As France burned, the mullahs arrived on the scene, shook their heads sadly and immediately issued a fatwa. However, for the many Frenchmen who may have shuddered inwardly when they heard the term so invoked, this was a good fatwa, a nice fatwa, a fatwa to be proud of. The mullahs swung by and ordained that Allah would be extremely cross if Muslims torched any more cars, shot any more policemen, lobbed any more petrol bombs or murdered any more elderly white people. Allah wanted Muslims instead to stay at home, potter about the house, maybe watch a little TV. The fatwa was issued on day 11 of the rioting, which by then had spread to about 300 towns and cities across France, from Toulouse to Lille, and was already nosing its way along the North Sea coast into Belgium and Holland and north as far as Denmark. And while the French public — or at least the majority of it, those not on the streets with the chavhoods pulled over their heads shouting Allahu Akbar and the like — may have been pleased with the mullahs for taking the time to address this pressing social problem, they may also have been a little confused. Because the arrival of the mullahs made explicit what had scarcely even been hinted at before.
As you might expect, French television news has led its morning and evening broadcasts on the latest from the multifarious battlefronts every day since the rioting began in the dismal, characterless Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. Every day we have seen angry dark faces throwing things and shouting stuff, buses alight, scattered and smoking debris, frightened white people and retreating policemen. And there have been whole legions of pundits wheeled out to offer an explanation. It’s deprivation, a lack of integration, poverty, unemployment, incipient French racism and so on. But the dreaded ‘M’ word has scarcely been mentioned at all; these were ‘young’ rioters or sometimes ‘immigrant’ rioters — they were never Muslim rioters. Islam was almost never mentioned, but instead hovered unseen behind the words of every newsreader, tick-ticking like a little weapon of mass destruction, ready to detonate and thus demolish the self-delusions of the French journalists, politicians and public. You may have caught a whiff of this delusion on the BBC news back in Britain: on Monday the 10 O’Clock News devoted nearly nine minutes to the riots, but the one thing the rioters had in common — their religion — was not mentioned once. Instead, we got more stuff about deprivation, poverty, unemployment, etc. Is this official censorship, self-censorship or merely ignorance allied to wishful thinking?
I wandered up to Grigny, some 35 minutes south of the Place de la République, where the ‘angry, impoverished youths’ had upped the ante a little by actually shooting at the police, rather than simply throwing rocks and petrol bombs at them. ‘Now they are really trying to kill us,’ said one copper, visibly shaken from the night’s exertions, which had left 13 of his colleagues requiring hospital treatment.
The town is perched upon low hills which form the valley of the river Seine, surrounded by light industry and deep, rather sinister lakes which might once have been quarries. In British terms, I suppose it might equate to Hounslow or Feltham, an impression not lessened by the planes banking to land at nearby Orly airport. But it is the weird demographic of the place which is striking: the town is precisely divided into two unequal — in terms of size and prosperity — constituent parts. There is the little area which surrounds the presentable and even bustling high street with its well-stocked boulanger — all agreeably faded turn-of-the-century villas replete with provincial French charm.
And then there’s the other bit of the town, the bit where they’ve shoved all the darkies. Block after block of 1960s medium- and high-rise utilitarian social housing, each development afforded an appellation in complete concordance with the arguably literal-minded sons and daughters of Le Corbusier: Résidences de Grigny 1, Résidences de Grigny 2, Résidences de Grigny 3 and so on and so on, probably up to about a couple of hundred, stretching over the hills as far as one can see. These vast tracts were, so far as I could ascertain during a mercifully brief visit, not merely overwhelmingly inhabited by North Africans, but quite possibly exclusively so. You may well have read that the French did not insist upon and still less worked at integrating the enormous numbers of migrants it dutifully accepted from the Maghreb (following its own somewhat embarrassing retreat from the area); well, here and in other suburbs like Grigny — of which there are a thousand — the lack of integration is utter and complete. Rosa Parks would have been depressed to note that even on the extremely crowded double-decker commuter trains which scurry between Grigny and the Gare de Lyon, blacks sit next to blacks and whites sit next to whites and if there’s no room for whitey except next to a black, he’ll stoically stand instead. And, natch, vice versa. I stood smoking a forlorn cigarette on Grigny station platform, the only white person, surrounded by 20 or 30 Africans. At length a white woman turned up, sought me out and asked if the next train was a stopping train or an express. In hopeless, stunted French I replied that I was from London and therefore hadn’t the remotest idea. She turned away with a sad expression and sat down on a bench nearby — it didn’t even occur to her to ask for information from any of her fellow townspeople. They were, after all, as black as the bleedin’ ace of spades.
So, in a sense, those social commentators on the French evening news were right: there is a lamentable lack of discourse between the two communities. But the suspicion persists that it is the North Africans who do not wish for integration — much as they might whine about a lack of employment opportunities — even more than the indigenous French. The black youths I spoke to in Grigny, hooded and furtive, lurking in the stairwell of a particularly noisome concrete development, mentioned ‘jihad!’ three times in the course of a very brief and slightly scary exchange. They were entirely supportive of the rioters and made the usual contemptuous noises about the police and — when reminded who he was — the French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy (who had recently described the rioters as ‘scum’).
It may well be that the motive for the rioting was nothing more than an inchoate grievance allied to youthful exuberance and a penchant for bad behaviour, but it was Islam which gave it an identity and also its retrospective raison d’