Examining the Roots of the French Riots

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French journalist and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy talks about the causes of the uprising among second-generation North and West-African immigrants in France. Levy says until now, the French preferred to ignore the problems among immigrant ghettos, and believed riots were something that only happened in America.


The 12-day state of emergency declared by the French government may have tamped down some of the rioting by immigrant youths in hundreds of cities across the country. But unemployment and poverty and feelings of anger and discrimination remain to be rekindled. Bernard-Henri Levy is a French journalist and philosopher. His upcoming book is "American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville."

He joins us from Paris. Thank you very much for being with us.

Mr. BERNARD-HENRI LEVY (Author, "American Vertigo"): Glad to be with you, too, again.

SIMON: May I ask, did a lot of French people think that this kind of unrest could only happen in America or maybe the UK?

Mr. LEVY: Yes, of course, this is our national narcissism. We were convinced that these sort of things could only happen in the house of the others, which is you--America. It's our turn, in a way. And it's--means that the French model of integration did not work so well, and even failed.

SIMON: How did that model fail and how has it been different than the American model, which is inevitably called the melting pot?

Mr. LEVY: The idea in France was that when you come to France, you are no longer a French of Arab origin or a French of African origin, but a French as itself. This was the way we thought of the thing, and it failed because we created in France some real ghettos. We know now that this dream of being French with no relationship at all with any origin is broken with these riots since 12 days.

SIMON: Does the relatively high unemployment rate contribute to what happened?

Mr. LEVY: Of course. This is one of the seeds of this nihilist despair. Some of these cities where the unrest happened are cities where 50 percent of the young men and women between 18 and 25 years old are unemployed. Sometimes more than 50 percent.

SIMON: Messier Levy, do you think the French government would be paying attention to some of these circumstances if the unrest had not occurred?

Mr. LEVY: It's hard to say. I'm not even sure that they will pay attention now after the unrest, and the governments had also their own nihilism. There was this tendency in all our governments to push the problem aside and to leave it to the next generation. At the end of the day it exploded.

SIMON: What if a lot of the young people who are out in the streets, who've been rioting, who've been setting to flame police cars really in the end don't want to be part of France? Some of them--you read interviews and accounts--say they want Islamic law.

Mr. LEVY: The most recent investigations show that Islamism was not behind that. It does not mean that the Islamist groups are not going to take advantage of that. This is another question. I think they are trying to take advantage. I think they will take advantage in the future. And I think that this is one of the bad ...(unintelligible) we are going to have from all this story. But when we have in front of us nihilist, savage, barbaric people, how should we act: In a nihilist, savage, barbaric way? I don't think so. We have today in France a huge minority of foreign people. They will remain, and we have to find a way to deal with that situation.

SIMON: Messier Levy, thanks very much.

Mr. LEVY: Thanks to you.

SIMON: Bernard-Henri Levy, French journalist and philosopher. His new book out in January of 2006 is "American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville."

And it's 18 minutes past the hour.

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