Chirac to Fight Civil Unrest on Two Fronts
Confronting social and political devastation left by 18 days of riots, French President Jacques Chirac promised Monday to respond to a “profound malaise” behind the unrest with both tough policing and programs to fight youth unemployment, discrimination and blight.
After being criticized for his silence during the nationwide rampages, Chirac made his first formal speech on the subject as disturbances subsided in all but a few lingering trouble spots. Chirac’s words and tone Monday night expressed the gravity of the situation.
In keeping with the law-and-order line his government has taken, he said he would ask legislators to extend by three months a state of emergency based on a little-used 1955 law that permits curfews and other extraordinary police powers.
But Chirac also announced the creation of a civilian service agency to provide employment and training to 50,000 young people by 2007. He acknowledged that an “identity crisis” afflicted many children and grandchildren of working-class immigrant families from North and sub-Saharan Africa, youths who feel mired in bleak, lawless neighborhoods and rejected by society.
“I want to say to the children of the difficult neighborhoods: Whatever their origin, they are all daughters and sons of the republic,” Chirac said. “We will construct nothing durable without respect. We will construct nothing durable if we allow the growth, wherever they originate, of racism, insults, abuse. We will construct nothing if we do not combat the poison to society that is discrimination.”
Although France’s worst riots in decades have dramatized the crime, deprivation and alienation in housing projects filled with immigrants, many of whom are Muslim, they also have further damaged a president battered by economic stagnation and political turmoil.
The speech was remarkable because it directly addressed profound problems of race and class that French leaders have generally avoided or ignored for three decades. Chirac insisted that his government already had initiatives underway: tax-free zones to spur investment and hiring in depressed areas, more funding for schools and neighborhood services, demolition of dilapidated housing projects and the renovation of others.
Critics said Chirac had waited too long to admit the existence of a reality that has exploded on the streets.
Nicolas Baverez, a historian and economist, said increased spending would not be enough. Since 2000, he said, the government has already poured about $40 billion into the deprived neighborhoods that have erupted in arson and violence.
France can only aid its working-class minorities if it attempts structural reforms that would address the more profound and widespread crisis, Baverez said. France’s elitist political class -- even its leftist parties that champion immigrant rights and hold power in heavily ethnic areas -- largely excludes minorities, he said. And the country’s stagnant, statist economy protects workers who have jobs but does not generate opportunity or mobility, especially for underprivileged youths, he said.
“Chirac is right to talk about an identity crisis, but he’s the first guilty party,” Baverez said. “The solution to the problems of the slums, of economic weakness ... requires fundamental changes in the structures of our country.”
The riots are the worst news in a bad year for the 72-year-old president, whose 40-year career seems increasingly likely to end when his second term is up in 2007. In May, Chirac’s popularity sank when he staked his prestige on a referendum in which French voters rejected the proposed constitution for the European Union, a stunning setback for a dominant nation of the EU. The summer brought another international embarrassment when London beat out Paris as the site for the 2012 Summer Olympics.
In September, the usually gregarious president was hospitalized for eye troubles caused by a “minor vascular incident.” Chirac has since kept a low profile. After the riots began Oct. 27, he made only brief remarks on two occasions and otherwise ceded to Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, a close ally and potential presidential candidate.
In a poll published Sunday, when people were asked which leader could best resolve the crisis, Chirac ranked seventh. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, another presidential contender, came in first at 53% and De Villepin second at 52%.
Nonetheless, Chirac tried Monday to make a moral appeal to the French. Sounding almost paternal, he warned that parents of rioters could be punished for failing to control their children. He also urged the broadcast media and political elite to bridge the gap between traditional, mainstream French society and youthful, multiethnic subcultures that are the nation’s future but sometimes seem invisible.
“The media must better reflect the French reality of today,” he said. “I also invite the chiefs of political parties to assume their part of responsibility. Nationally elected representatives should also reflect the diversity of France.”
The president’s emphasis on diversity was striking because the French have a deep cultural resistance to discussions of ethnic and racial identity. The French model of citizenship is based firmly on twin assumptions: that immigrants must embrace French identity and that the state must treat minorities as full French citizens without reference to ethnicity.
But the riots have been the latest sign that this approach to integration has struggled, as government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope acknowledged at a news conference Monday.
Cope also chided the coverage of the riots by the international media. He said headlines about “France in flames” and “Paris burning” exaggerated violence that, although grave, has been concentrated mostly in industrial suburbs far from historic downtowns and tourist sites of major cities.