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Understanding the Paris Riots


To find out more about what's behind this unrest, we called Ted Stanger in Paris. He's a former Newsweek correspondent and a writer on French affairs. We spoke just before French President Chirac made his statement today. I asked Ted Stanger about the source of the young rioters' discontent.

Mr. TED STANGER (French Affairs Author): If you go to the real rock bottom of it, you have to keep in mind that in France it is perfectly illegal for any government official to keep statistics based on race or national origin. Therefore, we don't know what the unemployment rate is for young blacks or young Arabs in France. We don't know anything about them statistically speaking. They don't exist as a minority because for the French, they're only French people. It's an attempt from the last century by the French to prevent any sort of racial discrimination by considering anybody simply French; there are no ethnic communities here. But it does also add to a sense of frustration by a lot of young people not to be recognized as young Muslims or as young Africans, and when they encounter racial discrimination, which does indeed exist, they're helpless to fight against it.

LYDEN: So they're homogeneous on the page at the Bureau of Statistics and visible in these suburbs, but they know who they are and, as you point out, are frustrated.

Mr. STANGER: People do know who they are and they know who they are, but in another sense, too, they are helpless because they don't have real political representation. There is not a single member of the National Assembly who is either of Arab or African origin. Therefore, they don't have anybody to speak for them on behalf of them in national politics.

LYDEN: Just from a source of basic riot control and police work, where are the French gendarmes, the French police?

Mr. STANGER: Well, they have a problem. It was made public policy a number of decades ago to spread people of African origin around various suburb bedroom communities. And in order to keep an eye on those communities, it takes an awful lot of man- and womanpower, and the French simply don't have that kind of police force. If they were all in the center of Paris, that would be another matter, of course.

LYDEN: Well, with this spreading from Paris to Normandy and down to the south, one would think that the country's president would be saying more. Hasn't French President Jacques Chirac been pretty quiet?

Mr. STANGER: He has been very quiet, and I think probably he has his reasons for being quiet. And a number of years ago, about 10 years ago, he campaigned on the issue of the social fracture in France; he wanted to eliminate it totally. And here he has very living proof that he's done nothing of the sort. He's also letting his chosen successor, in a sense, take care of things. This is Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister. But Dominique de Villepin, who's very much an old classic Frenchman--looks very French--is not doing a very good job either, and he's leaving most of the work to Mr. Sarkozy, Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister.

LYDEN: Now he's the one who has called the rioters--I believe the word is `scum.' Is he going to have to step down for that?

Mr. STANGER: I don't think so because I think that's a very clever political step on his part--cynical, perhaps, yes, but clever in the sense that many Frenchmen--that is, the great majority--are not of some ethnic community, and they're very much afraid of having their cars burned even if they don't live anywhere near the suburbs that are burning at this time. And you can't say--it's not politically correct, of course, to call people from the suburbs bad names, so Sarkozy has done it for them and in a sense defusing the extreme right wing and taking over much of the political spectrum for himself, in view of the 2007 presidential elections when he will be a candidate.

LYDEN: Ted Stanger is a former Newsweek correspondent in Paris who continues to write about the French scene. Ted Stanger, thanks for being with us.

Mr. STANGER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Longtime listeners recognize Jacki Lyden's voice from her frequent work as a substitute host on NPR. As a journalist who has been with NPR since 1979, Lyden regards herself first and foremost as a storyteller and looks for the distinctive human voice in a huge range of national and international stories.