Paris is Learning

But then again, aren’t we all. The city I hope to call home in the not too distant future is coming to terms with social imbalances brought on by good intentions. I have been trying to be an unusual American. One that actually knows the subtleties of what is going on in the world east of New York and west of Los Angeles.

The BBC is an excellent English language resource. CNN and MSNBC… mmmm… not so much. They’re too busy spending 24 hours a day on the latest sensational story, or missing white woman. Fox? You’re joking, right?

The amazing thing is that it took eight days of Paris’ suburbs burning before the US media even noticed. I think it was on day eight that I finally saw something about it on one of the CNN or MSNBC websites.

The interesting thing though is that even the Parisian press has been covering the story, at least at the beginning as simply a political struggle. It wasn’t until the other European papers noticed that LeMonde and the other French newspapers of record were not talking about the root of the problem that the coverage really did get a little more introspective.

The story isn’t really about rioting caused by two Muslim youths dying while being chased by police. That’s sort of the tip of the iceberg from what I can gather. The trouble is indeed born from good intentions.

You see, France has one of the most generous employee benefits programs as well as pro-worker hiring and firing practices in the western world. Comparatively short work weeks, excellent health care and generous unemployment compensation. In addition to that, once you’re been offered employment there, it’s actually quite difficult to lose your job. As a result French companies are hesitant to take on too many employees for fear that if they do, it will be difficult to lay them off if the economy takes a downturn.

So what does this have to do with hundreds of cars being burned every night? Well, since it is so difficult to lay someone off, French employers are contributing to the high unemployment rates of around 40% in the poor suburban towns outside of Paris and Lyon and other major French cities. The kids, even though many of them are French citizens by birth, just can’t get jobs is how I understand it. The last two weeks have been thirty years in the making.

The lack of integration of Arab and African immigrants into mainstream French culture has resulted in very deeply resentful suburban ghettos. As I say this, I do fully realize that I am sitting in Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the United States, even in 2005, so I’m not pointing a single finger toward France. No there are plenty of places to point at in this world of ours.

Perhaps it’s because Morgan and I just rediscovered our respective lives in Paris that it really saddens me to see the unrest. Paris gave us so much in just a few days that it feels very helpless to sit over here and watch the rioting spreading to so many towns. It seems like Paris proper has been spared any unpleasantness up to now, but today I read a report that the violence had indeed popped up in Le Marais, one of the artist neighborhoods in the heart of Paris.

The police presence has been increased around all of the major monuments and important Parisian places including the Eiffel Tower. I wonder how the calming effect of the Parisian lifestyle we experienced there has been replaced with, if you’ll pardon the comparison, an American sense of tension and fear. That would be a shame.

France, like all countries that strive to be good world citizens, needs to find a way to balance the inequities of the haves and the have nots. As a very naive and recent student of Paris and French culture, I certainly don’t have the answers. I heard a news commentator today say that the rioting in France is their Katrina. Meaning their tragic event that has uncovered the truly unpleasant reality of how large countries treat their less fortunate just like Katrina did here.

I remember while waiting for Morgan to come down to the lobby of our hotel one morning, I glanced at Le Monde. There on the front page was the unfolding story of Hurricane Katrina. The French were, just as they were on 9/11, feeling our suffering. Too bad it took our news media eight days to notice theirs.

If you don’t want to wait to read or hear about the world until there is a lull in the American news cycle of whatever fluff they’re feeding us, try listening to The World on NPR, or pointing your browser at the BBC News website, or if you’re trying to learn French as I am, try Le Monde. You can also turn this French language paper into English, by entering that website into the AltaVista – Babel Fish Translation page, which does a pretty decent job of translating on the fly.

Paris, je vous souhaite la paix.


This photograph was taken as Morgan and I explored Jardin des Tuileries (The Tuileries Gardens) one beautiful overcast morning. The gardens are just to the west of the Louvre and separate it from Champs Elysees.

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