Like countless others, I fell in love with Paris on first impression. I fell in love with the architecture, the history, the art, the love of artists, the culture and the people. I fell in love with the wine and the cafes, where vibrant discussions filled the air like song and dance and no topic was off limits.
I could breathe in Paris but I could not sleep. I wanted to declare my ex-patriotism and remain where a man of my persuasion could be free. I was at home in Paris and came to believe that I had breathed that lofty air before, where I could write surrounded by passion and beauty, where I could live the remaining days of my journey enjoying the blessings of liberty, equality and fraternity.
I loved Paris as if I was born to love her and she returned my embrace with warmth and grace. But I was not an émigré from northern Africa. I was an American in a post-911 world but I did not wear my faith on my sleeve and my skin was no darker than the average Parisian.
I mourn for Paris now, not so much for the disorder that has spread from her northern arrondissement to much of France, as for the underlying, hypocritical inequality and intolerance that made this violent upheaval inevitable.
I was never so proud of a nation other than my own as when Dominique de Villepin spoke for the enlightened world in the last assembly of the United Nations Security Counsel before the invasion of Iraq. All of France’s past misdeeds (an understatement to be sure) were forgiven in an instant, as she stood poised to lead all nations into a new age of peace and diplomacy.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
France fell too soon and too willingly from the pedestal of imperial opposition, first with the ugly affair in the Gold Coast and then, with its complicity in the overthrow of Jean Bertrand Aristide of Haiti.
Whether the current upheaval is characterized as mindless rioting, youthful unrest or social rebellion, observers have suggested the 1968 student uprising and the Lyon confrontation of 1991 for points of reference. I could not but think of Algiers and the brutal repression of a peaceful protest in 1961.
The wall of the Communard remembers. The ghost of the Bastille remembers. And the descendants of those who fell that bitter and fateful night remember as well.
The dark-skinned participants in these acts of civil disobedience or misdirected rage or abject lawlessness (depending on your point of view) are not likely impressed by the grand history of student dissent (when the students join them on the streets, then we can summon the summer of 1968) but they may be cognizant of a recent law (since rebuked) ordering that “school programs…recognize the positive character of the French overseas presence, notably in North Africa.” They may be aware of the ban on hijab (head scarves) in public schools.
They are without doubt aware of a double standard in French society that allows unimaginable unemployment, impossibly low wages, police harassment, abuse and blatant discrimination. In the dilapidated centers of poverty where they survive daily, they cannot be oblivious that they have been forgotten by a right-leaning, compassionless government.
It seems de Villepin may have awakened to the root causes of this nightmare. If Jacques Chirac wishes to secure a brighter page in history (without a government mandate), he must also awaken. Minister Nicholas Sarkozy, who mindlessly fueled the flames of the uprising with his reference to the Banlieu “scum”, must be relieved of his duty.
The French need look no further than Spain for a model of social tolerance and integration.
While the British and Americans may enjoy tossing charges of terrorist appeasement at the socialist government, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has kept his word and his faith with all the Spanish people.
Fighting back the rightwing demands for a crackdown on the Spanish Muslim community in the wake of the Madrid bombings, Zapatero ended arbitrary detentions of Muslim citizens and granted legal status to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants. His government rejected the popular call for a ban on hijab and allowed for the first time the teaching of Islamic subjects in Spanish schools.
There is, of course, a long way to go before the economic inequities of an entrenched social-economic contract can be remedied. It cannot be remedied by a government that practices indifference in the name of free market capitalism. It can only be done when the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are truly sewn into the fabric of society.
Jack Random is the author of Ghost Dance Insurrection (Dry Bones Press) the Jazzman Chronicles, Volumes I and II (City Lights Books). The Chronicles have been published by CounterPunch, the Albion Monitor, Buzzle, Dissident Voice and others. Visit his website: Random Jack.
* Revolt in Paris by Matt Reichel
Other Articles by Jack Random