November 4, 2005
Riots Show That Europe Can Learn From America

By Froma Harrop

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.

French President 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 reviled.

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.

Perhaps 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 Paris.

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.

Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate

Froma Harrop

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