Europe is turning into America — slowly, painfully
When the burning cars and schools in France shocked Europe earlier this month and threatened to spread to Brussels and Berlin, the first thing journalists did was compare the riots to 1968, when students torched cars and hurled paving stones in Paris to protest the Vietnam War. But what happened in France this month wasn’t so organized. It was a race riot, which is new in Europe, at least outside of Britain. Continental cities have never burned like Newark or Detroit in 1967, or Los Angeles in ’65 and ’92, for the simple reason that Europe has never had American-style problems with race.
Of course Europe has had its own racial nightmares, from the Crusades through colonialism and the Holocaust; but now, since the ’60s, every Old-World capital has ghettos of poor, dark-skinned citizens, mostly Muslim, who feel shut out because of their color and religion, whose parents or grandparents came to help rebuild Europe in the decades after World War II. Turks in Berlin, Albanians in Rome, Tunisians and Senegalese and Algerians in Paris: They all belong to a designated working class of outsiders, like the black descendants of slaves in the United States.
“Why are we angry?” says one blog entry about this month’s riots in France. “Because my father was brought here 30 years ago to do the work that the French didn’t want to do. He was stuck into a housing project. He managed to move his ass and we managed to escape the projects, but all those who didn’t move their asses are still stuck in the projects and they are full of rage.”
This French rage sounds like the rage in America 40 years ago. Housing projects in the suburbs of Paris are full of brown people who carry French passports but despise la France. “Now 30, 40, and 50 years old,” writes Doug Ireland, an American who lived in Paris for almost 10 years, “these high-rise human warehouses in the isolated suburbs are today run-down, dilapidated, sinister places, with broken elevators that remain unrepaired, heating systems left dysfunctional in winter, dirt and dog-shit in the hallways, broken windows, and few commercial amenities — shopping for basic necessities is often quite limited and difficult, while entertainment and recreational facilities for youth are truncated and totally inadequate when they’re not non-existent.”
Europe’s big problem is integrating this frustrated underclass of citizens — not outsiders — who don’t look “European.” How do you do that? America managed it by going to school on its own past. America was never founded on race, it was always a republic of immigrants, and its racial crisis could be navigated by becoming, in a sense, more American. For Europe it won’t be so easy. Europe is the home of the nation-state, and when someone asks, “Why should Muslims be in Europe at all?” there’s no ringing traditional answer.
French officials do try to invoke liberté, egalité et fraternité; they mandate civics lessons and pretend the principles of the republic matter more than French heritage or white skin. But those lessons sound like lies without a corresponding tolerance from employers and the police, and the result, so far, has been a generation of kids who claim to feel more “Muslim” than “French”; a white electorate that rejected the European Union constitution last spring out of fear that Turkey might join; and riots in the street.
This racial tension has been the background of every big story from Europe this year, including the rejection of the EU constitution and the convulsions in Germany that just gave rise to a new prime minister. (Angela Merkel is against Turkish EU membership; her outgoing opponent, Gerhard Schroeder, wasn’t.) Every convulsion is a sign of a major identity struggle between Old Europe’s notions of identity and nationhood and ideas that can only be called American.
“Either Europe develops and supports the idea of a mixed culture, or Europe has no future,” Abdelkarim Carrasco, a Muslim leader in Spain, told The Associated Press during the riots. “Europe has to learn from what the United States has done. It is a country that has taken in people from all over the world.”
Those are strange words to hear from a Muslim, and they’re words to make the average Frenchman choke; but — for better or worse — they’re true.
Michael Scott Moore is an American journalist living in Berlin and the author of a novel, “Too Much of Nothing.” His Web site is at radiofreemike.com.