Reporters' Roundtable: Riots in France This week, our panel of reporters discuss the recent riots in France, the FBI's efforts to keep the mentally ill from buying guns, and how business journalists are sexing up dry economic news.
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Reporters' Roundtable: Riots in France

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Reporters' Roundtable: Riots in France

Reporters' Roundtable: Riots in France

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

It's time to hit the week's headlines in our Reporters' Roundtable. Who is afraid of the big bad economy? Business reporters try to reach those of us who don't know a correction from a recession. And more Americans banned from buying guns on mental health grounds.

But first, France is cooling down after riots in poor neighborhoods near Paris. On Sunday, two teenage boys died when their motorbike hit a police car. This week's protest brought back memories of similar riots two years ago that erupted in poor immigrant Parisian suburbs.

For more, we've got Christopher Dickey, Paris bureau chief and Middle East regional editor for Newsweek magazine, Clarence Page, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Valerie Bauerlein, she's a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Hi, folks.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER DICKEY (Paris Bureau Chief and Middle East Regional Editor, Newsweek Magazine): Hi.

Mr. CLARENCE PAGE (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Hi. How are you?

CHIDEYA: So…

Ms. VALERIE BAUERLEIN (Staff Reporter, The Wall Street Journal): Hello.

CHIDEYA: …Chris, you're in Paris. And how are things playing out right now? What is being viewed as the reason for the riot but also who's to blame?

Mr. DICKEY: Well, the proximate cause is that a couple of kids on a motorbike without helmets on ran into a police car and were killed. And rumors spread through the streets Sunday night that somehow, this was the fault of the police. And all of a sudden, the tensions that are always simmering in these big housing projects on the edges of the large cities of France erupted into violence. Right now, the feeling is that the violence has subsided.

But everybody knows that the situation remains tense and there was a threshold crossed on Sunday night and the following night when shotguns were used against the police. It's very, very unusual to have guns used in these kinds of confrontations. And that really is the focus of the tension right now.

CHIDEYA: The French president Nicolas Sarkozy once called poor youth scum, who were participating in protest, he's also talked about a thugocracy. What's the level of dialogue between the president, other politicians and the people in these neighborhoods whether or not they're participating in the protest?

Mr. DICKEY: Well, I think that a lot of the older people in the neighborhoods are actually fairly responsive to a hard line. There is a kind of a thugocracy that exists in these neighborhoods. You have young kids who are French. They are second - in some cases, third generation French but who have gotten caught up in the French equivalent of gangs and groups that want to make trouble, that are unemployed, that don't see much potential in their future. And they make life dangerous for everybody.

So I think that there is a dialogue with these neighborhoods, but there isn't much of a dialogue with those kids. And the government is coming down very hard on anyone they can find who is involved with these shootings. The penalty - the legal penalty for these - for attempted murder, which is what the government is calling these shootings, is life imprisonment. So we'll see where this goes.

CHIDEYA: Clarence, this sounds reminiscent of Los Angeles or many other places, where there are long standing divisions on class and about policing.

Mr. PAGE: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: What do you think we can learn from following what's going on in France?

Mr. PAGE: Well, I haven't been to France as recently as Christopher Dickey who's there right now. But in the past, I have been intrigued by the paradox, you know, liberte, egalite, fraternite - the great French slogan. But it doesn't really get enacted into law the way we do. They feel that because of true equality, you don't count people by race. They don't have social statistics like we do. They avoid anything that would resemble a kind of affirmative action that we have.

And a debate has been kicked off in the last couple of years. Now, over what kind of aggressive measures might be a good idea to try to stimulate more assimilation and integration across class and racial and ethnic-cultural lines like the sort that seems to be at root in these riots, and that - Christopher said, more about what they may have done. But I've said in the past that France is an example of how you can't just sweep race under the rug, that it's going to reemerge in very unpleasant ways.

CHIDEYA: Valerie, France has a fairly high unemployment rate. There are lot of questions over how to provide a safety net versus how to provide employment and encourage business development. How do you think that this plays into this larger question of how France and how some other European economies are doing?

Ms. BAUERLEIN: Well, I'm not sure how exactly to address your question. Certainly, the question on everybody's mind is a question of recession, domestically and internationally. And there's a great concern if unemployment continues to rise in France, that will affect the overall economy there.

CHIDEYA: Christopher, what about this question. France has really been grappling with how to emerge in a, like, capitalist, you know, economy, as we in the U.S. think about it with a socialist style safety net. Does this play - do these riots shed a little light on that?

Mr. DICKEY: Well, the riots and also the strikes a few days ago shed some light on it. Basically, what the French want to try to do is create a system where fear is not a big part of the motivation for working hard. Even Sarkozy is coming out and saying, we want people to work hard because they want to make more money. Full stop. But the other side of the American system is that if you don't work hard and you don't make money, there is no welfare system that's going to support you adequately.

In this country, there is. There's state health care. There is a welfare system that does make it possible to live, if not comfortably, at least humanely when you can't work. And the big challenge for this system is to try and find some way of creating a humane capitalism. And that they haven't sorted out because that's a very expensive proposition.

CHIDEYA: Valerie, let's move on to the larger spectrum. I mean, the economy not just in the U.S. but globally has been on a real roller coaster this year. And for those of us who are not business experts, you have a lot of terms flying at you. You have terms like broader range of currencies. The dollar lost a quarter of its value against that broader range of currencies. How do you, as a business reporter, try to present information in a way that is available to sophisticates but also to people who may not be as sophisticated?

Ms. BAUERLEIN: Well, that's a great question. And it is, I think, generally agreed that the economy has become so complex - and take mortgages, which were at the root of the recent credit crunch. As you, as a consumer, take out a mortgage from one party, it's sold to other investors and sometimes sliced up among some investors, and then the person that sends you the bill and that you call if there's a problem is completely divorced from that process.

So even at its base level, it's incredibly complex and it's incumbent on us to break it down to understandable bites as best we can. I come from a general news background so I try always to write these stories in the same way I would have written a story about a current, you know, a new - current events, something I'd seen with own eyes and always something I can explain to my sisters who are my most tough critics and readers.

CHIDEYA: Right now, it seems as if what we were calling the mortgage crisis has moved out to general crisis among investment banks. How does that all trickle down to people who may not have any direct relationship to these big institutions?

Ms. BAUERLEIN: Oh, it trickles down in hundreds of different ways. It can be -for small business owners, the broader credit crunch has meant that it's difficult to get a loan to expand your business or hire more people. For someone who owns a home, if you have a rate that's going to reset, it can mean that you're going to really have to take a hard look at how you adjust your finances, if you're - if you had anticipated the value of your home would rise significantly. And even in the broader global economy, the strength of the dollar or the weakness of the dollar can affect whether a consumer wants to take a big trip this summer or postpone, hoping that things somehow improve.

CHIDEYA: Chris, how is this playing out in French papers?

Mr. DICKEY: I think everybody here is quite worried, precisely because you've got unemployment that's over eight percent and you've got a government, Sarkozy's government - that's been in place for six months - came in as the buying-power government, the cost-of-living government. It was going to fix these problems. And if there is a recession that begins to affect global markets, France is going to be in very, very tough shape. And the kinds of social problems that we've been talking about are going to be exacerbated. There's no question about that and everyone's aware of it.

CHIDEYA: Clarence, I actually want to move us on to another topic. There has been a doubling in the number of people banned from buying a handgun according to the AG, and this is really dealing with people with significant mental health problems, following the Virginia Tech massacre. And, do you think that this is going to work?

Mr. PAGE: Well, I just - like an old song goes, the heat is on. Many people were just shocked and horrified to discover how full of holes our current system has been, that allowed the young fellow who perpetrated the Virginia Tech massacre to be able to purchase a handgun, and I think that's what we're seeing here now, people are on alert all around. We saw a little blip of this little thing after the D.C. sniper case as well.

And so, I think that's what we're seeing. And I hope that this tougher enforcement of the existing laws will continue. It's going to take, I think, pressure on the part of the public. But certainly, legal liability alone is a powerful incentive for these stores to tighten up on their checks as well as the government bureaucrats.

CHIDEYA: Valerie, do you think that, from a business perspective, putting onus on gun sellers may actually change the dynamics?

Ms. BAUERLEIN: Well, certainly I think it can't hurt, but as in part of my courage last year - I was actually on the campus of Virginia Tech the day of the shooting - and I think there's still a sense that if someone wants to get a gun, they'll always be able to. So, I think it's a mixed bag.

CHIDEYA: Well, on that note, I want to thank you guys for your time.

Mr. DICKEY: Thank you, Farai.

Mr. PAGE: Thank you.

Ms. BAUERLEIN: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Valerie Bauerlein is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and she joined us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Christopher Dickey is Paris bureau chief and Middle East Regional editor for Newsweek magazine. And Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

(Soundbite of music)

Just ahead, why Washington D.C. is the nation's AIDS capital, and how one family has banded together to help a loved one fighting HIV.

This is NPR News.

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