The Riots of France: Plus ca change

Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes

A number of friends, knowing we are Francophiles and, more importantly, knowing that we own a medieval maison de village in the south of France, wish to have our point of view on the still current and recently extended unpleasant youth uprisings in the outskirts of a number of French cities. We do have a vested interest in seeing that the French preserve the integrity of the social fabric over there. We also intend, and certainly wish, to spend extended periods of time in our little fantasy realised chez nous.

However, my point of view, at least, is informed better than the average American only because I take a greater interest and read a bit further, and listen a little harder, and pay a great deal more attention to the news in France than we in the U.S. are otherwise wont to do. There are no mysteries to what is happening in France, and there is nothing hidden about it.

The briefest observation I can give, delivered with the slight bemusement, but fundamental sang froid, with which my late uncle used to say it: “So?” In short, it’s not a surprise.

I made an allusion to the prevailing conditions in the banlieux, the status quo, in a story to be published in bertha, the magazine I am developing for introduction very soon, if not imminently. This story, a sample, is available (see below) and has been since I wrote it 16 months ago. I was being neither prescient nor insightful. I was merely informing my English speaking readers of what every Frenchman has known for years.

Let me not suggest, however, that it is discussed with any regularity. Certainly not here. But rarely in France. And I’m alluding to discussion, not the ejaculation of peremptory derisive epithets in demotic French.

Nor was I in any way an early reporter. It was hardly reporting. I merely was able to make reference to the facts as discovered by earlier investigators.

One of the best of them, and one of my favorites, is an old newspaperman (I believe, actually, he is younger than I am). That would be Mort Rosenblum, among whose many accomplishments (and a fact not mentioned in the following biographical blurb I lifted from one of his books) is that for 30 years he was among the great war correspondents for American journalism. He now writes chiefly about food-related subjects. And, amazingly, and wholly serendipitously, he lives on a Provençal olive farm he immortalized in a best-seller (also mentioned below) and which is located perhaps 20 minutes from where we elected to buy a modest little stone house.

In his book, A Goose in Toulouse, Rosenblum made of what seems to be his naturally peripatetic nature an excuse to explore France with a largely culinary eye. The excerpt I have included—to help explain what’s going on now with the riots, and the torching of cars, and the terrorization of the bourgeoisie, and the response (such as it has been) of the French government—demonstrates however that Rosenblum always has another eye open. His political eye gives us views on even the most innocuous subjects (or, shall I say, compelling, for what is more compelling, if wholly benign and innocent, than the subject of great food) so as to make them real. As he does in the case of this crisis of the French culture (a culture of great food, if it must be reduced to a singular abstraction). That culture is threatened by the some of the same forces that have formed the hideous banlieux, which, in the perverse justice of the streets, are being consumed in flames.

First, a note on Mr. Mort Rosenblum, from the endpapers of A Goose in Toulouse:

Mort Rosenblum is a special correspondent for the Associated Press, based in France, and former editor-in-chief of the International Herald Tribune. Equally at home in the worlds of international politics and haute cuisine, his acclaimed books include the James Beard Award-winning Olives. He lives in Paris and Provence. [HD note: his latest book is Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light / link to this newest book: Chocolate book].

[About this excerpt: Goose is the regional bird of the Southwestern corner of France in which Toulouse is located, and hence part of the foundation of the cuisine of that terroir. The cooking fat is goose fat, and the quintessential dish is the heavenly stew (requiring three days preparation and cooking if it’s done right and from scratch), called cassoulet, and among whose components are goose confit, and a sausage indigenous to Toulouse. The distinctive taste of cooking in the fat of a goose (or duck, for that matter) in some ways helps characterize the precise distinctions of Toulousean life in the broad range of experiences collectively known as la vie Francaise. Rosenblum has been talking about Southwestern food and other reasons for being there… This book was published in 2000. He was reporting on events that took place in 1998 and 1999. Bill Clinton was still President. September 11, 2001 was two years hence. The bubble was still expanding. Afghanistan was run by the Taliban, and Iraq was ruled, of course, by Saddam Hussein; as a consequence, neither of these sovereignties suffered a riot, not even a Molotov cocktail.]

Goose grease or not, I returned often to Toulouse because I like it there. The city calls itself a model for the third millennium. It might be. If anyplace now represents France and its extremes, it is Toulouse.

Polls repeatedly rank Toulouse the most liveable city in France. It is comfortably sized, rooted in its past but open to anything new. Its hypermodern hospital in stately old buildings is among the best in Europe. For any number of reasons, it is where most Frenchmen say they would like to move.

For starters, la ville rose is lively and beautiful. When sunlight sets fire to the salmon-hued bricks, it is even stunning. People gather on the grass by the arched Pont Neuf, as in Paris much older than its name suggests. The Place du Capitole, a tile-and-cobblestone esplanade, throbs with music, markets, and meandering in any weather. Cafes and cabarets jam solid with university students.

The tourism office is a tower keep by leaf~shaded fountains and elegant shops off the adjacent Place Wilson. Inside, friendly people can tell you that Toulouse has 150 parks and plazas, 4,000 public benches, 160,000 trees, and 400,000 flowers.

The old center radiates from red-bricked quais on the Garonne, built in the eighteenth century by trade-minded city fathers who meant to show the world some grandeur. From the port, the Canal du Midi begins its long meander across the
bottom of France toward Montpellier and the Rhône. Back from the river, the Rue de la Dalbade is lined with gorgeous old homes built by the local nobility between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries.

Toulouse is also technology heaven. Ariane rockets are made there. The supersonic Concorde was born in Toulouse, still ahead of its time a half century later. It is Europe’s Seattle, headquarters of a French-dominated Airbus consortium that builds wide-bodied planes that compete with Boeing.

Aerospatiale in Toulouse builds those heat-seeking Exocet missiles so beloved by military dictators. During the Falklands War, assembly line workers cheered with pride when Argentines used their handiwork to smoke a British warship. But in a French spirit of fair play, diplomats passed secret aim-spoiling codes on to London so that did not happen too often.
Industrial suburbs stretch away from Blagnac airfield and Aerospatiale’s soo-yard-long main hangar. The city’s four universities, four engineering schools, sixteen institutes, and thirty-four other schools of advanced studies are sprinkled just about everywhere.

Clearly, town planners put in some thought. You can even follow the road markings and find a place to park in the
medieval part of town. For the rest, urban architects designed outskirts that were to live on in greater glory, pilot planning
for the third millennium.

Le Mirail, for instance, an expanse of high-rise apartments and suburban businesses around a university campus, was supposed to house a dynamic, youthful, and convivial mix of young workaday families. As it turned out, Le Mirail offered France a chilling example of what happens in a well-fed society when too many people find no place at the table.

Le Mirail evolved into what other sizeable towns call la banlieu. The word means suburbs, but the connotation is neither Grosse Pointe nor Scarsdale. It is now code for the more specific term, "quartier sensible." That means, essentially: a ghetto populated by immigrants, darker-hued French citizens, and white working-class French families who are not able to move elsewhere. They are no-man’s-land expanses around Paris and Lyon. But Toulouse?

So I was surprised late in 1998, after a visit to France’s lovely model city, to see a headline reading, "Day of Riots in Toulouse After Death of Habib, 17."

Nothing was really clear about the spark that set things off. From most accounts, a police patrol had come upon some kids breaking into a car at 3:30 A.M. on a Sunday. Officers fired but did not chase the fleeing kids. At dawn, someone walking his dog found Habib Ould dead with a 7.65 caliber police bullet in him. He had run a hundred yards from the scene and collapsed. By noon, when the news circulated, crowds gathered in the tough La Reynerie section from all over Le Mirail.

By nightfall, cars were aflame. Rocks rained down on the besieged police. Outnumbered, faced with something new, the riot troops fired plumes of tear gas. Molotov cocktails flew back in riposte. At least six officers were injured in the first clash, and sporadic pitched battles went on for most of a week. Meanwhile, thousands marched through Toulouse holding aloft photos of a smiling Habib and banners in French and Arabic that read, "They murdered Pipo."

The story had the familiar buzz words evoking an underlying malaise that was troubling all of France: "integration" and "assimilation." What they meant was that after centuries of absorbing new immigrant groups, Frenchmen of the old sort saw themselves faced with a people who prefer a different sort of Sunday lunch, which they would rather eat on Friday.

For years, occasional flare-ups drew attention to the "sensitive neighborhoods," usually around Paris or Lyon. The film La Haine, "Hate," traced the patterns of frustrated, youthful exuberance to final gunplay. But the Toulouse spark ignited hot spots smouldering all across France. Habib was shot in mid-December. Over the Christmas holidays, shops and cars burned in Lyon, Saint~Etienne, Lille, Paris, Longwy. Tranquil Strasbourg saw the worst. In a single weekend, twenty cars were torched and city buses were stoned.

Vehicule flambé
was a favorite dish. In Grenoble, for instance, kids stopped a bus and flung a firebomb under the seats. The driver crashed into a tree and escaped, with his passengers, before the bus exploded.

Across France as a whole, no one kept careful count.

In less likely places than Toulouse, frustrated ghetto youngsters tried their hand at the violence they watched nightly on television. Arles caught the fever, among other tranquil southern cities. And often the police, overwhelmed or fearful of criticism if they overreacted, simply stood back and watched.

By the time 1999 got started, French society had a new classification: les sauvageons were disaffected youths capable of violence just for the hell of it. Magazines scoured their Rolodexes for sociologists, who came up with conflicting analyses and forecasts. Clearly, this was something to watch between meals.

In a thorough post-mortem, Le Monde wrote, "Riots in parts of Le Mirail were no worse than elsewhere, but because they happened in the ‘the city where Frenchmen most prefer to live,’ according to all the polls, they showed the depth of the social crisis in France."

Sociologists had explanations. Sophie Body-Gendrot, a friend who loves dark chocolate, drafted a study for the prime minister’s office. In short, she said, an excluded class of kids do not feel connected to the same institutions and values of those around them. Repression, the usual answer, only makes it worse. And neither tolerance nor understanding can be enforced. Certainly not at any individual level.

"It is easy to single out suburban kids, or National Front voters, but it’s much more widespread than that," Sophie had explained in Paris. "Whole segments of society are rejecting authority, not paying rent, refusing the old norms of civility. It’s getting worse, and I don’t see solutions."

The predominant reaction in the government, she said, was to tighten the screws, putting out more police and imposing more severe sentences in courts. That would likely make things worse. "We need much more dialogue," she concluded, "but the French don’t know how to engage in dialogue. " When I returned to Toulouse a few months after the riots, I walked around the old center to sniff out sentiments. Near the Garonne quai, I stopped at a small news and stationery shop owned by a slim woman of a certain age, with severely angled clear-framed glasses and a fussy but not unfriendly manner. She was straight out of the manual: shopkeeper, mother, petit bourgeoise, who ruled her small domain.

Yes, she explained, the problem was down in the banlieue. Police killed an Algerian, or something. But a lot of them marched into town to demonstrate.

"That makes you afraid, you know," she said, with a little shudder. "Mind you, it’s not that I have anything against ‘les Arabes,’ but they come here and don’t fit in with our way and yet expect everything for free from us."

"Les Arabes," in this context, has nothing to do with the Middle East. It is a semi-polite term—there are much worse—for North Africans from Algeria, Tunisia, or Morocco, three former French territories. Many of these "immigrants" are second or third generation descendants of French citizens who as soldiers died defending France. Others include Zinedine Zidane, the French-born son of an Algerian night watchman from Marseille, who did the most to help France win the 1998 World Cup.

The stationery store lady warmed to her theme. She was no racist, she assured me, as I paid for my papers and turned to
leave. "You just have to understand," she concluded, "ces gens-là. . ." That translated to: those people. Everyone knows roughly who is included in that collective reference, but the connotations vary slightly as you move around France. In Toulouse, it means olive-hued, Allah-fearing people who would rather eat lamb on a spit than duck or goose.

Mort Rosenblum, A Goose in Toulouse, pp.131-135
©2000 Mort Rosenblum, Hyperion Books, New York
[ link to this book: ]

This is the link to the story I wrote, “The Homeless of Provence,” which I alluded to above. It touches most obliquely on the same philosophical issues raised by the plight of the downtrodden, and their reactions against it:

rssrssby feather
FacebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailFacebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather