Paris is in flames and it's more than a city which is burning. The presidency of Jacques Chirac, already battered, is being consumed before our eyes. The French political class, shaken by the No vote in May's referendum on the European constitution and the rejection of the Paris bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, is feeling the ground tremble. Not since 1968 has there been such a widespread and sustained challenge to the French state.
But the greatest threat of all is to an idea, one that has held firm since the first days of the Republic. If that idea is now shrivelling in the flames of Lille and Toulouse, the heat will be felt far beyond France.
The riots themselves are not hard to fathom; several French commentators have said the only mystery is why they didn't break out 15 years earlier.
If you corral hundreds of thousands of the poor and disadvantaged into sink estates and suburbs in a misery doughnut around the city, expose them to unemployment rates of up to 40 percent, and then subject them to daily racial discrimination at the hands of employers and the police, you can hardly expect peace and tranquillity.
Cut public spending on social programs by 20 percent, and you will guarantee an explosion. All you have to do is light the fuse.
And this fire has been building for decades. It was after the second world war that -- just as in the UK health minister Enoch Powell went recruiting for healthcare workers staff in the Caribbean -- France went shopping among its foreign colonies for laborers and factory workers. It brought these mainly Arab migrants in, then dumped them on the outskirts of the big cities. It did the same to the Harkis -- Algerians who had collaborated with the French colonial authorities -- and the next waves of North African immigrants, warehousing them like an unwanted commodity in high-rise ghettoes on the peripheries, out of sight of the white folks of the city. And there they have stayed for a half century.
Their anger could not stay pent-up forever. And the official reaction to the first outbreak of violence clearly inflamed it.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy promised to"Karcherize" the "scum" who were burning cars and torching buildings. (Karcher is the brand name for a kind of sand-blaster, the sort of machine one might use to remove bird droppings from a wall.) According to former Liberation columnist Doug Ireland, to speak of Karcherizing the North African youth on the streets was "as close as one can get to hollering ethnic cleansing without actually saying so."
The motives of the man they call Sarko are not hard to divine: He wants to run for president in 2007 and has clearly decided his constituency is the white right nurtured by Jean-Marie Le Pen. His hardman language during these last 10 days has been an unashamed bid for those National Front votes.
Now his rival, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, has taken the initiative, reviving a 1955 curfew law which allows local authorities to impose a state of emergency. He may succeed where Sarkozy failed, restoring a semblance of calm.
But the move itself has caused disquiet. For the 1955 law was passed to quell Algerian unrest at the height of the independence struggle. That the same legislation should now be used to put down the children and grandchildren of the Algerian rebels has prompted some glum reflection in France -- as if that bitter war never really ended.
It's this sentiment which gets close to what is really at stake. Yes, these riots are rooted in economic deprivation and urban decay.
But they also have an ethnic, racial dimension. And France's key problem is that it cannot face that fact.
That is a less polemical statement than it sounds. For it is a matter of bald fact that France does not officially recognize the concept of ethnic difference at all.
It is literally illegal for anyone compiling an official census even to ask about someone's ethnic origins. There are no figures showing the rate of French-Algerian unemployment or school enrolment or hospital treatment.
French official texts speak of integration as resting on the "refusal to distinguish citizens according to their origins and their particularities." In other words, there can be no Algerian-French or French-Moroccans or any other such combination. There are only the French.
This is a defining republican value. Tim King, who writes the excellent "France Profonde" column for Prospect magazine, says the idea is rigidly enforced. "When an immigrant comes to France, he must drop everything he has ever learned of his previous culture; he has to leave it in his baggage."
The doctrine was doubtless perfectly well-intentioned. There shall be no categories of citizen in France, it declared. The law shall view everyone equally.
The trouble is, it is not the law that decides every aspect of daily life: people do. And they do not always have the pure, color-blind outlook presumed by the French notion of integration. On the contrary, racism of the overt, gross variety persists in France.
One study last year found, for example, that a man with a classic French name applying for 100 jobs will get 75 interviews. A man with the same qualifications, but with an Algerian name, will get just 14. The trouble is, according to the law, that is a mere coincidence. After all, both Francois and Abdul are French citizens.
France's refusal to see the ethnicity of some of its people as relevant translates into de facto racism. If human beings were free of prejudice, the French republican ideal would work beautifully.
Because we are not, it allows racism a free hand.
It is a classic example of what happens when an idea designed for one era remains unchanged for a later one. A once decent value becomes pickled into a dogma -- enforcing the very opposite outcome of the one it intended.
The French do not face this problem alone.
The US has a model of integration which is the reverse of France's. It positively encourages new migrants to hold on to their first culture, happy to let them hyphenate as Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans.
But that model is not perfect either. As we saw after Hurricane Katrina, there are still plenty of Americans who feel excluded by their race.
That's partly because the US model applies to immigrants, those who chose to make their life anew in America. It does not apply either to those who were already there or those who were dragged to the country in chains, in the holds of cargo ships. Which is why Native Americans and African-Americans both argue, with justification, that they are shut out of the American dream.
Britain has an emerging model, too, one called multiculturalism. It did not arrive from nowhere, but partly came out of its own experience of race riots in the 1980s. Unlike France's, it recognizes difference and has passed legislation to protect it. But it also yearns for some affirmation of common identity. It knows there are differences among its people -- but it wants there to be ties that bind. What those ties should be, nobody seems quite sure.
Indeed, the problem of racial cohesion in Britain is far from solved, as seen last month in Lozells, Birmingham. But multiculturalism is still the best model at hand. And, after the last 10 days, it may be the only one left.
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