Sunday, November 6, 2005

A Journalist in Paris

Disorder in action is usually reflected in disorder in perception; when there is a breakdown—in a person or in an entire culture—it is rarely possible to understand it, because that consciousness of chaos transmits itself to those who are observing and reporting on it. We tend to rush to conclusions and forced corrections (that often wind up being as entropic as the disorder to which we're responding), in our anxiety to restore order. As we have seen, it happens in government and in journalism all the time, even occasionally in science.

There is thus obviously a great deal of confusion and misstatement over what's happening in Paris these past ten days—as to both the events and their meaning. The New York Post has proclaimed that it's all the fault of the Islamic community there, and barely stopped short of declaring it all an al Qaeda plot. Today, MSNBC is reporting that the rioting has reached the center of the city ("Arson spreads into central Paris").

So I visited the home site of Eric Francis, a colleague of mine who has published some of my work at his online journals. Eric is an American from here in New York who did a lot of valuable environmental journalism back in the '70's and '80's. He is now stationed in Paris, where he's worked for a few years as a journalist and an astrologer. Now before you tune out at the mention of that last term, review the following articulate and sober assessment that Eric wrote today. I think if you read it carefully, you'll realize that this is no New Age fruitcake but a professional journalist who knows that dramatic headlines and unsupported accusations do not aid the cause of truth. Note that his very first sentence calls into question the MSNBC report, and that his brief summary of the background to these riots puts the lie to the New York Post's spin.


Central Paris and any of the neighborhoods I've visited have been quiet.

The uprising was prompted by the electrocution deaths of two teenagers who were, according to reports of witnesses [reported in the press, not that I talked to], being chased by police and tried to take refuge in an electrical substation on Oct. 27. The police deny this.

The deaths occurred in the area of massive housing projects called Cités, where there has long been tension between police and a lot of young people who have absolutely nothing to do and nowhere constructive to vent their energies -- a very old problem.

Cités exist all along the northern edge of the city, where there is horrendous unemployment (20% to 50%, the worse if you're younger), and a general state of desperation, lack of community, lack of easy transit in to the center of town, and a lot of police presence. The whole thing reminds me of A Clockwork Orange, the Stanley Kubrick film. Except it must be noted that the Cités are entirely black and North African in population, where generations of immigrant population and their children have been stashed away by the government. So they are ghettoes in the true definition of that word.

Late last week, the riots and protests began rapidly spreading across France, in part provoked by a right-wing interior minister named Nicolas Sarkozy, who is basically using this as an occasion to look tough and stir up support among supporters of his would-be presidential campaign -- including those supporters of a guy named LePen, who has dominated ultra-conservative politics here for many years and has in the past decade become something of a mainstream phenomenon. LePen, however, is getting old and I guess Sarkozy considers himself a viable candidate for president.

But if it's any indication, I was photographing a butcher carving up a wild boar Saturday morning at Maubert Marketplace, with a long line of posh Parisites waiting for dibs. He called the pig Sarkozy as he sliced away and whacked some ribs with a big meat cleaver; I started laughing; everyone else stood there with a poker face.

The real Sarkozy, who is a major focus of attention now, used the word racaille to describe the youth in the Cités, a mean word loosely translating to scum, not something that a government official should be saying in public. It was either a super-bad judgment error (dubious), or blatant race baiting (my impression). Meanwhile, he is threatening long jail sentences for rioters.

Despite this, one night last week, nearly 1,000 cars were burned; the next night, about 20 buses; business are getting torched, and so on. It's really out of control, a truly ugly scene compared with the utter (almost satiric) calm and civility of central Paris, verging on an outright revolt that has the feeling of a civil war. And now, like Iraq, the war zone is occupied by thousands of riot police. So there is a lot of pressure being exerted by both 'sides' in this struggle. The truth is, the government really has no way to improve things; there is nothing much anyone can do to solve generations-old problems overnight; and there is apparently an on-the-ground political movement that is keeping the situation stirred up among the youth.

Central Paris and the city itself have been quiet -- you would not know something was up except for media reports. However, the protests seem destined to spread to the campuses at some point, though I doubt there will be rioting in the city itself. The anger is just not here basically because the money, jobs, culture and good life are here. It would be encouraging to see some real solidarity within the city with the plight of those on the outside -- but I don't think it would go over well with most people, who may have some sympathy for the rioters but mostly see them as trouble.

There have been some peace marches in the Cités, calling for an end to the violence.

That's what I can tell you for now.


If you'd like to keep track of what's really going on in Paris, you may wish to bookmark Eric's site and even open a subscription. He's also been working on a book, which you can have a taste of here.

At all events, be as careful with what you're reading in the American mass media about Paris as I hope you are about what you're getting from them about Iraq, the economy, and Plamegate. When you're online, seek out journalists like Eric Francis, who are on or close to the scene of what you'd like to learn about, and who display the objectivity and insight called for in their professional ethic.

1 comment:

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