Dalrymple’s Diaries Part I


(Feb. 2006)

ve seen nothing untoward: the banlieues are another country, they do things differently there. We joke about the situation with the workmen who are making alterations to our house; we are all confident that if the riots burst their banks, as it were, and spill over into the areas where good people like us live, the CRS (the Compagnies Republicaines de Securite) will be only to happy to do what they have traditionally done, which is enthusiastically to apply truncheons to heads. 

What do the riots mean? Our roofer thinks that the president and the prime minister, Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin, have let them run their course to discredit the hard-line minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, whom they hate, but who is by far the most popular politician in France. Unless something is done to destroy his reputation in the meantime, he will almost certainly win the next presidential election. To demonstrate his impotence in the face of a serious challenge such as the riots present, therefore, is to show that he is all mouth and no trousers, and would be a bad president.

t worked. The more Sarko, as he is known, is hated by les jeunes in the banlieues, the higher his popularity soars. When he called les jeunes, who dress in the internationalised costume of the American ghetto, la racaille (scum), he was only echoing the thoughts of almost all Frenchmen. Of course, a society in which there is a large and seemingly alien minority inclined to violence and detested by the majority, is a stage-set for a terrible denouement. As yet, there is no plan for averting it.

s famous aphorism about the destructive urge being a constructive one also would have been nearer the mark if he had mentioned that it was, above all, a highly enjoyable one. Destruction is fun in itself; but to destroy in the name of a supposed cause, that is little short of bliss! Impunity helps, of course.

work, and even worse of them to try to apprehend them.

In fact, a riot after a youth has died while being chased by the police in the course of his everyday activities is now almost a tradition in the banlieues. There riots are seldom reported in the foreign press, and rarely get more than a mention even in the French press. The young want the police to leave them alone: they desire nothing whatever from the state except, of course, ever-larger and more generous subventions. Those they would condescend to accept, as being only their due.


The only aspect of Islam that really interests the majority of les jeunes in the banlieues is the domination and abuse of women. They cannot be said to be religious in any other sense. They do not pray, they do not go to the mosque, they certainly do not give ten per cent of their income to the poor. Of course, there are a few among them, perhaps those of slightly above average intelligence, who will listen to the siren song of Islamism as the supposed solution to their existential impasse, for youth is always in search of complete answers: and, as the world has already seen, it takes only a relative handful of people to create an exceedingly dangerous mayhem. But for most, it is the justification of the oppression of women that keeps les jeunes so deeply attached to Islam. Indeed, the oppression of women is the only source of pride for them, since no other is available. At least they are kings of their own castle.

la parole. Not surprisingly, they supported the action of  les jeunes, and it did not occur to Liberation to ask itself whether its straw poll was any more use than asking North Koreans in the street what they thought of the Dear Leader.

Meanwhile, for everyone else in France, life goes on as normal: which is to say, pleasantly enough on the surface, but with a gradually increasing awareness that something is going profoundly wrong. Not for nothing are the French the heaviest consumers of tranquillisers in the world.



Entering Switzerland at Geneva to meet an old school friend, one enters a bourgeois paradise. One feels one lowers the tone just by entering it. The streets are spotlessly clean, the wealth is vast. Even the interiors of the elevators in public car parks are clad in marble and lit with crystal. In England, such luxury would invite, and call forth, immediate vandalism.

s party and then call the police when they leave to complain about the noise the party is making. Perhaps this is an urban myth.


s apartment in a small and luxurious block a little way out of Geneva and up the mountainside. It overlooks the lake, and you can see Mont Blanc in the distance. The cold air is astonishingly bracing, and gives a pleasantly scouring sensation in your lungs. I almost wish I had tuberculosis, to experience the relief such air would provide. I understand The Magic Mountain and the lure of sanatoria a little better now.

s neighbour below has a balcony so huge that it has a real garden in (or on?) it, including a lawn and miniature palm trees. It is so perfect, so clean, that one could safely perform surgery in it. Despite its perfection – every blade of grass the same length, nothing out of place – the lady downstairs comes out to improve it every night. Improving perfection, that could be Switzerlands mission statement. It is astonishing what this woman finds to do in her garden, which to me looks so utterly finalised.

We go to Lausanne. It is surprisingly run-down. The local authorities are concerned because there are so many dependents on public funds here, about a tenth as many, proportionately, as in England. There are large areas with housing projects and graffiti, and conspicuously non-Swiss people walking about (someone has to do the menial work). You can see the area is multicultural by the take-away food outlets. There is litter in the streets and hopelessness in the air. Could there be riots in Lausanne? The newspapers are worried by the possibility of infection from France.

Oddly enough, I feel a sense of relief at observing the evidence of decay. I love the bourgeois world, but have been so long out of it that I soon begin to experience la nostalgie de la boue. Like many people, I am highly contradictory: I love what I hate.

s working life was spent in Basel. There is an exhibition of de Kooning – an American master  – at the gallery at the same time. I trust I will offend no one when I say that I prefer Holbein. True, both Holbein and de Kooning applied paint to flat surfaces, and to that extent they belong in the same category; but otherwise, I think that they had very little in common.

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