Thursday, November 03, 2005


The Fire This Time: Despair and Poverty Ignite in the Paris Ghettos

Franck Prevel / Reuters

A car burns during a riot in the Paris suburb of Le Blanc-Mesnil on Thursday in an eighth night of rioting.

I love Paris and unlike many Americans consider myself a true Francophile. But, I remember clearly when I visited the city, how frightening the suburbs seemed as we drove into town from the airport. I remember feeling that I wouldn't want to break down in one of those areas and could sense the despair that permeated these ghettos. And so, it isn't surprising to see this erupt into what amounts to a Parisian intifada. Peter Ford wrote in today's Christian Science Monitor that, "The spreading violence has lifted the lid on an ugly stew of poverty, discrimination, and desperation amongst immigrant-descended families that most French citizens have long preferred to ignore." Sound familiar? I seem to recall similar thoughts expressed in the United States following the Katrina disaster.

Black and brown folks all over the world who are subjected to extremes of poverty, discrimination, police brutality and military occupation, who are fed a load about equality but denied at every turn, just lose it sometimes. I hope that President Chirac's calls for dialogue are the beginning of real change in France, but I won't hold my breath. I was just talking briefly with Howard French, the American journalist, about this issue and he called the French ghettos an "open secret" and mentioned that after Katrina there was a certain segment of French society that took glee in the fact that the American inequalities and under-class were on display. He describes it as a certain French Schadenfreude toward the U.S. and although the thought may seem petty, this unrest may seem to many Americans like comeuppance. But, beyond this sort of banal French/American tit for tat, what's most striking is the resemblance between the circumstances of the lives of Black and Brown folk all over the developed world - forgotten and hidden away is horrific ghettos, subjected to segregated education (if any at all), locked out of the economic system, and left to lead lives of, what, no doubt, the moneyed classes hope will remain, quiet despair. Well, there's no peace and quiet in Paris tonight.

What's truly frightening is that all this comes on a day when Republicans have pushed through a bill that will amount to about $36 billion in cuts over five years for programs that help the poor, the elderly, students, and farmers while handing Big Oil the rights to drill in Alaska and more tax cuts for the wealthy. These heartless and, in the long run, stupid eviscerations of the social safety net will not help us reduce poverty, maintain security or give every American the opportunity to live a decent life. By continuing to tread on the poor and the disadvantaged (read black and brown) we risk the fire next time.

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