Damage done: riots tarnish France's image

10th November 2005, Comments 0 comments

LONDON, Nov 10 (AFP) - Blazing cars, street battles and a powderkeg mix of racism and chronic immigrant unemployment: the image of France as shown around the world by two weeks of riots has hardly been the stuff of tourist dreams.

LONDON, Nov 10 (AFP) - Blazing cars, street battles and a powderkeg mix of racism and chronic immigrant unemployment: the image of France as shown around the world by two weeks of riots has hardly been the stuff of tourist dreams.

Beamed live from Hong Kong to Washington via London, the unrest has put an unforgiving spotlight on a side of society rarely seen outside a nation that, like any other, seeks to cast a cultural, social and political aura.

In the United States, comparisons have been drawn between the unrest in the poor, high-immigrant neighbourhoods with race riots of the 1960s and 1980s.

Other commentators have spoken of scenes akin to Chechnya, still others of the possibility of Islamic extremists stoking the fires.

It has not chimed with the reality on the ground, but still, nightly scenes of violence played on television have shocked and surprised.

"It's quite scary, quite frightening to think that that's happening on our doorstep," said Jo Lawrence, an accountant in London.

She said it reminded her of the troubles in Northern Ireland. "Perhaps I'm ignorant, but I had no idea that was going on," she told AFP.

In Paris, some expatriates have reported getting calls from their relatives back home asking if they were safe.

But for many analysts, the violence has above all exposed an underclass of angry, immigrant youths with little hope and even fewer job prospects, locked in a vaunted system of social integration that has failed them.

"France is sending a lot of negative signals right at this moment," Aurore Wanlin, at the Centre for European Reform in London, told AFP.

The riots showed "the French model doesn't protect those who aren't already part of the system."

In USA Today, an opinion piece said the "civil disobedience should serve as lessons to neighboring countries on how not to treat a minority population."

The violence, the worst France has seen since the 1968 student revolt, has seen more than 6,600 vehicles torched and dozens of buses, schools, gymnasiums, nurseries, libraries, shops and businesses destroyed in arson attacks.

Laurence Parisot, leader of the French employers' organisation Medef, said the country's image was being "deeply damaged."

She warned of "very serious" effects for the economy, notably sectors such as restaurant and hotel businesses and tourism, which rely heavily on foreign visitors.

In the United States, outspoken commentator Bill O'Reilly, whose show runs on the conservative Fox television network, said the violence "makes Hurricane Katrina look like a comic book."

For nearly two weeks, he said, French president Jacques Chirac "has allowed the insurrection to build in ferocity, refusing to use his military, allowing anarchy in the streets."

He was not the only one to refer to the hurricane that pounded the US Gulf coast at the end of August, and which exposed what many critics charged was a lingering racial divide in Washington's response to the devastation.

"The French had a field day with Hurricane Katrina ... when that confirmed their prejudices about Americans," said Jean-Benoit Nadeau, a Canadian who has co-authored a book on French society.

"Today, the Anglo-Saxon press is having a field day with what is happening in France because it also confirms prejudices about French society."

Not just in the English-speaking world.

"The France of the 21st century makes you think of the ancien régime," said Thomas Schidinger of Vienna's Institute of Political Studies, referring to the pre-revolutionary era of wealthy nobility and impoverished populations.

"It's as if the people in power are saying, a little like Marie-Antoinette, 'not got a job? Take a holiday then'."

In the Arab world, where satellite stations like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya have given the riots wide coverage, commentators have focused on longstanding social malaise, unemployment and alienation among immigrants.

"The image of France in the Arab world, which is very positive with regard to its positions on the conflicts in the Middle East and Irak, is not going to emerge unscathed," said Hasni Abidi, who is director of a centre for Arab and Mediterranean studies in Geneva.

"We are seeing the failure of France's integration policy," he said.

And in Sweden, Prime Minister Goeran Persson ignored diplomacy to criticise the French government's decision to permit curfews in riot-hit regions. "Very dramatic," he said, "something I haven't seen in Europe for the past 30 or 40 years."

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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