The Tragedy of Paris
November 10, 2005
By Jonathan Muggleston
...the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt
us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution
impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." Increasingly,
by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken,
the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing
to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense
profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to
get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must
undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin, we
must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a
person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives
and property rights, are considered more important than people,
the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism
are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question
the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.
On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's
roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must
come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that
men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make
their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging
a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces
beggars needs restructuring.
- Dr Martin Luther King, Beyond Vietnam, 4 April 1967
The revolution that is sweeping across one of the oldest democracies
in the world has everything to do with Dr King's observations. These
riots are not a bolt from the blue. They developed out of very obvious
historical trends, trends which were apparent to King in the U.S.
in 1967, and which are easily extrapolatable to other postcolonial
multicultural societies. This revolution was predictable and was
predicted. It is the opening of another front in the worldwide insurrection
to which King refers. And this is most certainly not going to be
the last front to open. Several other prominent European countries
exist in the same historical reality.
What historical trends do I mean? Let's begin with France in 1945.
The entire country's infrastructure was in tatters, and her young
men decimated by the Germans. France needed to rebuild, but they
lacked the manpower. So what does France do? She turns to the tattered
remnants of her Empire for cheap willing labor.
An interesting aside about the French Empire in Africa: the French
practiced Direct Rule colonialism, which means that they considered
their colonial possesions to be part of France, and the people who
lived there to be French. In their desire to bring "civilization"
to the dark natives, the French set up an impressive school system,
teaching generations of Africans the French language, French culture,
and (of all things) French geography. So, understandably, these
colonial subjects considered themselves to be French.
Jump cut from the golden era of the French Empire back to the
end of World War Two. France invites her colonial subjects, subjects
who considered themselves to be loyal and patriotic French citizens,
to come to Paris and help rebuild. To deal with the housing requirements
of this influx of Black and Muslim "Frenchmen," the government constructed
hundreds of high rise buildings in the suburbs of their major cities.
High rise, government-built, housing. Yes, ladies and gentlemen,
the French in their wisdom built themselves some projects.
Of course, at the time it made sense. And if the historical record
provides any indication, these patriotic colonial subjects were
reasonably content with their projects. They were living in better
conditions than the villages they left, with access to better healthcare,
technology, and a steady paycheck cleaning up Hitler's mess.
Fast forward two generations or so into the future; the reconstruction
jobs have long since dried up, and these ethnically segregated communities
are running unemployment rates of around 40%, in the middle of a
country who wants nothing to do with them. While this has made France
the only other country besides America to produce decent hip hop,
it makes for an incredibly volatile situation.
The Situation at Hand
As of today (8 November, 2005), the riots have spread to every
major city in the French Republic. Cars are being torched, buildings
burned, cops shot, and people killed. French authorities are attempting
to quarantine the violence with mass arrests, curfews, and riot
police. These measures have proven remarkably ineffective against
an insurgency armed with cell phones, molotov cocktails and Vespas.
The head of France's far right political party Jean-Marie Le Pen
has said that the situation is approaching "the brink of civil war."
Members of the insurrection are quoted as saying "This is just the
beginning, it's not going to end until there are two policemen dead."
This is in reference to the deaths of two teenagers who were being
chased by the police which started the insurrection.
The rhetoric from the French establishment includes approximately
equal parts hand-wringing at the obvious social ills suffered by
the disenfranchised ethnic youths who are the main force of the
revolt, and racist condemnation of the rioters as "scum."
I am not here to bemoan the loss of life caused by this situation,
or to discuss the property damage, or the undermining of a democratic
state. I find the real tragedy of Paris, of Marseille and Tolousse
and Nice and Sevran is that this violence is (so far) wasted energy.
When a society undergoes massive strains, it fractures along fault
lines that usually simmer underneath the niceties of day to day
existence. But there is a brief historical moment where those fractures
can be guided. Instead of perpetrating a cycle of racism and classism,
of in-group/out-group, the energy of the fracture can be coaxed
into new patterns, patterns that can do positive good. Dr King,
writing from a jail cell in Birmingham Alabama, called the subtle
art of guiding these social fissures "creative tension," and hailed
them as an essential aspect of his campaign.
How does one help channel these "creative tensions"? With ideas.
What have I seen a lack of coming from the French insurrection?
Ideas. This primal creative chaos will all be for naught if there
does not emerge some kind of coherent set of ideas to ride this
crest of energy.
And this goes out to my fellow intellectual lefties: we should
have seen this coming, and we should have been prepared with new
ideas. The worldwide revolution may have taken a backburner to the
Cold War for a few decades, but it simmered away nonetheless. While
American progressives may have the excuse that the leaders who should
be wise, honored statesmen guiding us were all cut down in their
prime, we cannot hide behind that fact. We have witnessed a bloodless
coup by the neoconservative oligarchy on our own shores with nothing
but a deafening silence punctuated by an occaisonal fart from Michael
If we had been organizing, resisting, planning and speaking like
we should, we would be prepared to help mediate this situation in
France, and similar ones brewing in Spain, England and other European
nations. Perhaps our Civil Rights movement did not succeed 100%,
but it has allowed us to live together as Americans. If we had any
Progressive leadership in this country we would be in a position
to extend our energy and expertise to the French. It would be our
honor and duty help them to build a society that lives up to the
cherished ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité.
I conclude this essay with an excerpt from Jose Marti's seminal
work, Our America:
These are not the times for sleeping in a nightcap, but with
weapons for a pillow, like the warriors of Juan de Castellanos:
weapons of the mind, which conquer all others. Barricades of
ideas are worth more than barricades of stones.
There is no prow that can cut through a cloudbank of ideas.
A powerful idea, waved before the world at the proper time,
can stop a squadron of iron-clad ships, like the mystical flag
of the Last judgement.
Jonathan Muggleston (Johnny_Red on DU) is a freelance writer
operating out of America's cultural capital, Harlem, New York.