France today is a lot like New York City was before Rudy Giuliani: Its government is so large it crushes the economy - yet also too weak to stem widespread criminality. As with pre-Rudy New York, the fear that France's best days are behind it prevails.
For the moment, the French are breathing a sigh of relief, as the anniversary of last year's three weeks of rioting by Muslim youth passed with much fanfare but no widespread disturbances.
Yet -- with the nation approaching both a presidential election and the Fifth Republic's 50th anniversary -- the French elites worry that their famously unstable country is headed for breakdown and a Sixth Republic.
The 2005 Ramadan Riots, which saw some 10,000 cars torched and 300 buildings firebombed, have been followed by a yearlong, lower-grade rolling riot -- what some in the French police are calling a "permanent intifada." Nationwide, this works out to 15 attacks a day on police and firefighters, and 100 cars set ablaze nightly. And for the first time, the police are being subject to well-planned ambushes.
So when the Oct. 27 anniversary of last year's violence was met with "only" 277 torched cars, the Interior Ministry declared it "relatively calm."
But the trends are not good. While last year's violence was disorganized (rioters armed only with bricks, crowbars and Molotov cocktails) and largely confined to heavily immigrant Muslim and African neighborhoods, this past week saw a half-dozen well-organized attacks on public buses in non-immigrant neighborhoods by "youths" armed with guns. In some cases, they ordered passengers out at gunpoint, then firebombed the bus. In others, they've tossed Molotov cocktails into buses with the passengers still aboard.
The French press ardently insists there's no link between Islam and the unrest in the streets. But there is a connection, albeit complex, between the rioters and Islam's Jihadi elements.
Some of the rioters of 2005 and car bombers of recent clashes have shouted Allah Akbar (God is Great). But other rioters are drawn to Islam less as a faith and more as an off-the-shelf oppositional ideology that has replaced Marxism as the intellectual drug of the alienated.
In his Policy Review article "The French Path To Jihad," based on interviews with French prisoners, author John Rosenthal notes that Islam's attraction is often less its theological content than an aura of rebellion. "Islam disturbs people," notes Jacques, a non-Muslim "and for me that's a good sign."
One Muslim prisoner he interviews sounds like an underclass kid from early '90s New York: "Islam was my salvation. I understood what I was as a Muslim, someone with dignity, whom the French despised because they didn't fear me enough . . . That is the achievement of Islamism. Now, we are respected. Hated, but respected."
The Fifth Republic's foreign policy, which sees the Arab world as a counter-balance to U.S. and Israeli power, has unintentionally legitimated some of the violence. French television, its perspective an extension of the nation's ruling elites, has tried to incorporate young Muslims by depicting the conflicts in the Middle East largely from a Franco-Muslim perspective. On many nights, the TV news glorified the intifada against Israel. In the "al Dura affair," French TV went so far as to fabricate images of a Palestinian boy supposedly killed by Israelis.
The Muslim underclass, not surprisingly, identified with the "youths" attacking Israelis and sees in their own violence a heroic extension of the battle against the enemies of Islam.
The continued violence and fear have received heavy coverage in the French press, and -- along with a weak economy, high unemployment and the collapse in support for President Jacques Chirac -- set the terms for the 2007 presidential campaign, now underway.
The 74-year-old Chirac is a career politician -- and, like most of France's insular elite, cut off from the public. He has managed the remarkable accomplishment of becoming less popular in France than President Bush.
But the old Socialist opposition -- which had already managed to finish third in the 2002 presidential elections, behind the fascist Jean Le Pen -- have been unable to capitalize on the nation's troubles. The Socialists, who largely represent government bureaucrats and professionals, are as cut off from popular sentiment as Chirac. They are, explains American expatriate writer Denis Boyles, so ardent in their courtship of the Muslim vote as to be literally tongue-tied when it comes to the violence.
The one politician who seems to be in touch with the mood of anger and anxiety is Chirac's plainspoken interior minister and political enemy -- Nicholas Sarkozy, whose parents came to France as immigrants.
Sarkozy is not only philo-American, he admires Giuliani.
If his thus-far successful efforts to constrain Muslim violence hold, his chances of becoming the next president increase. The question then will be if Sarkozy has the Giuliani-like courage and ability to buck the tides of the traditional elites and pull his country back from the brink of ruin.
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