance to render their verdict on his policies: The current frontrunner in the presidential election of 2007 is none other than Sarkozy.

Olivier Guitta is a consultant on Middle Eastern and European affairs.