On Tuesday night, the evening news of Franceâ€™s major TV networks all opened with dramatic reports of ongoing rioting at the Gare du Nord, one of Parisâ€™ main rail and metro junctions. Up till now, debate in the run-up to French presidential voting has gingerly stepped around the issue of the 2005 banlieu riots. Suddenly, and as if on cue, the rioters have once again burst upon the political scene, this time in the heart of Paris.
From a purely literary point of view, their timing couldnâ€™t have been better. In an electoral context increasingly defined around questions of national identity, itâ€™s as if the rioters wished to illustrate the perils of mass immigration.
Tuesdayâ€™s rioting began as a protest against the rough arrest of a 32-year old Congolese man who jumped a metro stile and then assaulted police officers. But it soon spiraled out of control, as hundreds of young people, alerted by friends, rushed to the station to confront police and loot local businesses. Like the man whose arrest set off the riots â€“ an illegal alien with a long criminal record and an outstanding deportation order — most of the rioters were of black African origin.
Yesterdayâ€™s violence recalls earlier episodes. In March 2005, hundreds of young black and Arab men turned out to rob and beat students protesting a recently passed education reform bill. In November of the same year, similar groups set fire to suburban communities across the country in what has since become known as â€?les ?©meutesâ€?, three weeks of violence from which France has yet to recover. A year later, rioters commemorated the events of November 2005 by, among other things, nearly burning to death a young woman on a bus in Marseilles.
Despite a request on the part of Franceâ€™s newly appointed Interior Minister Fran?§ois Baroin to refrain from â€?surfingâ€? on Tuesdayâ€™s events, the Gare du Nord riots were immediately politicized, with all major candidates advancing their preferred interpretation. In an increasingly insecure and resentful France, however, the images on the television screen spoke for themselves. More than ever, the first round of voting is up in the air.
At 77 years old, this is Jean-Marie Le Pen's last election. It may also prove to be his vindication. All the worse for France.