The images from across the ocean have been painful: an office room, its floor covered with blood and papers; the arc of iron latticework at the Eiffel Tower’s base, framed around two soldiers, patrolling with semi-automatic weapons; massive crowds, marching for their very freedom of speech.
There is no justification for terrorism. Not ever. But long after the pain, the anxiety, and the anger begin to subside over Paris’ twin massacres, at the Charlie Hebdo offices and at a kosher market, the poisonous roots of the country’s cultural conflict will continue to spread. Unless they are confronted. Unless something changes.
That sad fact was evident again today in a New York Times article headlined, “Crisis in France Sign of Chronic Ills.” It paints a stark, almost hopeless portrait of France’s version of the “suburbs,” the banlieus, where a predominantly muslim population lives isolated, with staggering unemployment and sometimes seething anger.
“For many … French Muslims, the nation’s preoccupation with last week’s attacks at the hands of Islamic extremists presents a mere distraction from a fundamental social crisis that has plagued France’s immigrant neighborhoods for decades,” The Times writes.
Half of those who live in these communities have not finished high school. it reports. One in five is unemployed. Among the young, that rate is sometimes twice as high. Je suis Charlie does not resonate here. Alienation does. And that is the problem.
Nothing justifies terror. But rage at other things feeds its roots. Until the French find some means to raise the standard of living in these dreary communities — to provide some hope — more danger awaits. This saddens me in a very personal way. Paris, a place I’ve visited 13 or 14 times, is to Kathy and me the world’s most magical city. It’s a place we will bring our 7-year-old granddaughter Devon this summer, to climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower, which she’s looked at in a photo on our living room wall as long as I or she can remember.
But as enchanting as is a summer walk along the Seine, as romantic as is an evening boat ride past the twinkling lights of the tower, as uplifting as is an afternoon in the Musee d’Orsay, visits to Paris, and even elsewhere in France, will have a darker backdrop for the foreseeable future.
It’s a darkness that’s been gathering for awhile. When we arrived in Aix-en-Provence on sabbatical almost exactly a year ago, we quickly saw the seeds of anti-semitism in the news. Then the “comedian” Dieudonné was marching around giving the quenelle, an inverted Nazi salute. Now a misguided extremist is shooting strangers in a kosher market in the heart of one of Paris’ most heterogenous communities. I read last week that 7,000 Jews had emigrated from France in the last year. That sense of insecurity, however — for Jews and ultimately anyone else — won’t go away by further isolating or denigrating the entire muslim population of the country, which today is Europe’s largest (though estimated at just 8 percent of France’s population).
No, France, which has over the decades derided the discrimination within U.S. borders, which welcomed black artists, musicians and writers to Paris at a time when places in America kept their doors shut, has its own racism problem today, its own segregation. It is now front and center. And something besides police crackdowns, massive parades and a vigilant public must be tried for this land to fully reclaim its rightful place as the home of liberté, fraternité and egalité. There is no way around it.