THE rioting in Paris and other French cities has led to a lot of interpretations and comments, most of them irrelevant. Many see the violence as religiously motivated, the inevitable result of unchecked immigration from Muslim countries; for others the rioters are simply acting out of vengeance at being denied their cultural heritage or a fair share in French society. But the reality is that there is nothing particularly Muslim, or even French, about the violence. Rather, we are witnessing the temporary rising up of one small part of a Western underclass culture that reaches from Paris to London to Los Angeles and beyond.
To understand why this is so, consider two solid facts we do have on the riots. First, this is a youth (and male) uprising. The rioters are generally 12 to 25 years old, and roughly half of those arrested are under 18. The adults keep away from the demonstrations: in fact, they are the first victims (it is their cars, after all, that are burning) and they want security and social services to be restored.
Yet older residents also resent what they see as the unnecessary brutality of the police toward the rioters, the merry-go-round of officials making promises that they know will be quickly forgotten, and the demonization of their communities by the news media. Second, the riots are geographically and socially very circumscribed: all are occurring in about 100 suburbs, or more precisely destitute neighborhoods known here as "cités," "quartiers" or "banlieues." There has long been a strong sense of territorial identity among the young people in these neighborhoods, who have tended to coalesce in loose gangs. The different gangs, often involved in petty delinquency, have typically been reluctant to stroll outside their territories and have vigilantly kept strangers away, be they rival gangs, police officers, firefighters or journalists.
Now, these gangs are for the most part burning their own neighborhoods and seem little interested in extending the rampage to more fashionable areas. They express simmering anger fueled by unemployment and racism. The lesson, then, is that while these riots originate in areas largely populated by immigrants of Islamic heritage, they have little to do with the wrath of a Muslim community.
France has a huge Muslim population living outside these neighborhoods - many of them, people who left them as soon as they could afford it - and they don't identify with the rioters at all. Even within the violent areas, one's local identity (sense of belonging to a particular neighborhood) prevails over larger ethnic and religious affiliation. Most of the rioters are from the second generation of immigrants, they have French citizenship, and they see themselves more as part of a modern Western urban subculture than of any Arab or African heritage.
Just look at the newspaper photographs: the young men wear the same hooded sweatshirts, listen to similar music and use slang in the same way as their counterparts in Los Angeles or Washington. (It is no accident that in French-dubbed versions of Hollywood films, African-American characters usually speak with the accent heard in the Paris banlieues).
Nobody should be surprised that efforts by the government to find "community leaders" have had little success. There are no leaders in these areas for a very simple reason: there is no community in the neighborhoods. Traditional parental control has disappeared and many Muslim families are headed by a single parent. Elders, imams and social workers have lost control. Paradoxically, the youths themselves are often the providers of local social rules, based on aggressive manhood, control of the streets, defense of a territory. Americans (and critics of America in Europe) may see in these riots echoes of the black separatism that fueled the violence in Harlem and Watts in the 1960's. But the French youths are not fighting to be recognized as a minority group, either ethnic or religious; they want to be accepted as full citizens. They have believed in the French model (individual integration through citizenship) but feel cheated because of their social and economic exclusion. Hence they destroy what they see as the tools of failed social promotion: schools, social welfare offices, gymnasiums. Disappointment leads to nihilism. For many, fighting the police is some sort of a game, and a rite of passage.
Contrary to the calls of many liberals, increased emphasis on multiculturalism and respect for other cultures in France is not the answer: this angry young population is highly deculturalized and individualized. There is no reference to Palestine or Iraq in these riots. Although these suburbs have been a recruiting field for jihadists, the fundamentalists are conspicuously absent from the violence. Muslim extremists don't share the youth agenda (from drug dealing to nightclub partying), and the youngsters reject any kind of leadership.
So what is to be done? The politicians have offered the predictable: curfews, platitudes about respect, vague promises of economic aid. But with France having entered its presidential election cycle, any hope for long-term rethinking is misplaced. In the end, we are dealing here with problems found by any culture in which inequities and cultural differences come in conflict with high ideals. Americans, for their part, should take little pleasure in France's agony - the struggle to integrate an angry underclass is one shared across the Western world.