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November 23, 2005

Shock and Awe à la Française

Wile E. Delaplaine

(Editor’s Note: Mr. Delaplaine has traveled extensively in France and in French territories over the past five years, having spent time in Brittany, Ile de Paris, Normandy, Davoie, and the French islands of Guadeloupe, St. Pierre, St. Barthelemy, Raiatea, Moorea and Huahine in the past two years. He speaks and reads French and follows the French press on a regular basis via The Internet.)

Since my return from three weeks of news blackout while in the sleepy South Pacific, I have been feverishly trying to assess and digest the news from the events that I have missed. What I find even more interesting than the frenetic pace of the meltdown of the Bush administration is the shock and awe of the fires and riots in France.

From our side of the Atlantic, there are no shortages of opinions. A scant few of these rely on thoughtful, reasoned arguments by the wise who possess some deeper understanding of French society, but rather, the majority seem to emanate from those whose only understanding of France is their view though the windows of a tour bus, or worse from anti-French talk show rants.

Oh, when will people who have no idea what they are talking about stop burdening us with their opinions?

I suppose we live in a time when so many pundits speak such nonsense that one's own loony babble sounds no more implausible than what we are so used to hearing. Add a little invective, a bit of haughty anger for seasoning, and people today think they have created an original opinion of merit worthy of dissemination. A spicy pile of B.S. will never be anything more than the essential “merde” that it is. An angry, condescending tone does nothing to add any more value to nonsense. The haughty rooster, or “coq” in French, is the cherished national icon of France. Ironically, it is we who are becoming the nation of puffed up coqs, so often spouting inane nonsense, with great authority.


What I find interesting and compelling in the current fiery riot horrors is the lesson that can be drawn from the French approach to social equality. The riots demonstrate that a nation, whose laws are colorblind but whose people only pay lip service to the ideal, isn't necessarily a land of equality.

The vast majority of the rioters are French. They are young, male, Muslim of North or West African descent, poor, angry, and often unemployed, but they are French. They are born for the most part to second or third generation immigrant parents. French is their language, and France is their home. To many white French, however, the rioters are something else, “immigrés” (immigrants), but not “vrai” (true) French.

The essence of the current French approach is colorblindness, or at least on paper colorblindness. There are no race records. There is no racial hiring data. There is certainly no affirmative action. It is a system where the inequities have gotten so out of hand in a passive way that very few of the good folks disassociated from the underclass even know or care that this stratification of their society has taken place – until now.

In France, of the 90 or so provincial governors, there is only one, Aïssa Dermouche, who is either Muslim or of Arab descent; and he is tucked away on the Swiss border. Somehow his nomination was controversial. Radicals in France, intent on intimidating him, blew up his car in front of his home in January 2004. Supposedly, M. Dermouche hasn't set foot in a mosque since he was a child, and apart from his name (he is light skinned) he is totally indistinguishable from any other well-educated French politician.

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy points to him as a model, yet M. Dermouche stands alone. French TV personalities, billboards, executives, etc. are almost exclusively white. The 10+ percent of North African blooded Frenchmen are invisible in these realms. It is said that in France, résumés with applicants of Arab or African sounding names are often simply cast aside, leaving the good jobs to the "vrai" French.

Clearly the reasons for the riots in France are complex, and these complexities can't just be solved with proactive hiring practices.

On the other hand, affirmative action is certainly a key element of a possible yet currently untenable solution. The white French middle class doesn’t want to risk loosing their jobs anymore than our white middle class did or does. It took courage and moral; yes, moral reasoning to enact our, for the most part, successful, liberal affirmative hiring practices and racial college admissions policies. The French have a major mindset hurdle to jump before they begin to come to any workable, long term solutions.

Perhaps our handling of race and discrimination of the last 30 years is much more of a success than of the failure, highlighted by Katrina and the New Orleans underclass. Turn on the television. Look at a billboard. Go see a film. More likely than not, you will see the melting pot before you.

Today, in Frederick or practically anywhere else in rural America, would the majority of white Americans give a second thought that the tan, brown or black skinned person at the bank, or on the Weather Channel, or sitting in the attorney general’s office is not American, at least if he or she spoke a decent English? Would they even care? I doubt that this was the case in most of America 30 years ago. Take a good look at what's going on in France. Let’s congratulate ourselves that we have chosen a different path.

To me it's evident that if our nation hadn't taken the often much-maligned, liberal proactive steps of the 1960 and 1970s, our politicians, our educators, our news personalities, our celebrities, etc., would be almost entirely white. Our sizable and growing successful non-white middle class would be a fraction of what it is today.

While far from perfect now, our racial inequities would be 10 times worse. In essence, our country would simply be in a similar situation to that of France today.

And yet, I believe that if given the chance most conservatives in our country would have prevented or at least rolled back every affirmative action program ever begun and would have stopped taking racial data for hiring and elsewhere, creating in their minds a truly colorblind society.

Now wouldn't that be just so very, very French?

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