Professor Puts Riots in Historical Perspective

by Michelle Rhoades

November 14, 2005

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Historians have watched the riots and the way the government has handled it with extreme interest. French Historians do not yet agree on what has sparked the riots, but in part they understand them as a result of the peculiar brand of racism that exists in France and the French Revolutionary tradition.

First, whereas during the 20th century the United States attempted to embrace multi-culturalism and integrate immigrants, France has a long-standing tradition that emphasizes that citizens are French first and ethnic or religious heritage is secondary. The result is that there are no state policies to protect French citizens with a North African background from racial or ethnic discrimination. This has led to inequalities in housing, employment, and a paucity of state funding for the suburbs where French citizens of ethnic heritage live. In addition, for more than 20 years, France has had an unemployment rate that hovered near 11 percent; in the suburbs among young men, unemployment is currently 30-40 percent. Finding a good job is a serious issue everywhere in France and there has been little to no governmental effort to improve employment in areas where the children of immigrants now live. As French citizens, they are rightfully angry and frustrated. Like the people left in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, this generation of French citizens feels abandoned by their government.

Second, rioting in France has a unique history of its own and French historians generally agree we cannot compare what is happening in France today to the L.A. Riots sparked by the police attack on Rodney King. Rioting of this type existed during the French Revolution of 1789, Parisian workers' riots in 1848, during the Paris Commune of 1870-71, and again during the Student Riots of 1968! This Revolutionary Tradition (as historians refer to it) has been used successfully throughout France's past to force the government to take notice of the most neglected portions of France's population. Most historians find it deeply ironic that the demonstrators, although (incorrectly) thought to be "immigrants" and not "really" French, have displayed exactly how French they truly are by rioting in the streets!

We do not know what the long-term effects of these riots will be. However, I firmly believe that the best way to understand a culture is to go to it and live in it. Students and alums currently abroad will return with a greater appreciation and understanding of France and a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be a citizen of the world.

 


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