France, Riots and the Poverty of Marxists

by Geoffrey Clarfield (September 2012)

On August 14, 2012 the BBC filed this report on the latest burst of urban violence in France:

Buildings and cars were torched overnight as youths and police clashed in the northern French city of Amiens. Sixteen police officers were injured in the clashes with up to 100 youths, some of whom threw fireworks, large-sized shot and projectiles, say police. Reports suggest the unrest may have been triggered after police arrested a man for dangerous driving. Interior Minister Manuel Valls was jostled when he visited the area. A small group of people tried to push through his security detail as he walked through the area, alternately booing him, cursing him and trying to speak to him. President Francois Hollande has vowed to beef up security resources to combat the violence, saying public security was “not just a priority but an obligation”.

This is not the first of these outbursts as there have been many like these in France, some much worse than the recent outburst in Amiens. Most of the explanations focus on youth, marginalization and unemployment. Only a few bold commentators are able to point out that the rioters are mostly from North Africa or the children of North African immigrants, who have created a series of “no go” areas in various French towns and suburbs where gangs proliferate and Islamic law is free to offer up its medieval answer to social unrest.

Most of the explanations that are now flooding the media emanate from the academic Marxists or Marxist inspired left. They are only minimally persuasive. Let us look at them and see if we can dig deeper to find more satisfying explanations for this social unrest, as do archeologists when they are excavating a site.

Their first explanation is poverty. North African immigrants, who are largely Arab, Berber and West African Muslims, have a comparably higher rate of unemployment than the rest of France. The classic sociological explanation here is that poverty plus ethnicity equals violence. Yet England is awash with legal and illegal immigrants from Poland and these men and women are noted for their non-violent behavior.

The second and related argument is that North African immigrants and especially young men, being largely unemployed are “forced” into illegal activities such as theft and drug trading. This is the argument that poverty leads to drugs and robbery explanation. Yet if you go to any of the developing cities of India you will notice that few of the millions of poor regularly riot, although there are always the inter community Muslim/Hindu conflicts in India’s cities that began with independence in 1948.

The third and related argument is that the French people hate North Africans, Arabs, Berbers, West Africans and anyone who is not French in the classic stereotypical sense and make life miserable for them out of a deep and pathological hatred of the stranger. The fact that when the economy was robust these immigrants were used for the menial jobs that the other French would not do, only supports the economic argument that the French do discriminate against immigrants who are different from the secular or Catholic French majority in so many ways. Yet given the large sympathy for Islam and Muslim immigrants by the left and government employees this is simplistic to say the least. The door is open to those who will play by the rules and no doubt, there is a fair amount of unofficial affirmative action to those North Africans who want to join “the system.”

These three arguments are most commonly used by the Marxist left to explain the oppressive nature of the French state and the almost original sin status of its European majority vis a vis North Africa. The argument suggests that the ideologies of multiculturalism or national integration are a sham and that it is the host society’s fault that these minorities are rioting. Followers of this line of thought will assume that there will be a need for the French equivalent of a Royal Commission of inquiry, more affirmative action and better social services.

Yet what if the rioters have not adopted French culture for their own internal “cultural reasons”, what if they do not believe in the brotherhood of man and do not really buy into “liberte, egalite and fraternite?” If that is indeed the case perhaps it is easier to explain what is driving their regularly occurring orgies of violence? Perhaps we need a different set of arguments to make sense of their behaviour.

The first is that of the politics of resentment. France managed to conquer and dominate most of North Africa for more than one hundred and fifty years. In doing so it established functioning colonies and provided Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia with a modern administration, modern roads, railways, communications, ports and hospitals. Along came Arab nationalism and French doubt in the justice of its colonial empires and presto, North African countries were free to be the authors of their own destinies. They joined the Arab league and countries like Algeria, who were left with an advanced oil exporting economy and billions of dollars in cash surpluses, descended into corruption and a recent civil war, which is a sign of their inability to modernize. Now all three are falling into the grips of radical Islam as best exemplified in the former moderate Arab state of Tunisia.

Ultimately, the regimes of these three countries have returned to their pre industrial patron client economies and any economic well being that had come with or from the French has declined, triggering a growing immigration to France where at least there was and is a chance of employment. The resentment triggered by this string of development and modernization failures must trigger a fair amount of anger directed against the former colonial power, which has managed to flourish economically without its former North African colonial territories.

The second explanation is the culture of vendetta. It is not widely known that despite the fact that most of these immigrants were and still are Arabic and Berber speaking peasants, tribesmen and city dwellers, or their French born children, their culture was and is heavily influence by Bedouin ideals. Vendettas, blood feuds and honor killings were and are common. These are cultures based on female seclusion, honor and shame where violence against women who do not guard their “virtue” is a manly way of establishing one’s dignity. Therefore periodic expression of manliness through rioting is considered to be something of a positive value.

The fourth is the heritage of the Barbary Corsairs (pirates of North Africa who raided western Europe for slaves that were brought back to north Africa). These immigrants are the descendants of a people who once terrorized the coasts of France. Psychologically the role reversal and stigma of working for the European must be great indeed.

The fifth explanation has to do with the historical nature of authority in traditional North Africa especially Morocco. Before colonialism Morocco was divided into bilad el makhzen (land of the administration) where the Sultan ruled and bilad es siba (the land of dissidence) where the tribes ruled. Whenever the tribes could, they would violently revolt against the authority of the state at all and every opportunity. Peaceful negotiation was thought of as unmanly and regimes were constantly attacked and replaced. So it is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to consider the no go zones of Islamic urban France are the descendants of these zones of dissidence or “bilad es siba.”

Finally there is the Islamic explanation. That is to say, for the first time in its history France has an immigrant minority who do not want to blend in with the secular values of the majority. They do not want their women to live in freedom and they often attack other religious minorities. They hope that Spain will be reconquered, that the humiliation of the Battle of Poitiers will be reversed in the 21st century and that Europe will once again fall under the authority of Islamic rule as it once was in medieval Spain.

These last six factors taken together have as much and perhaps more explanatory power than the first four. They are anathema to Marxist scholars who refuse to take into account the fact that “other tribes follow other scribes.” By doing so they leave most of the motivations behind this ongoing orgy of urban violence “unexcavated” and unexplained.

I could not find them in the scores of articles on the Internet that try to explain the resilience of these violent riots. Instead I derived my explanations from a number of readings of Fernand Braudel’s magisterial The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip the II and from the many studies of the Mediterranean that he inspired at the Annales school of social history that he and his colleagues established in Paris. It would seem then that the explanations for France’s problems are best taken from France’s best scholars, but no one there seems to be doing so. What a waste of a national genius!

During the height of the civil rights struggle in twentieth century America, African Americans suffered far more discrimination at the hands of white Americans than North Africans have experienced so far in France. They regained their civil rights through peaceful protest and much personal sacrifice. There is now a growing and prosperous African American middle class in the USA. Despite the superficial analyses of the left, the North African immigrant gangs would do well to study the success of the African Americans. It is worth imitating.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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