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The view from Paris – riots and the Arab World

December 13th, 2008 · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

I wrote this post in Paris, in May 2006, just after Nicolas Sarkozy was elected President of France – but I never published it.

You can probably say Sarkozy was the man who pulled Syria in from the cold. But eighteen months ago, I wasn’t so optimistic. In fact, I was downright distraught…


France and the Arab World under Sarkozy, The Syria News Wire, Paris, 6 May 2006.

The weather in Paris is gloomy.

Controversial former interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy has swept the polls and takes over from President Jacques Chirac in a couple of days.

He was always Chirac’s protege, coming from the same party, but their politics couldn’t be more different. Sarkozy has promised to repair the damaged French-US relationship, and bring France closer to Israel. All the signs point to Sarko being the most pro-American president since Charles de Gaulle, and the most pro-Israeli in history.

Domestically, too, Arabs are furious, but for very different reasons. Almost every Arab I’ve talked to in Paris over the past couple of weeks has pointed to one thing.

18 months ago, young unemployed French youth went on the rampage in the suburbs of almost every French city. Many of the rioters were Arab. Sarko, as interior minister, called them ‘scum’, and said the suburbs needed to be cleaned. Now, he certainly didn’t mean ethnic cleansing. But the phrase resonated with France’s far-right, and scared every French Arab.


In this month’s election’s Sarko took a huge chunk of the far-right vote. Racist leader Jean Marie Le Pen saw his share of the vote fall from 18% in 2002 to 11% in 2007. Many of his fan base moved over to Sarko.

In the Parisian inner-city, there had been a massive drive to get ethnic minorities, including French Arabs, to register and vote.

(“Take action! Vote! The French Republic is also us”)

They had a limited success. I found very very few Arabs who had gone to the polls.

Many of the inner-city Arabs live in the eastern districts of Paris, like Belleville. It is becoming the heart of the city’s youth, and activism, and vibrance. It is the 21st century’s Left Bank, or Montmartre. The Bastille marks the start of this New Paris.

I was in the Bastille to hear the election result. It is the site of the prison which rioters stormed at the start of the French Revolution. On the night of 7 May 2007, there was another riot, and promises of another French Revolution.

The polls closed at 8pm, and the results are made public at exactly the same time. Everyone gathered around the big screens and counted down as the seconds ticked away to 8pm. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. A huge photo of Sarko appeared on screen, and a gasp went through the crowd. There was silence for a few seconds. And then shouting and screaming. This was the result they feared, but the one they knew was inevitable.

As the result was announced, a girl appeared at the balcony of a flat above the big screen. She threw her fists up in the air in anger as Sarko appeared on the TV. Minutes later, she was standing at the same window, hugging her mum, and crying.

Within 15 minutes, one or two of the angry youngsters had jumped on top of barriers and phone boxes, leading a chant: “Sarko, facist, we will get you”.

The crowd got bigger, as people rushed out of their houses in the east. They had soon moved into the center of the Bastille square, stopping traffic and standing in front of buses. Hundreds of riot police arrived and sealed off the square.

The protesters linked-arms and started to surround the Bastille July Column. Others climbed the Column and raised banners.

Graffiti was sprayed on the road, painting Sarko as a dead man and an effigy of Sarko was burnt.

Many of the Eastern youngsters see Sarko as a President of another France. He is from Neuilly, a leafy western suburb which is technically outside the city limits, and a world away from Paris. This couple’s barriers read ‘France is not Neuilly’, and ‘I am ashamed to be French’.

As the night set in, the protesters formed a sit-in in this, one of the city’s most important traffic intersections.

One or two people would occassionally run towards the riot police, before stopping.

But at around 10pm, the tension boiled over and bottles were thrown. The police responded with tear gas. There were reports of similar scenes across the country.

I got a call to tell me about the happy-crowd. There was another gathering taking place.

On the other side of town, at the Place de la Concorde, where Revolutionaries had been historically executed (could the symbolism have been any more potent) the Sarko-fans were in party mood. Sarkozy had arranged a rock concert here, days before the polls had even opened.

If the Bastille is the start of New Paris, the Place de la Concorde is very much Old Paris. Surrounded by the US Embassy, the Champs Elysees and the French Naval Ministry.

One of the most disturbing sights was seeing young people – young people celebrating the election of a right-winger. ‘Students for Sarkozy’ were waving their banners and dancing in the fountains.

And at 11 o’clock, President Sarko took to the stage to rapturous applause, within sight of Parliament on the other side of the river.

The streets were deserted, except for two heavily armed police officers standing on almost every street corner in central Paris.

The sun sets on Segolene Royal’s campaign (the day before the election):

Would anything have been better under Socialist candidate Segolene Royal? Probably not. She met Hizbollah MPs when she visited Lebanon, and then under pressure, and showing her political naievity, she quickly retreated and promised to be a firm friend of Israel, rushing over to Tel Aviv to say sorry.

Many in Syria have been looking forward to the end of Chirac’s rule because they think it means the death of the Hariri tribunal. In Lebanon, the Hariri gang have been desperately trying to push the tribunal through before Chirac leaves office.

The Tribunal was Chirac’s baby. In a sense, he was almost part of the Hariri family – he’ll be moving into a house given to him by Hariri in Avenue Foch in Paris, right next to Abdul Halim Khaddam’s house, and Sa’ad’s Paris house.

But this week, Chirac has been busy introducing Sarkozy to Sa’ad. Sarkozy has committed himself to the Tribunal It is not dead, but it is in the hands of its godparents, and not daddy.

If American presidents feel they need to court the Jewish vote, with more than a million Arabs in France, why don’t French presidents feel the need to court the Arab vote?

Simply, because many of them haven’t registered, and have no intention of voting.

Sarko’s win – 53%, to Sego’s 47% – was a landslide in French terms. But almost half of the electorate don’t back you. And that’s not even taking into account the ethnic minorities and young people who Sarko has antagonised so much – but who tragically didn’t register and come out to vote.

Sarko is not a President for all France, and he doesn’t pretend to be.

Expect trouble.

(Rioters paint graffiti on the road calling for civil war)

It may be raining in Paris, but I have a feeling it’s going to be a very hot summer.


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