On Tuesday, the Reuters news agency featured a story questioning the assumption of a “low profile” by French President Jacques Chirac during the ongoing national emergency. As the article points out, the French President has appeared on national television only once throughout the entire ordeal, a meager showing which has lead even his habitual apologists at Reuters to wonder whether he has become untenably weak in the face of the growing violence.
Unfortunately for the French populace, the “low profile” classification of President Chirac’s actions during the crisis is far too generous. A more accurate description would be something along the lines of “criminally negligent.” Better yet, how does one pronounce “AWOL” in French?
Polemists and editorialists have by now expended vast amounts of energy describing the internal challenges France now faces: the stratified neighborhoods, the growing threat of ghettoized Islamic fundamentalism, and the crushing economic realities facing French youth. All of these fundamental issues will assuredly dog French governments for years to come, but their interminable existence does not excuse the pathetic management of the immediate crisis by the government of Jacques Chirac, which has virtually surrendered the ample authority granted it by the French constitution to the throngs of rioters who -- after almost two weeks of rioting -- are still allowed to run rampant.
Such ignorance concerning the dire situation in the suburbs is a relatively new development for President Chirac, who, during elections past, promised voters he would tackle the issues of cultural integration while offering new immigrants increased economic opportunities. Recent events, however, have betrayed his previous assurances as little more than naked attempts to curry political favor among the foreign-born population.
For decades, the suburbs of Paris, populated by large numbers of mostly lower-class Muslim immigrants, teetered on the edge of lawlessness. French police rarely ventured into the “no-go zones,” while criminal gangs dominated the lives of most inhabitants. The spark for wider violence was a relatively minor incident involving the electrocution of two teenage boys who felt -- erroneously -- that they were being pursued by police. Violence quickly engulfed immigrant neighborhoods. Three days later, police accidentally fired a tear gas grenade into the Clichy-sous-Bois mosque, a crime evidently considered so heinous that thousands of French Muslims across Paris proper -- few of whom reliably attend mosques -- were stirred to riot.
The initial reaction of the Chirac government was one of confusion and obfuscation. No additional police reserves were mobilized, and high-ranking government officials prepared to make their scheduled overseas visits. President Chirac, himself, seemed strangely unconcerned, only addressing the riots a full five days after they began through government spokesmen.
Even as the violence worsened, Chirac failed to peek over the ramparts of the Elysee Palace, only managing to send out his quaffed errand boy, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, in order to maintain an image of national strength and executive leadership. De Villepin’s earliest actions, however, indicated that Chirac’s government was much more interested in political spin than taking back the streets. In a display of posturing that would warm Al Sharpton’s heart, De Villepin rushed to appease the rioters by meeting with the parents of the two dead teenagers and promising a thorough investigation of the police, effectively lending credence to the “cause” of the rioters. This sort of accommodation undoubtedly comes as second nature to De Villepin, who, as a product of the Quai d'Orsay -- the French Foreign Service -- was required to master the long-standing French tradition of groveling before disreputable characters.
The street thugs rewarded the weakness of Monsieur de Villepin with a higher level of violence. All throughout Paris suburbs, in towns such as Le Blanc-Mesnil and Aulnay, Muslim youth took to the street and -- ignoring De Villepin’s niceties -- torched hundreds of cars and destroyed a police station. Then, on November 3rd, the rioting spread beyond Paris, as numerous other French cities such as Dijon and Marseilles were marred by arson and looting. Still, the government remained silent, with Chirac issuing vanilla statements by government courier, calling for “dialogue” and “calm,” appeals which went unnoticed in the seething neighborhoods of outer Paris.
The one French leader who has displayed a modicum of courage throughout the recent violence, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, is also the most maligned. His attempts at effective law enforcement have earned him the hatred of the insipient French press, which has produced a stream of breathless diatribes labeling him a provocateur for daring to use such phrases as “scum” or “rabble.” Their malice came as a gift to President Chirac, who immediately realized the political benefits of positioning Sarkozy -- his political rival -- in the role of irresponsible firebrand and bureaucratic bumbler. Soon, a whispering campaign -- sourced to “unnamed officials” and various socialist leaders -- called for Sarkozy’s resignation, undercutting his authority at a most inopportune time. Thus, Sarkozy was given the unenviable task of dealing with the riots while simultaneously fending off barbs from his own government.
The political squabbling was quickly relegated to background noise as the riots continued to spin out of control. In private emergency cabinet meetings chaired by De Villepin -- Chirac saw fit not to attend -- the rhetoric of order was oft-discussed but concrete steps were conspicuously absent. By November 5th, hundreds of towns were aflame. The government response, again, was anemic, with De Villepin vowing to restore order but doing little to achieve that goal. This inaction bred increased violence, as November 6th and 7th brought about some of the fiercest battles of the entire period, with police coming under gunfire and fighting with hundreds of marauding Muslim youths in the streets. Shockingly, a full ten days after the beginning of the veritable civil war, the French government was still unwilling to declare a state of emergency, perhaps hoping to stave off that politically damaging contingency.
Finally, on the 11th night of the so-called “disturbances,” President Chirac personally took to the airwaves for the first time, stating “The Republic is quite determined...to be stronger than those who want to sow violence or fear.” However, Chirac, ever tethered to the anchor of political correctness, promised that the law would be applied “in a spirit of dialogue and respect," and that “respect for all, justice and equal opportunity,” were needed to end the “impasse.” Again, the soothing words of a French official were met by violence on the street, as 10 French police were hospitalized with buckshot wounds and the number of cars immolated broached 1,300.
Soon afterwards, De Villepin would confidently announce to reporters that Chirac had ordered 1,500 additional police deployed to restore order in the suburbs of Paris, as if calling up small numbers of reserves more than a week into the conflict was an example of sound crisis management on the part of the President.
On Tuesday, the Chirac government belatedly declared a state of emergency, ordering nation-wide curfews and strict impediments to public activity. The news came 12 days too late for thousands of French business and car owners who witnessed their property being destroyed, or for Jean-Jacques Le Chenadec, a 61-year-old retiree beaten into a coma in the middle of a city street. Following Chirac’s harsh decree, De Villepin saw fit to soften the blow, apologizing profusely for the incident of the tear gas grenade in the mosque.
While De Villepin and Chirac dithered behind close doors, Sarkozy made a habit of visiting front-line police stations, urging officers to “focus on arrests,” and clean up the neighborhoods “with a power-hose.” Such tough talk, the bane of the pampered elite who hold sway at Le Monde and the BBC, is apparently popular among French citizens desperatly looking for order and normality, as the embattled Sarkozy still manages to garner a 57 percent approval rating. This figure indicates that a majority of the French population, including the shopkeepers, businessmen and productive citizens who day after day struggle to stem France’s economic descent still care about justice and the future of their nation. This beleaguered majority is undoubtedly sickened by Chirac’s equivocation in the face of persistent lawlessness. Unfortunately, their concerns are destined to be ignored by the denizens of the French political and media caste, who consider grass-roots discontent nothing less than caustic effrontery from the unwashed rabble. Better to pander to the “grass-roots” effort of rioting immigrant youth than make the hard choices requested by industrious French citizens.
The recent crisis is made especially worrying as it may force the French public to choose between two equally destructive extremes: an excessively funded effort towards engineered multiculturalism or a classically European nationalist backlash that will only further disenfranchise the immigrant population. If either route is indeed decided upon, right-thinking French citizens should feel justified in blaming those in the Chirac government who not only ignored the boiling hatred of France’s immigrant population, but did nothing to curb its riotous manifestation.
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