Lord Hannan of Kingsclere was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020 and is now Chairman of the Free Trade Institute.
It is human nature to push events into their existing assumptions. Indeed, most leftists see the events in France as caused by racism and deprivation; most right-wingers see them as a warning about immigration happening too fast, without proper assimilation.
American conservatives throw in some observations about Islam. British Tories boast that France is being France, a nation periodically rocked by revolutionary spasms.
Of course, it’s usually possible to find at least some evidence to support your preconceptions. It is true, for example, that the French, who have been taught to revere 1789 as the founding moment of their country, are generally more relaxed than we are about protests of physical force. And I don’t just mean the 19th century barricades.
In 2005, Jacques Chirac declared a state of emergency when widespread riots followed the electrocution of two children, one of Mauritanian origin and the other Tunisian, who had hidden in a high-voltage electrical substation while fleeing from the police.
Over the next three weeks, some 9,000 cars caught fire. Then, as now, the newspapers spoke of civil war. There was a general feeling that things would never be the same afterward.
But the riots calmed down and the banlieu they settled back into their skyscraper apathy.
You can also, if you wish, defend the “dangerous jihadists” or “victims of racism” narratives. Some videos are circulating in which smugs in silly hats proclaim that the black flags of Islam will fly over Paris.
Others, often white lefties, delight in describing the riots as revenge for colonialism. (A very dangerous argument from his own perspective, he would have thought, since he defines immigration as a kind of punishment.)
And France has seen some terrifying episodes of religious violence, including the Charlie Hebdo abomination, attacks on synagogues, the murder of a Christian priest and the beheading of a schoolteacher who had been teaching free speech. But does that explain what is happening now? Do these teenage hooligans look like practicing Muslims to you?
As for racism, there is no doubt that black and brown French children can experience harsh treatment at the hands of gendarmes. There is certainly a feeling that immigrant communities, confined to the cities that ring in the big cities of France, don’t have a fair chance. While there are examples of minority French citizens rising to the top, it is hard to imagine a French equivalent to the recent Tory leadership contest, in which six of the initial eleven candidates were non-white.
On the other hand, is racism in France worse than it was in, say, the 1990s or the 1960s?
My own feeling is that the most useful framework for making sense of what is going on is not discrimination or Islamism, but American grievance culture.
If you’re British, you’ll know what I mean. Today we view almost all racial issues through the prism of slavery, segregation and Selma. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King are more familiar names in our elementary schools than John Locke or Horatio Nelson. Race is understood, American-style, as a matter of black and white, although there are more than twice as many people of South Asian descent as of black descent in the UK.
Even our insults are imported from the US: white conservatives are called Klansmen, black conservatives are Uncle Toms. Our cosplay reached its dorky peak in the summer of 2020 when, in response to a police killing in Minneapolis, white British protesters yelled “hands up, don’t shoot” at unarmed London cops.
France has escaped the worst of this nonsense by its prickly resistance to English-language media. But this time, the parallels with the US are so strong that even the French cannot be insulated from the associated cultural assumptions.
Consider the similarities. In Britain, a police officer is a citizen in uniform, with no more powers than you or me, except to the extent granted by a magistrate on a temporary and contingent basis. But in France, as in the United States, the police are armed agents of the state who enjoy some qualified immunity.
In both countries, this has led to cases of abuse, including excessive force. In both countries, non-white citizens are often the recipients. It used to be legitimate to debate whether this was due to police racism, or whether the figures reflected differences in crime rates or witness descriptions of suspects.
But, in the summer of 2020, the debate became impossible, as governments, corporations, and the media took their knees (often literally) to BLM. Now, all police action is seen, by definition, as racist. The idea that there might be a more general problem with trigger-happy cops is inadmissible, as is the notion that not all abuse by an individual officer is evidence of systemic discrimination.
For three years, children from ethnic minorities, in France and elsewhere, have been told that society is rigged against them, that any failure in their lives is the product of institutional racism, and that bigots in police uniforms they could shoot them with impunity. Nobody dares to challenge the narrative, and many people accept it without criticism.
How might these people react when a policeman shoots an Arab boy for driving in a bus lane without a license? Will they see it as a terrible but isolated tragedy? Or will they believe what they have been taught about oppression and white supremacy?
Oh, and why assume that things would be any different in this country?