French Riots Underscore Racial Inequity Unrest in France has spread from the immigrant communities of the Paris suburbs to some 300 towns across the country. James Graff, Time magazine's Paris bureau chief, says the riots show that the French vision of color-blind equality doesn't work in reality.
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French Riots Underscore Racial Inequity

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French Riots Underscore Racial Inequity

French Riots Underscore Racial Inequity

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Riots that have been raging in immigrant communities in the suburbs of Paris for 12 days have now spread to some 300 cities around the country. And today, the first fatality; a man who was in a coma after being beaten died of his injuries. The rioters have torched thousands of cars and buses, also commuter trains, businesses, schools. The riot started after two teen-agers were electrocuted in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. The young men apparently thought they were being chased by police and hid in a power substation. James Graff is covering the unrest for Time magazine. He joins us from Paris.

Thanks for being with us.

Mr. JAMES GRAFF (Time): My pleasure.

BLOCK: I understand that the prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, went on television tonight. What did he have to say?

Mr. GRAFF: Well, he repeated the line of the government, which is essentially to be both firm and just in response to these events. And he announced a number of measures on the firmness front, particularly he said that beginning tomorrow prefects--which are the national government's representations in various parts of France--will have the right to call a curfew in sensitive areas, which is a very new and quite important departure. He also announced that there were going to be 1,500 extra reservists called up, bringing the total of almost 10,000 police in gendarmes specifically called upon to deal with these riots.

So that's basically what he's doing on the security front, and he's also suggesting that education, lodging and employment are also areas which he intends to address more forcefully than have been addressed so far.

BLOCK: Twelve days into this, isn't it a bit late now to be calling for curfews? Why wasn't that done before?

Mr. GRAFF: Well, that's a question that a lot of people have been asking themselves. The government has been roundly criticized from all quarters for not taking this seriously enough. So this is a recognition that inaction over the last week and a half has finally reached the point where they have to announce something new.

BLOCK: Help us understand, if you could, who is doing the rioting, and what about the neighborhoods where these young people live?

Mr. GRAFF: Well, unlike America, the bad neighborhoods, if you will, are around the cities. You would recognize them if you'd seen the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, which have already been pulled down. They're large, ugly and poorly maintained social housing units--high-rises a lot of them--and they're occupied primarily by people that come from various waves of immigration since the war. Some of them are third-generation French people, but their parents came from Algeria, from Morocco, more recently from sub-Saharan Africa. And the young people in these communities are the ones that are doing most of the rioting.

BLOCK: Does it strike you that there is some organization to this, as the riots spread not just around Paris but throughout the country? Is there some overarching philosophy or anything behind it, or is it just pure anarchy?

Mr. GRAFF: I think there is organization, but I don't think there's an overarching political idea here. I think it is anarchy. I think there's a certain kind of competition between these various cites, as they're called, to show that they can be as tough against the cops as the ones next door were. They're also--they have in common this sense of anger, this sense that, `We want to destroy things,' but there's no--it's very difficult to discern a kind of positive call to action. I mean, this is a cry of distress. This is a destructive adolescent impulse more than anything else, I think.

BLOCK: You read sometimes about these riots being a failure of this French goal of what's called republican integration. And I wonder if you can explain for us what that model is, and why it appears to have failed.

Mr. GRAFF: Well, the model is very different from the American one. I mean, here in France, the idea is everybody here is a citizen of France, and that's all we need to know. They do not even officially collect statistics on race or religion. So there's a kind of idea that France is color-blind, that France treats everybody equal, and the problem is that that's clearly not the case. I mean, all you have to do is walk into any hotel, walk into any restaurant, anyplace where you might expect to see--10 percent of the population, after all, is from North African origin or is--and of Muslim faith. You don't see those people in any kind of representative job, and you don't see them in politics, either. So this is the problem, I think.

BLOCK: James Graff, thanks very much.

Mr. GRAFF: My pleasure.

BLOCK: James Graff is Time magazine's Paris bureau chief.

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