Semantic Attacks

On the war of words over the riots in France

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Although we have seen countless images of cars burning in the poor and segregated suburbs of France, we have not heard much about the war of words that has accompanied them. Yet when you pay attention to the words, you begin to realize that the second and third generation French-African and French-Arab youths burning cars are a lot more French than they may be willing to acknowledge. As true Frenchmen, they understand the importance of discourse. Maybe to their detriment, they seem to parse the fine nuances of every word; then they fight back bitterly — especially over having the last word, le dernier mot.

Facing off against them in the prolonged verbal sparring are three hommes d’état (statesmen), each using a very different verbal strategy. The President, Jacques Chirac, may have acknowledged early on that “the absence of dialogue could lead to a dangerous confrontation,” but then he neither spoke, nor encouraged his minions to speak. The haughty silence Chirac’s government dispensed in response to night after night of provocative TV images was received as the ultimate affront by the “nine-three” — the poor inhabitants of the Parisian department of Seine Saint-Denis where it all started. They clearly got the message: They were not even worthy of being talked to.

Chirac could afford to say nothing: After leading the French right-wing Gaullist party for the past thirty years and being president for the past ten, he will finally step down in time for the 2007 presidential election. This has created a heated contest between his two presumptive heirs, Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. Although all three players are on the right, only Sarkozy is an economic neoliberal who advocates “openness, suppleness, and letting citizens make their own choices.” A second-generation immigrant with a Greek-Jewish mother and a Hungarian father, Sarkozy openly admires American neoliberalism, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Rudolph Giuliani. He regularly counteracted the lofty pronouncements of the patrician Chirac with comments like “I do what works.” As one French ghetto kid put it, “He acts and speaks like a gang leader.”

Earlier this year, as Sarkozy’s popularity soared, many predicted he would replace Chirac in 2007. (At the moment, the French Left, with no viable candidate, seems to prefer to remain in opposition.) That was before Chirac brought de Villepin into the picture by appointing him prime minister. Besides being handsome, polished, and using the optional “de” in his last name (hence pegging himself as landed gentry), de Villepin, who was born in the former French colony of Morocco, is the consummate politician, a man who went to all the right schools and played by all the right rules. By September, polls were indicating that, though Sarkozy’s brash “I’m telling it like it is” approach still appealed to working class supporters of the extreme right-wing Jean-Marie Le Pen and his Front National, the electoral pendulum had abruptly swung toward De Villepin.

On October 25th, Sarkozy responded to his waning fortunes by firing an opening salvo that would help spark the gravest civil unrest France has experienced since May 1968, or perhaps even since colonial Algeria’s war for independence stirred near civil war in France almost half a century ago. He took a retinue of journalists for an American-style photo-op to the “territoire” of the estranged young of one of Paris’s poorest suburbs. There, he boasted about the success of his hard-line anti-crime policies. Standing outside one of the drab, run-down cement high-rises that are typical of such cités, surrounded by TV cameras, Sarkozy shot back at a woman who had cheered him from her window: “I’ll get rid of this ‘racaille’ for you!”

The full force of this insult has not been captured in the American media, where the word racaille has been regularly translated as “scum,” or alternately, as “rabble” or “hoodlums.” At the time, a French right-wing blogger used a quote by the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus to justify the Minister of the Interior’s use of just that word: “Si l’on mettait toute cette racaille en prison,…les honnêtes gens pourraient respirer” (“If you put all this scum in jail,…honest people could breathe.”) Yet “scum” fails to capture the actual subtext of racaille for a French ear. An extreme right-wing web site, closed down in 2003 with jail time and fines for inciting racial hatred, was simply called: SOS-racaille.

On October 27, two days after Sarkozy sent racaille spinning into the suburbs of Paris like a missile into enemy space, two young teens, a thirteen and fifteen year-old who mistakenly thought they were being pursued by the police, died by electrocution while taking refuge in a power station. Sarkozy, the head of the police and therefore the man in charge of restoring order, refused to deplore their deaths or offer a word of sympathy to the victims’ family. (In this, he openly modeled himself on former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who had similarly ignored the mother of Amadou Diallo after her son was gunned down by policemen.) It fell upon local youths –– through the internet and over their cell phones as well as on handmade T-shirts and signs –– to pronounce the simple, ecumenical words: “Reposez en Paix (RIP).” RIP was hardly an Islamic fundamentalist manifesto, but you wouldn’t have known that from Sarkozy’s reaction. He promptly threw verbal gasoline on what was then only a simmering fire in the “outer cities” of the French capital.

From the start of the conflagration, the children of Algerian and African parents interviewed in the French press (virtually all of whom are of prime gang-age, twelve to twenty-two years old) talked about the game that was occurring between “Sarko” and them. They were, they explained, only responding to his provocations. On October 30, after three nights in which rampaging youths burned cars, Sarkozy announced a new policy: Tolerance Zero. (Anyone who has gone to a French school knows the impact of receiving a grade of “zero,” a verdict of hopeless failure.) A few hours later, Sarkozy’s police tossed tear gas into a mosque during prayers; that night, more cars went up in flames and the violence spread to other neighborhoods. The next day, Sarko finally offered to meet with the victims’ families. They turned him down and asked to be received by Dominique de Villepin instead.

Sarkozy had earlier publicly suggested that he would clean up the suburbs with a “Kärcher,” a well-known brand of industrial-strength pressure-washer. (German words in a French Minister of the Interior’s mouth have a special resonance to well-tuned French ears.) At a local demonstration calling for peace a few days later, an Arab-French middle-aged family man showed he had picked up on the essence of Sarkozy’s dis: “He wants to wash us all up with a Kärcher? That’s what’s used to clean up dog shit, isn’t it?”

After eleven days of ever increasing violence, De Villepin finally outlined the government’s response: Together with vacuous words of unity and equal opportunity for all, he proposed restoring some of the local social programs that Sarkozy had been instrumental in cutting. Yet, as the cornerstone of his program, De Villepin took recourse in a hitherto obscure 1955 law allowing local municipalities to declare curfews. De Villepin, having just conceded (in response to questions about Sarkozy’s remarks) that “all words are important,” demonstrated here his own grasp of symbolism: The law now to be used to curb the rioting second and third generation children of immigrants from North Africa (among other places) demanding to be recognized as French had been passed in the early years of France’s colonial war in Algeria. Needless to say, this played right into the hands of Sarkozy as the-strong-man-who-will-save-us-from-the-racaille. Two days later, Sarkozy went to the Chamber of Deputies and announced that he would deport all foreigners implicated in the riots. (Again, the overwhelming majority of the rampaging teens are not “foreigners” but French citizens, regardless of where their parents or grandparents came from.)

A week earlier, a delegation of policemen, the foot soldiers sent off every night to face rioting teens, called on the Minister of Interior to stop what some likened to a turf war among rappers. “It’s too easy for him: he revs up the kids and then he goes to sleep,” said Francis Masanet, the secretary of Paris’s policemen’s union. Protesting against right-wing calls for the army to be sent into the embattled cities of France, this representative of the police then attempted to revive words Sarkozy had spoken back in the days when he was still presenting himself as the champion of all underdogs: “It’s not a war. The inhabitants are not enemies. If you live here, it’s because you are poor; if you throw a Molotov cocktail, it’s because you’re a hoodlum.” Maybe this is an instance where the cops, clear and precise in their semantic choices, should be the ones entrusted with le dernier mot.


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