LONDON — As a wave of riots swept France this past week, commentators and government officials across Europe were debating furiously whether to view the violence as an explosion of immigrant rage — or as an incipient Islamic rebellion.
Police and government officials, joined by many French Jewish leaders, insisted that the violence stemmed from a failure to assimilate Arab and black immigrants from Africa. They rejected the notion that rioters were being directed by Muslim groups or motivated by Islamic fundamentalism. But the violence continued and spread mostly among Muslim youth. Growing numbers in France and elsewhere were calling it a homegrown intifada and predicting that the government in Paris finally would be forced to confront what they described as its growing, domestic Muslim problem.
However the riots were interpreted, it was clear that they were the worst violence in France since the student riots of 1968 — and arguably the nation’s most dangerous crisis since the Algerian War, which raged from 1954 to 1962. It was clear, too, that it took French leaders almost four days to understand the magnitude of the crisis. At the beginning, most officials hoped the unrest was just a passing protest marred by some routine lawbreaking. Now, French leaders say, the violence is forcing the government and French society to confront the anger that has been building up for decades in neglected suburbs among the French-born children of Arab and African immigrants.
France’s Muslim community, numbering some 5 million, is the largest in Western Europe, and some commentators view its present crisis as a bellwether. The unrest, they say, poses a threat to the entire continent, as the riots spread from the Paris suburbs to hundreds of French cities — and from there to parts of Belgium and Germany, which faced violence from Muslim immigrant youth this week. These commentators view the riots as the latest in a string of radical Islamic challenges to European societies. It’s part of an arc that began a year ago, when Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Dutch-born Muslim extremist, and continued with the subway bombings carried out by homegrown Muslim radicals in England.
This view, initially advanced by far-right political forces in France, is finding a reception in a growing slice of French society, putting pressure on Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and other government officials for failing to crack down hard or fast enough on the rioters.
“The supposed mediation of [Muslim religious mentors] crying out ‘Allahu Akbar’ [‘God is Great’] is one sign among many of the capitulation of the legitimate authorities,” said Bruno Gollnisch, a senior figure in Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right National Front Party.
A street version of radical Islam permeates the youth culture of the impoverished suburbs where the rioting began. There, Osama bin Laden is a hero, George Bush and Israel are evil, and President Jacques Chirac’s government ban on Muslim headscarves is a plot to stifle the religious identity of French Muslims.
The Muslim character of the unrest was on display this week. Teenage rioters referred to one another as brothers and cited the state’s “disrespect” for their religion as part of impetus for their revolt. The chief target of their criticism was tough-talking interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who called the rioters “scum” and refused to apologize for an incident in which a police teargas grenade was thrown into a Clichy mosque.
But while the rioters may talk of Islam, French authorities — including officials in the Renseignements Généraux, the police intelligence service that keeps close tabs on the prayer rooms and mosques in France — said that Muslim radical activists are not behind the present violence. Yves Bot, Paris’s chief prosecutor, said that the attacks were co-ordinated locally among the young wreckers, using mobile telephones and text messages, but there was no central command.
Police say that Muslim religious leaders were attempting to serve as mediators this week were exploiting the unrest in order to enhance their authority among the alienated youths who go out to wreak havoc at night. “They are playing a clever game,” one police officer said. “They are preaching peace but profiting out of the mess to promote their ideology.”
French newspapers, including Le Figaro and Le Monde, cast the riots primarily as proof that France had failed to live up to its egalitarian ideals.
“A country that regards itself as the birthplace of human rights and a model of social welfare has shown itself, in everyone’s eyes, to be incapable of giving its young people the opportunities they deserve,” Le Monde editorialized last week. “If France wants to avoid another electoral catastrophe like the one in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round of the presidential elections, it is time for those who aspire to govern to stop grandstanding and apply themselves to the task of rebuilding part of society.”
German papers appeared more alarmed, seeming to adopt the view that an Islamic uprising could be waiting for them next.
“What is happening in France provides us with food for thought on the sheer depth of the social problems we face,” Berlin’s Die Tageszeitung declared, warning: “Simple analyses in terms of racism and multiculturalism will no longer do. Let us begin by admitting that the challenges are huge, and that we do not even know how to talk to each other. If you do not know how wide the river is, you cannot build a stable bridge.”