The rioting by Muslim youth that began October 27 in France to calls of "Allahu Akbar" may be a turning point in European history.
What started in Clichy-sous-Bois, on the outskirts of Paris, by its 11th night had spread to 300 French cities and towns, as well as to Belgium and Germany. The violence, which has already been called some evocative names – intifada, jihad, guerilla war, insurrection, rebellion, and civil war – prompts several reflections.
End of an era: The time of cultural innocence and political naïveté, when the French could blunder without seeing or feeling the consequences, is drawing to a close. As in other European countries (notably Denmark and Spain), a bundle of related issues, all touching on the Muslim presence, has now moved to the top of the policy agenda in France, where it likely will remain for decades.
These issues include a decline of Christian faith and the attendant demographic collapse; a cradle-to-grave welfare system that lures immigrants even as it saps long-term economic viability; an alienation from historic customs in favor of lifestyle experimentation and vapid multiculturalism; an inability to control borders or assimilate immigrants; a pattern of criminality that finds European cities far more violent than American ones, and a surge in Islam and radical Islam.
Not a first: The French insurrection is by no means the first instance of a semi-organized Muslim insurgency in Europe – it was preceded days earlier by one riot in Birmingham, England and was accompanied by another in Århus, Denmark. France itself has a history of Muslim violence going back to 1979. What is different in the current round is its duration, magnitude, planning, and ferocity.
Press denial: The French press delicately refers to the "urban violence" and presents the rioters as victims of the system. Mainstream media deny that it has to do with Islam and ignore the permeating Islamist ideology, with its vicious anti-French attitudes and its raw ambition to dominate the country and replace its civilization with Islam's.
Another method of jihad: Indigenous Muslims of northwestern Europe have in the past year deployed three distinct forms of jihad: the crude variety deployed in Britain, killing random passengers moving around London; the targeted variety in the Netherlands, where individual political and cultural leaders are singled out, threatened, and in some cases attacked; and now the more diffuse violence in France, less specifically murderous but also politically less dismissible. Which of these or other methods will prove most efficacious is yet unclear, but the British variant is clearly counterproductive, so the Dutch and French strategies probably will recur.
Sarkozy versus Villepin: Two leading French politicians and probable candidates for president in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy and Dominique de Villepin, have responded to the riots in starkly contrasting ways, with the former adopting a hard line (proclaiming "tolérance zéro" for urban crime) and the latter a soft one (promising an "action plan" to improve urban conditions).
Anti-state: The riots started eight days after Mr. Sarkozy declared a new policy of "war without mercy" on urban violence and two days after he called violent youth "scum." Many rioters see themselves in a power struggle with the state and so focus their attacks on its symbols. A typical report quotes Mohamed, 20, the son of a Moroccan immigrant, asserting that "Sarko has declared war …, so it's war he's going to get." Representatives of the rioters have demanded that the French police leave the "occupied territories"; in turn, Mr. Sarkozy partially blamed the riots on "fundamentalists."
The French can respond in three ways. They can feel guilty and appease the rioters with prerogatives and the "massive investment plan" some are demanding. Or they can heave a sigh of relief when it ends and, as they did after earlier crises, return to business as usual. Or they can understand this as the opening salvo in a would-be revolution and take the difficult steps to undo the negligence and indulgence of past decades.
I expect a blend of the first two reactions and that, despite Mr. Sarkozy's surge in the polls, Mr. Villepin's appeasing approach will prevail. France must await something larger and more awful to awake it from its somnolence. The long-term prognosis, however, is inescapable: "the sweet dream of universal cultural compatibility has been replaced," as Theodore Dalrymple puts it, "by the nightmare of permanent conflict."
For thoughts that could not fit in the column above, see "Further Thoughts on the First French Intifada."
At "Explaining the French Intifada," I look at subsequent French efforts to account for the riots.