THE RIOTS IN FRANCE: Reaction or cry for help?

Moin Ansari

Posted Nov 20, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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THE RIOTS IN FRANCE: Reaction or cry for help?

Racism as Praxis and Process

Moin Ansari

“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” Jean Paul Sartre

“For a long time, people thought the Enlightenment had settled these issues,” he said. “Now they arise again.” -Mark Sullivan

“I am self contained and self-reliant; your opinion is nothing to me; I have no interest in you, care nothing for you, and see and hear you with indifference.” - Dickens, Little Dorrit

Here are a number of my disquisitions and fulminations presented in response to the carnage in Paris.

IMAGE 1: Ali La Pointe, .a petty criminal Ņalong with several, unidentified compatriots, awaits capture at the hands of the French military.

IMAGE 2: “Go home,” the French cops yell at crowds of Muslims thronging the streets. “What is it that you want?” And the voices shout back as one: “We want our freedom.”

IMAGE 3: In 1992, the day of the South Central Los Angeles, I was working on Slausen and Western, the heart of the inner city. The reason I had gotten that engineering job was because a regular White American who had been chosen for the position had walked off the job, the first day, after seeing the condition of the Slausen parking lot. The recruiter called and asked me to show up. I did, ignored the surrounding conditions and kept the job. As an immigrant, I diligently worked as an engineer for several years and built my expertise. Every day, my morning commute was ridden with danger and interesting incidents. I became adept at driving around the carcasses of stolen cars that had been stripped to the bone. My worst moment was driving past a liquor store at 7 am with a line people waiting for the store to open.

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. ” Jean Paul Sartre

I often saw the “Cripps” and “Bloods” in small groups heading to the nearest McDonald (the only building left standing and never attacked). The city had never been rebuilt from the Watts last riots decades ago. The day of the riots, my admin told me that something bad was going to happen and that we should leave early. My listening to her, probably saved my life. As I headed out at 3 pm, I saw cars driving by, full of teenagers with their hand fisted in the black salute of defiance. I was perplexed why the Police cars which were following them on cue, turned about and headed out of town. When I reached home, I saw the carnage on TV. Both the Watts and the South Central Los Angeles riots are part of “Black” history in America. Most blacks regard the riots as part of the civil rights struggle.

Hell is other people. Jean Paul Sartre

It pains me to see Paris burning. I have very sweet memories of the city. Paris is not just a French city. Paris is also an Asian city, an African city and city of the world. I cannot defend the burning of cars. Fortunately there has been no loss of life. The burning of an aged woman has to be condemned in the strongest terms, and there is no justification for this sort of brutality. Are the riots in France just that, riots. Nothing more, and nothing less? Are they no better or no worse than the riots of Watts, Cleveland, Chicago South Central Los Angeles (1992), Sweto, Johanesburg, and other inner cities of our stratified societies. Is it true that the riots in our inner cities were a reaction to racism? Were there any calls to deport the “Blacks”? Actually there were!

“Racist thinking is simply an activity which realizes in alterity a practical truth inscribed in worked matter and in the system which results from it. But, on the other hand, and conversely, since the elementary structures of the simplest forms are inscribed in inorganic matter, they refer to various activities (both past and present) which either indefinitely reproduce or have helped to produce these human seals as inert thoughts: and these activities are necessarily antagonistic.” Jean Paul Sartre

.. racism constituted the enemy as inferior rather than as a supposed ‘French citizen’. They were either ‘devils’ or ‘mindless savages’, depending whether they had won a victory, showing them in their activity or whether, on the contrary, they had suffered a temporary defeat, which is in itself an affirmation of the conqueror’s superiority. In either case, this Manichaean action, separating the hostile troops by the absolute negation of a line of fire, makes the Muslim other than man. Jean Paul Sartre

Americans starved of news and fed on inane mechanations of rapists and serial killer stories may have been caught by surprise by the riots in Paris. Major French intellectuals has been predicting exactly this for years.

France has taken principled stands on Muslim causes. French Muslims make up a sizable minority in France. As a Muslim, I cannot justify the random destruction of property. However we must lend a listening ear to the roots causes of the problems. The lessons from Watts, Cleveland and South Central Los Angles are that the riots destroy the economic lifeline of the population. Business never returns. Lee Minikus, Rodney King beating, the arrest of Marquette Frye are the tips of the iceberg. There are deeper societal issues.

In 1994, a performance in Geneva of Voltaire’s 1741 tragedy “Mahomet, or Fanaticism,” which depicts the prophet of Islam as a Machiavellian imposter, was canceled in the face of blasphemy complaints and thinly-veiled threats from Muslim activists.

Ironically, “Mahomet” was meant to be taken as a criticism of Christian religious fanaticism closer to home in France. In his time, Rousseau criticized “Mahomet” as more likely to incite than dissuade religious fanatics. Kelly is an editor of the Collected Works of Rousseau says, “Voltaire presents religious fanaticism as a tool used by hypocritical leaders for their own agendas, and as a result, bringing about these horrible crimes,” he said. “The polemical goal of the play is to attack fanaticism. Voltaire was right, there is deep racism within French society.

The images out of Paris France today could be out of an old Gillo Pontecorvo movie. Are there any lessons to be learned from The Battle of Algiers, that classic 1965 film about French colonialism. The film opens with a scene in which “Paras” (French paratroopers) brutally torture an old Arab man.

IMAGE 1: Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), a petty criminal turned leader of the National Liberation Front (FLN). As the film opens, Ali, along with several, unidentified compatriots, awaits capture at the hands of the French military.

IMAGE 2: Gillo Pontecorvo ends his movie with the renewal of the FLN uprising in 1960. “Go home,” the French cops yell at crowds of Muslims thronging the streets. “What is it that you want?” And the voices shout back as one: “We want our freedom.”

The Sweto riots shook up apartheid. The Watts riots changed America. Will the urban unrest in the suburbs of Paris change France? Serious societal issues need to be addressed.

Why does an underclass become an underclass? What causes a teenager to go out a burn cars? Why is there resonance in this anarchy? Economic disparity, social ostracization, unemployment, and depression are the root cause of this malaise.

If we are to look into the “seeds of time” to find out why there are North Africans present in France, one will have to look at French colonialism and the seven year struggle against France. The Algerian struggle for freedom burnt is into the consciousness of the world. It took the French nearly 50 years, from 1820 to 1870, to kill half the population of Algeria. The Algerian war of independence became a searing image of suffering and sacrifice for peoples of diverse faiths and beliefs united by a shared passion for liberty. Algeria’s status as a symbol of human yearning for dignity and justice added to the poignancy with which the people of Asia and Africa have watched the horrific carnage of the civil war that began in 1991 and that has claimed more than 100,000 lives. The ISL-dictatorship struggle in Algeria continues. However the international events almost no bearing on the civil unrest in France! Perhaps this slightly abridged version of Jean Paul Sarte’s important message can give us some insights to the issues:

“This rebellion is not merely challenging the power of the [settlers], but their very being. For most [Europeans] in [Algeria], there are two complementary and inseparable truths: the colonists are backed by divine right, the natives are sub-human. This is a mythical interpretation of reality, since the riches of the one are built on the poverty of the other. In this way exploitation puts the exploiter at the mercy of his victim, and the dependence itself begets racialism. It is a bitter and tragic fact that, for the [Europeans in Algeria], being a man means first and foremost superiority to the Moslems. But what if the Moslem finds in his turn that his manhood depends on equality with the [settler]? It is then that the European begins to feel his very existence diminished and cheapened.”

If we substitute the word settler with immigrant and do a mirror image of the situation we see the same scenario in Paris.

France may not have a Aminah Assilmi, Or a Rosa Parks but France has, Simone de Beauvoir, Claude Lanzmann and Jean Paul Sartre. Sartre was able to change the colonial nature of France. The words of Sarte may explain some of what is going on. In the preface to Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth,” Sartre wrote:

“The European lite undertook to manufacture a native lite. They picked out promising adolescents; they branded them, as with a red-hot iron, with the principles of western culture, they stuffed their mouths full with high-sounding phrases, grand glutinous words that stuck to the teeth. After a short stay in the mother country they were sent home, whitewashed. These walking lies had nothing left to say to their brothers; they only echoed. From Paris, from London, from Amsterdam we would utter the words ‘Parthenon! Brotherhood!’ and somewhere in Africa or Asia lips would open ... thenon! ... therhood!’ It was the golden age驅 Then, indeed, Europe could believe in her mission; she had hellenized the Asians; she had created a new breed, the Graeco-Latin Negroes.”

Here are some other quotes from him Jean Paul Sartre:

“Man can count on no one but himself; he is alone, abandoned on Earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets for himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this Earth.’’ Jean Paul Sartre

“Existence is prior to essence. Man is nothing at birth and throughout his life he is no more than the sum of his past commitments. To believe in anything outside his own will is to be guilty of ‘bad Faith.’ Existentialist despair and anguish is the acknowledgement that man is condemned to freedom. There is no God, so man must rely upon his own fallible will and moral insight. He cannot escape choosing.” Jean Paul Sartre

“the idea of struggle between classes must be given its fullest meaning; in other words, even in the case of economic development within one country. Jean Paul Sartre