November 4, 2005
Riots Show That Europe Can Learn From America
Has anyone in the
United States noticed that the Paris suburbs have been racked
by race riots for a week? That youths in these ghettos are opening
fire on police?
You'd never know
it from American media coverage. There's very little of it on
TV, despite the dramatic footage of burning cars. On CNN Headline
News, the French riots were given 20 seconds, wedged between an
item about Scooter Libby and one about how a musicians' strike
at Radio City wouldn't affect the Rockettes.
What's more astounding
is that Americans, despite their frequent delight in France-bashing,
have not used the mayhem to turn a bright spotlight onto the failings
of French society. Here we have nine towns in France consumed
in what one French union leader called a "civil war,"
and few American commentators are wagging their fingers over what's
wrong with France.
Compare that with
13 years ago, when the world's cameras trained on the violence
in Los Angeles. The L.A. riots became the No. 1 story across the
globe. The instant analysis from Europe was that the chickens
of racial injustice had come home to roost. And there was much
self-satisfied clucking about America being a messed-up place
and Europe having gotten things right.
Francois Mitterrand used the L.A. riots to defend France's generous
welfare programs. The chaos in America, he said, showed "that
the social needs of any country must not be neglected."
The welfare benefits
in France are still pretty nifty, and yet the immigrant neighborhoods
around Paris are exploding in fury. Something else must be going
on. The popular explanation from official France is that the rioters
are mostly impoverished Muslims, whipped up by an extremist clergy.
There's truth in that, but there's a deeper root cause, which
is harder to fix: racism. The immigrants and their children feel
like foreigners in a country that will never accept them as truly
its own. The French want them to quietly clean their toilets,
then disappear at night.
A similar story unfolded
after this summer's London bombings. The perpetrators were Muslim
radicals, but the real shock was that the bombers were not immigrants.
They were their British-born children, who had received all the
public benefits of being British, but felt only rage toward their
country. All the bennies in the world won't cover a sense of being
Americans may have
something to teach their European friends. The United States absorbs
immigrants by the millions. The immigrants don't riot. They work,
and they assimilate. It could be that Americans' devotion to working
-- often ridiculed by leisure-loving Europeans -- translates into
greater respect for people who work. Ours is a more open society.
Americans haven't applied a sharp cultural critique because what
little coverage they see from Europe tends skip over the ugly
parts. In his book "The United States of Europe," Washington
Post writer T.R. Reid portrays a continent of unending pleasure
and comfort. His Europe is about young people taking their bullet
trains from Madrid to weekend skiing in the Alps; first-class
health coverage; pure food; and secure pensions. But the 300-page
book devotes only two sentences to Islamic immigrants, mainly
a dry reference to the growth in their numbers.
Eerily, the sparks
that ignited the violence in Los Angeles and the Paris suburbs
were virtually identical: resentment over perceived abuse by police.
In Los Angeles, the trigger was the jury acquittal of the officers
caught beating Rodney King, a black man, on film. In France, it
was the death of two North African youths, electrocuted when they
touched a power transformer. The rioters say police were chasing
the young men. The police say that was not the case.
In 1992, presidential
candidate Bill Clinton went to South Central Los Angeles and appealed
for calm. This week, French President Jacques Chirac is appealing
for calm, though from the safety of the government offices in
The two conflicts
reflect very different political and cultural histories, but both
stem from a deep sense of disenfranchisement by people of color.
When it comes to matters of race, Americans have come quite a
distance in 13 years. The French really haven't started the journey
yet. Perhaps Americans do have something to teach them.
2005 Creators Syndicate