Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Rioting comes easily to those on the margin in France, anywhere

Villiers-le-Bel was not affected by the 2005 riots in France, but shares many features of other banlieues – an unemployment rate of over 20 per cent, poor transport links with the city centre and a population of 27,000, 60 per cent of whom are under 25, according to this report in The Independent of the UK.

The ghetto violence this week in Villiers-le-Bel is spreading, leading to fears of further outbreaks and a possible repeat of the wave of urban violence in 2005. The immediate provocation for the rioting by the people in the ghettos was the death of two teenagers in a collision involving a police car, according to this report from the BBC.

Rioting comes easily to people on the margin, particularly as they have lost all trust in the police, other authorities, and society at large. Many of these people are migrants of North African origin who do not feel assimilated into French society. Some of them believe that the French police may have deliberately killed the boys on the motorcycle. That is incorrect, according to the French authorities, but try telling that to the people in the ghetto who live forever in suspicion and in simmering discontent.

That discontent in the ghettos can only get worse as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a firm lover of all things American, tries to push through economic reforms in the country. Common people do not take kindly to having their privileges removed, more so when it is aimed to help big business. The ghetto-ization of France can hence be expected to continue. Add to that the racial and religious divide, and France’s ghettos are a tinder-box.

There are lessons for other countries from the troubles in France. While votaries of big business and unbridled capitalism push for the dismantling of the welfare state and subsidies, such measures push out into the margin larger numbers of people, who become disempowered, and susceptible to militant ideologies, whether secular or religious.

The experience of most countries proves that unbridled capitalism has only increased inequality, as the benefits have not trickled down. In the US, the middle class finds itself facing extinction, being pushed into the lower classes by high costs of everything including healthcare.

The violence in the ghettos of France are a signal. The people living there may not be articulate enough to put out a policy statement against globalization and unbridled capitalism. They will look instead for refuge in the extreme fringes of their religions, which will both give them an ideology and money to live on.

In Mumbai, where its new super rich are spending millions of Rupees on expensive cars and large houses, the poor don’t have an ideology, but a resentment, that is dangerously high, and waiting to be misused. There are potentially other trouble spots as well.

It is unfashionable, but the hard truth is that the resurgence of capitalist ideology in its unbridled form, has only provided an opportunity for the rich to spend and flaunt their wealth without compunction. Charity, if any, has become a matter of prestige, accompanied by a press release. Once upon a time, the wealthy did not display their wealthy – it was seen to be in bad taste, and yes could invite resentment. Charity was on a quiet note and did not humiliate the receiver. Today display is the raison d’etre for capitalist society.

French suburbs still await change after the 2005 riots, according to this report by Reuters. "High unemployment, underperforming schools, poor relations with the police, inadequate housing and controversial new immigration laws have created a generation of frustrated youths ready to turn to violence at any time", according to the report. This could be as much a description of the state of affairs in the ghettos of France, the slums of India, or the black population in some parts of the US. Economic development has to be inclusive, and neo-right economic policies in many of these countries have not helped.

Related articles:

Thoughts on Che Guevara and the cruelty of capitalism

Free markets do not necessarily mean democracy or quality of life

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