City Journal Autumn 2002 | The Barbarians at the Gates of Paris by Theodore Dalrymple
Whether or not rap lyrics are the authentic voice of the cités, they are certainly its authentic ear: you can observe many young men in the cités sitting around in their cars aimlessly, listening to it for hours on end, so loud that the pavement vibrates to it 100 yards away. The imprimatur of the intellectuals and of the French cultural bureaucracy no doubt encourages them to believe that they are doing something worthwhile. But when life begins to imitate art, and terrible gang-rapes occur with increasing frequency, the same official France becomes puzzled and alarmed. What should it make of the 18 young men and two young women currently being tried in Pontoise for allegedly abducting a girl of 15 and for four months raping her repeatedly in basements, stairwells, and squats? Many of the group seem not merely unrepentant or unashamed but proud.
Though most people in France have never visited a cité, they dimly know that long-term unemployment among the young is so rife there that it is the normal state of being. Indeed, French youth unemployment is among the highest in Europe—and higher the further you descend the social scale, largely because high minimum wages, payroll taxes, and labor protection laws make employers loath to hire those whom they cannot easily fire, and whom they must pay beyond what their skills are worth.
Everyone acknowledges that unemployment, particularly of the permanent kind, is deeply destructive, and that the devil really does find work for idle hands; but the higher up the social scale you ascend, the more firmly fixed is the idea that the labor-market rigidities that encourage unemployment are essential both to distinguish France from the supposed savagery of the Anglo-Saxon neo-liberal model (one soon learns from reading the French newspapers what anglo-saxon connotes in this context), and to protect the downtrodden from exploitation. But the labor-market rigidities protect those who least need protection, while condemning the most vulnerable to utter hopelessness: and if sexual hypocrisy is the vice of the Anglo-Saxons, economic hypocrisy is the vice of the French.
It requires little imagination to see how, in the circumstances, the burden of unemployment should fall disproportionately on immigrants and their children: and why, already culturally distinct from the bulk of the population, they should feel themselves vilely discriminated against. Having been enclosed in a physical ghetto, they respond by building a cultural and psychological ghetto for themselves. They are of France, but not French.
The state, while concerning itself with the details of their housing, their education, their medical care, and the payment of subsidies for them to do nothing, abrogates its responsibility completely in the one area in which the state’s responsibility is absolutely inalienable: law and order. In order to placate, or at least not to inflame, disaffected youth, the ministry of the interior has instructed the police to tread softly (that is to say, virtually not at all, except by occasional raiding parties when inaction is impossible) in the more than 800 zones sensibles—sensitive areas—that surround French cities and that are known collectively as la Zone.
But human society, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and so authority of a kind, with its own set of values, occupies the space where law and order should be—the authority and brutal values of psychopathic criminals and drug dealers. The absence of a real economy and of law means, in practice, an economy and an informal legal system based on theft and drug-trafficking. In Les Tarterets, for example, I observed two dealers openly distributing drugs and collecting money while driving around in their highly conspicuous BMW convertible, clearly the monarchs of all they surveyed. Both of northwest African descent, one wore a scarlet baseball cap backward, while the other had dyed blond hair, contrasting dramatically with his complexion. Their faces were as immobile as those of potentates receiving tribute from conquered tribes. They drove everywhere at maximum speed in low gear and high noise: they could hardly have drawn more attention to themselves if they tried. They didn’t fear the law: rather, the law feared them.
I watched their proceedings in the company of old immigrants from Algeria and Morocco, who had come to France in the early 1960s. They too lived in Les Tarterets and had witnessed its descent into a state of low-level insurgency. They were so horrified by daily life that they were trying to leave, to escape their own children and grandchildren: but once having fallen into the clutches of the system of public housing, they were trapped. They wanted to transfer to a cité, if such existed, where the new generation did not rule: but they were without leverage—or piston—in the giant system of patronage that is the French state. And so they had to stay put, puzzled, alarmed, incredulous, and bitter at what their own offspring had become, so very different from what they had hoped and expected. They were better Frenchmen than either their children or grandchildren: they would never have whistled and booed at the Marseillaise, as their descendants did before the soccer match between France and Algeria in 2001, alerting the rest of France to the terrible canker in its midst.
Whether France was wise to have permitted the mass immigration of people culturally very different from its own population to solve a temporary labor shortage and to assuage its own abstract liberal conscience is disputable: there are now an estimated 8 or 9 million people of North and West African origin in France, twice the number in 1975—and at least 5 million of them are Muslims. Demographic projections (though projections are not predictions) suggest that their descendants will number 35 million before this century is out, more than a third of the likely total population of France.
Indisputably, however, France has handled the resultant situation in the worst possible way. Unless it assimilates these millions successfully, its future will be grim. But it has separated and isolated immigrants and their descendants geographically into dehumanizing ghettos; it has pursued economic policies to promote unemployment and create dependence among them, with all the inevitable psychological consequences; it has flattered the repellent and worthless culture that they have developed; and it has withdrawn the protection of the law from them, allowing them to create their own lawless order.
No one should underestimate the danger that this failure poses, not only for France but also for the world. The inhabitants of the cités are exceptionally well armed. When the professional robbers among them raid a bank or an armored car delivering cash, they do so with bazookas and rocket launchers, and dress in paramilitary uniforms. From time to time, the police discover whole arsenals of Kalashnikovs in the cités. There is a vigorous informal trade between France and post-communist Eastern Europe: workshops in underground garages in the cités change the serial numbers of stolen luxury cars prior to export to the East, in exchange for sophisticated weaponry.
A profoundly alienated population is thus armed with serious firepower; and in conditions of violent social upheaval, such as France is in the habit of experiencing every few decades, it could prove difficult to control. The French state is caught in a dilemma between honoring its commitments to the more privileged section of the population, many of whom earn their livelihoods from administering the dirigiste economy, and freeing the labor market sufficiently to give the hope of a normal life to the inhabitants of the cités. Most likely, the state will solve the dilemma by attempts to buy off the disaffected with more benefits and rights, at the cost of higher taxes that will further stifle the job creation that would most help the cité dwellers. If that fails, as in the long run it will, harsh repression will follow.
But among the third of the population of the cités that is of North African Muslim descent, there is an option that the French, and not only the French, fear. For imagine yourself a youth in Les Tarterets or Les Musiciens, intellectually alert but not well educated, believing yourself to be despised because of your origins by the larger society that you were born into, permanently condemned to unemployment by the system that contemptuously feeds and clothes you, and surrounded by a contemptible nihilistic culture of despair, violence, and crime. Is it not possible that you would seek a doctrine that would simultaneously explain your predicament, justify your wrath, point the way toward your revenge, and guarantee your salvation, especially if you were imprisoned? Would you not seek a “worthwhile” direction for the energy, hatred, and violence seething within you, a direction that would enable you to do evil in the name of ultimate good? It would require only a relatively few of like mind to cause havoc. Islamist proselytism flourishes in the prisons of France (where 60 percent of the inmates are of immigrant origin), as it does in British prisons; and it takes only a handful of Zacharias Moussaouis to start a conflagration.
The French knew of this possibility well before September 11: in 1994, their special forces boarded a hijacked aircraft that landed in Marseilles and killed the hijackers—an unusual step for the French, who have traditionally preferred to negotiate with, or give in to, terrorists. But they had intelligence suggesting that, after refueling, the hijackers planned to fly the plane into the Eiffel Tower. In this case, no negotiation was possible.
A terrible chasm has opened up in French society, dramatically exemplified by a story that an acquaintance told me. He was driving along a six-lane highway with housing projects on both sides, when a man tried to dash across the road. My acquaintance hit him at high speed and killed him instantly.
According to French law, the participants in a fatal accident must stay as near as possible to the scene, until officials have elucidated all the circumstances. The police therefore took my informant to a kind of hotel nearby, where there was no staff, and the door could be opened only by inserting a credit card into an automatic billing terminal. Reaching his room, he discovered that all the furniture was of concrete, including the bed and washbasin, and attached either to the floor or walls.
The following morning, the police came to collect him, and he asked them what kind of place this was. Why was everything made of concrete?
“But don’t you know where you are, monsieur?” they asked. “C’est la Zone, c’est la Zone.”
La Zone is a foreign country: they do things differently there.