Theater of Cruelty

Civil Rights Campaign in 2005

"The French model has failed and needs to be reviewed again."


Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy's words on the news broadcasts Monday night were strong. They commit. And they are absolutely right. When analyzing why the uprisings started in Paris' slums just over two weeks ago – and trying to prevent further spread, it is not enough to deploy police and military force to crack down on the mob. Violence and vandalism can and should not be excused. But it can and should be explained. The riots that started in the slums outside Paris can largely be understood in terms of socio-economic conditions. And the (lack of) French integration policy must largely take the blame.

As Sarkozy spoke, cars stood on fire not only throughout France, but also in Germany and Belgium. The riots started with the tragic outcome of two North African boys hiding from police in a power transformer. Although the Interior Minister personally acquitted the police, rumors outside the city went that the police had chased the two teenagers to death. Since then, the drab cities outside Paris have changed their character from derelict ghettos to flaming exception areas. Thousands of cars, schools and businesses are burnt down, if not hundreds of people are injured, and at the time of writing, one person has died as a result of the uprising. And the uprising has spread from the drab cities to the center to other cities and to other countries. These days, one begins to perceive an order of magnitude that one must go back to 1968 to compare with.

The legacy of the French Revolution need to reassess and renew. Freedom, equality and brotherhood are not for everyone. It primarily includes freedom and equality for white French men. But equality and justice are more than equal rights. There are equal opportunities. French integration policy is largely based on the absence of integration. There are French and non-French. Dot. No real French person feels the need to wear hijab or other religious signs, and all French people have equal rights to both education and work. However, unilateral focus on equal rights, regardless of social differences and widespread discrimination, only leads to the strengthening of pre-existing structures.

The development is most evident in the Parisian suburbs, where those at the bottom of society's ladder – the low-paid and those with a foreign background – have been taken out into an apartheid-like no-man's land. Rising racism, financially hard times and unemployment up to 40 per cent for young people under the age of 25, have made everyday life tough for young people with an immigrant background. The situation is not improved by the fact that many are crammed together in ghetto-like areas such as the Seine-Saint-Denis. The situation in Paris is special, but not unique. The right-wing wave that has swept across Europe in recent years has primarily gone beyond the minorities. Stricter immigration policies, intensified ghettoisation, rising unemployment and heated debates linking religion to culture and social problems form the breeding ground for dangerous tendencies. Also in Scandinavia, with Denmark's strict immigration policy.

When help arrives late to New Orleans, Norwegian media cover it with great discussions about the extent to which the high proportion of black inhabitants is the cause. When it burns in Paris, we talk about pubs and culture and wonder if it may have something to do with Islam. But when we think back to the United States in the mid-60s, we see the struggle of blacks as a struggle for fundamental civil rights. Their fight culminated with the Civil Rights Bill in 1964 and the Voting Act Bill in 1965. Hopefully the minority uprising in Paris will lead to a review of their requirements and access to basic civil rights.

French with African and Arabic background does not have access to the same freedom, equality and justice as most French people. They do not have equal opportunities for education, they do not have equal rights to work. The Norwegian model was once called "the whole people at work". But to paraphrase another well-known civil rights activist: I have a dream. That one day even the state of France – a state with a flood of injustice, with a flood of oppression – will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

Utopia demands freedom, equality and justice – for all.

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