Jewish World Review Nov. 9, 2005 / 7 Mar-Cheshvan, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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Is Paris burning?

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Stories. They can shed a light on the news, even the news to come, like nothing else.

One story can be worth a thousand pictures, graphs, statistics, analyses, at least if Theodore Dalrymple, the best social critic writing today, tells it. In part because he knows how to tell the one story that sums up a whole social trend, tragedy or crisis to come.

No one who read Dr. Dalrymple's brief but prescient essay, "The Barbarians at the Gates of Paris" three years ago in "City Journal" could have been surprised at the fires that now have erupted around hundreds of French cities.

No wonder a story he told in that essay would be the first thing that came to mind on reading the latest news from Paris:

"A terrible chasm has opened up in French society, dramatically exemplified by a story that an acquaintance told me. He was driving along a six-lane highway with housing projects on both sides when a man tried to dash across the road. My acquaintance hit him at high speed and killed him instantly.

"According to French law, the participants in a fatal accident must stay as near as possible to the scene until officials have elucidated all the circumstances. The police therefore took my informant to a kind of hotel nearby, where there was no staff and the door could be opened only by inserting a credit card into an automatic billing terminal. Reaching his room, he discovered that all the furniture was of concrete, including the bed and washbasin, and attached either to the floor or walls.

"The following morning the police came to collect him, and he asked them what kind of place this was. Why was everything made of concrete? 'But don't you know where you are, monsieur?' they asked. 'C'est la Zone, c'est la Zone.' La Zone is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

Various politicians, pundits and other instant experts now have been called on to give their socio-eco-political analyses of The Crisis, but Theodore Dalrymple's story had summed up the problem. Three years before.

Now the bill has come due in France, the bill for years of indifference and neglect. In the name of multiculturalism, France's elite, which is anything but multicultural, has allowed a huge unassimilated and exploited population of alienated youth to encircle the country's cities with the slums called citÚs. Like so much social combustion.

France's high-rise slums are reminiscent of nothing so much as the lawless projects that once housed a growing underclass in the great American cities, and which also exploded. Stalinist architecture, with its massive, modern, dehumanizing blankness is not just an aesthetic crime but breeds other kinds.

Nor is La Zone just a French phenomenon. Every drug-permeated inner-city neighborhood in the industrialized world is part of La Zone.

Eventually, this country caught on to the desperation and violence that a system going by the misnomer "welfare" could incubate. Now the French have produced a similar plague. They can go on ignoring it, or try to paper it over with meaningless eloquence as only the French can, or finally face what they have wrought by a strange combination of disdain for the alienated and a fashionable glamorization of their defiant ways. Did they think they could have punk rock without the punks?

What will the French do now? Theodore Dalrymple ventured a guess back in the fall of 2002:

"Most likely, the state will solve the dilemma by attempts to buy off the disaffected with more benefits and rights, at the cost of higher taxes that will further stifle the job creation that would most help the cite dwellers. If that fails, as in the long run it will, harsh repression will follow."

The crisis now has come, further appeasement is being suggested, and the repression has started as curfews are readied and emergency police powers declared.


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Recommended reading: "The Barbarians at the Gates of Paris" by Theodore Dalrymple. It can be found in the latest collection of his essays. Its title sums up the nature of the current crisis, and not just in France: "Our Culture, What's Left of It."

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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