John Vinocur


A few hours before dark on Christmas Eve, the prefecture of Yvelines in the vast urban sprawl surrounding the capital put out a notice forbidding gasoline stations from selling fuel to anyone not actually pumping it into the tank of his car. Basically, that meant young men carting it off in jerrycans.

The ban holds till noon on Jan. 2, and according to the French-language service of The Associated Press, the prefecture explained its decision, similar to restrictions in other regions, by noting that "the year-end holiday period raises the possibility of new excesses." Those would-be car and building-burning rampages looking a whole lot like the three weeks of rioting by children of France's downtrodden Arab and African immigrants that shook the country in October and November.

A couple of weeks earlier, the Council of State appeals body, citing its fear of trouble at the end of the year, rejected a call by 70 jurists to lift the state of emergency maintained by the government since the riots. Press reports also have said that traditional New Year's Eve fireworks will not take place this Saturday night near the Eifel Tower, where there was street fighting two years ago.

Just precautions, of course. But not good omens.

Burn, baby, burn was a cry of grief or vengeance from America's years of black rage, but it was also the incontrovertible truth of the riots that Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin recently insisted to CNN were really a blander, less shameful variety of social disturbance. Death and serious injury were avoided here for the most part. Still, toting up the score, the Interior Ministry indicates something far different than this cleansed version:

Ten thousand cars destroyed and more than 200 public buildings set afire. Damages estimated by insurers at between 80 million and 150 million. More than 3,200 arrests. More than 400 rioters sentenced to prison.

And now, after a period of quiet, here's an unsettling realization for 2006. It's that entirely apart from the official New Year's precautions, the weeks since the riots have not brought the sense of a nation coming together on some kind of common ground.

Rather the opposite. It is a time of new accusations and new verbal excess. It is one of rioters playing victim, or being manipulated by ideologues into the status of history's aggrieved, without responsibilities or obligations to France.

Most obviously, it is a time when the real, linked villains behind the riots - unemployment, and a reflexive insistence by most of the political caste that a quota system for advancement won't help - get pushed out of the discussion in favor of easier polemics. Bringing affirmative action to society here or profoundly changing the stagnant French economic system have the look of ideas that threaten the entrenched left/right status quo too much to make serious headway as the essence of the debate.

Instead of what has to be remade for France to function in confidence again, the headline issues, discussed with special viciousness, have run to the historical effects of French colonialism in North Africa, black Africa and the Caribbean and whether France owes its heirs systematic repentance.

Or to the position of a few writers, now accused as "neoreactionaries," who have dared ask about the role in the country's unrest of resistance to integration among some Muslim immigrants. Or further, to a characterization, vocal on the left and among a group of showbiz and sports celebrities with distant roots in housing project misery - and murmured insistently on the anti-modernist right - that makes Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister and 2007 presidential candidate, the one-size-fits-all guilty party for the troubles.

"Permanent daily lynching has become the national sport," Franz Oliver Giesbert, editor of the center-right newsweekly Le Point, wrote in its current issue. "Our society demonizes."

Almost everyone, Giesbert suggested, prefers picking on more familiar enemies than "our weakness and cowardice" that have led to an overwhelming national debt and the 35-hour workweek's becoming "our official ideology."

As counterintuitive as it may seem to many Americans at least, the French left won't touch affirmative action because it is considered anti-egalitarian and potentially threatens, in an obviously less articulated way, the white power structure in the left's leadership.

For the traditional French right, running from President Jacques Chirac to just short of Jean-Marie Le Pen's bigotry, the affirmative action notion challenges the myths of the Republic and their legitimacy: That everyone signing on to Frenchness is an equal recipient of the country's glory, that a unique, admirable social and not-quite-capitalist economic model exists in France, and that this structure must not be dismantled in favor of ideas coming from a dark world beyond the seas.

Between the two poles, Sarkozy - a man with populist instincts which can jostle his convictions - is at the center of the manufactured scorn keeping the riots' sense of unresolved grievance alive. (And the prefects saying the police must judge, case by case, if someone claiming to be out of gas truly wants to start a stuck car or fuel a riot.)

The chief cop and presidential candidate must live during the coming months with the fact of having used the supposedly incendiary, and certainly not politically correct word, racaille, or rabble, to designate the troublemakers who instigated the riots.

But the orthodox left and the right have to deal with the fact that Sarkozy emerged from them with polls showing he took the right approach in putting down the unrest and as the favorite to succeed Chirac a year and a half from now.

All this while he continues to advocate affirmative action, the vote for noncitizens in some local elections, government subsidies to bring Islamic preachers out of the projects' cellars, and a complete break with the economic and social services systems that have brought France massive unemployment and indebtedness.

Whatever the circumlocutions used - Villepin's presidential game plan might yet include job quotas and weighted test admissions going under more euphemistic names - getting France beyond its current mode seems to require a more willing confrontation with the idea that Sarkozy is onto something.

Anything else, and the no-gas-in-jerrycans rules may become as 100 percent French in 2006 as paralyzingly divisive politics.

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