Intifada or Watts?
Dominique de Villepin is planning to invoke the curfew laws drafted during the Algerian War to restore order in France. According to the New York Times:
The government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin used a 1955 law drafted during the Algerian War to impose a curfew and other restrictive measures on areas where rioters have sown disorder ... By mid-afternoon, the officials - prefects of France's seven military zones - were still trying to hammer out details of the measure, said Franck Louvrier, a spokesman for Mr. Sarkozy.
The juxtaposition of the words "Algerian War", "curfew", "riots" and "Paris" will certainly conjure up images of an incident said to have occurred in 1961, the Nuit de Noir. The Guardian described a documentary film on this controversial incident in an article written before the riots.
Today Nuit Noire (Black Night) will be released at a select number of French cinemas. The controversial film, made by one of France's most respected directors, reconstructs the events of the night of 17 October 1961, when a protest against French policy in Algeria, then a colony on the brink of independence, sparked a huge police operation. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed or injured but there was no official acknowledgement at the time - or for decades afterwards. ...
Wikipedia, which notes that allegations of a bloody suppression of Algerian rioters in 1961 is a controversial subject whose key facts are disputed, describes the events in this way.
On October 17, 1961, thousands of Algerian immigrants living in Paris took to the streets in support of the national liberation struggle being waged in Algeria against France by the FLN (Front Libération National - National Liberation Front). In response, the Paris police department violently broke up the demonstations, as well as took other severe actions related to the demonstrations. While the police originally claimed that only three deaths resulted from the conflict, historians estimate that between 32 and 200 demonstrators died. With almost no media coverage at the time, the events surrounding the massacre, as well as the death toll, were almost unknown both in France and worldwide for decades. For this reason, there is no generally-used name to designate these events.
Whether true or not, the supposed events of 1961 cast an historical shadow over the revival of the 1955 French curfew law. The Arab world is certainly aware of this context. Al Ahram wrote in March 1999.
On 5 October 1961, Papon ordered a curfew on all Algerians, forbidding them to leave their homes in the suburbs at night. In response, the French Federation of the FLN called on its people to stage a peaceful demonstration through the Latin Quarter and along the Champs Elysée, bringing their families and children with them. Frightened of the prospect of a "North African invasion", and determined to maintain order at any cost, the French police prepared an ambush for the demonstrators to prevent them from penetrating the city. The bloody encounter was not limited to Paris itself, but extended to the suburb of Nanterre, where police opened fire on Algerians living in its vast shanty town. The chief of the Paris police at that time was Maurice Papon -- the same man who had been in charge of the notorious Bordeaux police under the Vichy government.
A few years ago, France already found itself facing a crisis of conscience when, following a petition organised by French intellectuals and Jewish citizens, Papon was brought out of retirement to face trial, charged with sending thousands of Jews to their deaths in the Nazi camps between 1942 and 1943. Then, the French police had sought to round up every Jew living in Bordeaux -- men, women and children -- and pack them off to the butchers of Auchwitz.
One of the reasons why French authorities are at pains to craft their response is the need to avoid these historical minefields. Ironically, measures such as the curfew would have been unncessary if the authorities had acted to suppress or conciliate in the early days of the riots. Having vacillated between courses of action, they are now faced with the necessity of imposing large-scale suppressive measures whose impacts must be strictly controlled.
The underclass which has announced its existence over the past 12 days is still largely uncommitted to a specific ideology; it is a variable waiting for a value. Radical Islamic elements are naturally bending effort to lead this discontent. France must offer an alternative vision, one that consists not merely of welfare checks or government benefits, but an identity which each and every resident of the banlieus can be proud of. In this contest, France must revive many of the notions which it sought even recently to bury. The idea of a love of country, not mere membership in a soulless European Union; the idea of pride, denigrated in an age of national guilt; the idea of community, at a time when cultural division, diversity, multiculturality is the highest value of the day.
Glenn Reynolds poses the question of whether the riots in France represent an Intifada or a Watts. The difference between the two will be in the mind.
SBS has details on the measures the French authorities will use to suppress the riots. It reports that:
President Jacques Chirac ... invoked a 50-year-old law originally drawn up at the start of the Algerian war which permits the declaration of curfews, house searches and a ban on public meetings. ...
It permits state-appointed ... prefects - to "forbid the movement of people and vehicles in places and times fixed by decree" and ban "meetings likely to provoke or fuel disorder". ... "order house searches at any time of day or night" and to control "press and publications of all kinds" although Mr Villepin told parliament this last article would not be invoked. Article six allows the interior minister to issue house arrests for people "whose activity is dangerous for public safety."