"Red Belt" Riots
by Stephen Schwartz
In December 1979, at 31, I first went to Europe. I was then an anti-Stalinist, revolutionary communist. I flew to London and after a boat-train trip to Paris, was met by comrades in the small movement to which I belonged, centered in France and Spain. The young people who greeted me took me to an Arab café where elderly men sat on the floor at long tables, eating Moroccan couscous while smoking waterpipes and listening to North African music. My leftist associates included some who were Arab themselves. One, Saleh, was an Algerian immigrant who worked as a night watchman. Another, Cherif, was of Moroccan background, but was born in France. He studied at To lbiac, a major university campus. They took me by metro to the northern suburb of Aubervilliers, where I stayed with them in an old apartment building. I was given a key so I could come and go on my own.
I have not been a leftist for more than 20 years now, and the young men I then knew must now be, like me, middle-aged. I have had no contact with them and therefore have no idea about their political evolution, although a decade ago I was told that Saleh had undergone a mental breakdown and was hospitalized. At the time I knew them, they were distinctly anti-Islamist and were even committed to publishing aggressively secularist literature in the Arabic language. I already knew French and had done numerous translations of literary and ideological texts into English, but such was my introduction to what was then the Mecca of the global left: I got to know Paris, the fabled city of revolution, from the bottom up, in Aubervilliers, which even then was 60 percent North African.
I went back and forth to Paris repeatedly, returning to the Aubervilliers apartment. I treasured the heavy steel key, which I kept on my keyring when I went back to my home in San Francisco, as a symbol of another life, another place I felt at home. Eventually I gave the key back and left the movement, but certain lessons I learned in Aubervilliers stayed with me, and remain vivid today, while the obscurities of Communist ideology have largely disappeared from my mental horizon.
Even 26 years ago, it was obvious that France and its North African communities were dangerously polarized. The outcome of that contradiction is now visible in the rioting that has convulsed the Parisian region, and over the past weekend Aubervilliers appeared as a tragic dateline in global media. The suburb is an historical part of what was once known as the "red belt," centered in the region of Seine-Saint-Denis, along with other riot-riven places, such as Clichy-sous-Bois and Vitry-sur-Seine. They took their nickname from their long municipal rule by the hard Stalinists of the French Communist Party. They were centers of light industry, and early in the mornings I would leave the apartment and go to a small, shabby bistro where native French factory workers downed their first alcohol of the day, and their cups of strong coffee, smoking Gauloises and Gitanes while waiting for their shifts to start. Arabs did not frequent such cafés and did not work in the local plants.
The past Stalinism of the "red belt" was underscored by the names of streets, metro stations, and squares, which included Stalingrad, Lenin, and similar memorials to Bolshevism. But I came to know uglier secrets by living among young North Africans. The neofascist, anti-immigrant National Front (FN) of Jean-Marie Le Pen had begun taking votes away from the disaffected workers who had long supported the Stalinists. The latter responded by trying to outdo Le Pen and his thuggish followers in immigrant-bashing. In 1980 I and others were genuinely shocked when the Communist mayor of Vitry-sur-Seine, Paul Mercieca, with the backing of top Communist boss George Marchais and the Party's all-powerful Central Committee, commanded a bulldozer in demolishing a building where 300 immigrant workers from the Black African country of Mali were living. As an anti-Stalinist Communist, I already disliked Marchais intensely. Like most of the French, I was aware that he had been a volunteer laborer for the Nazis and had only joined the Communists after World War II. Marchais sported something I called, and still call, "political rictus": a permanent grin that I believed, and still believe, was an involuntary psychological feature reflecting the need to conceal deeply malicious intentions.
Observing the gap between the French and their neighbors of North African origin, I learned another disturbing truth: that the latter had a deep fear of the Parisian police. I had more ready cash than my comrades, and one Friday night invited them all to go with me to the wonderful urban district of Saint-Michel, with its glamorous cafés, bookshops, and lots of cute girls. Saleh and Cherif refused. They said they were not safe in Saint-Michel on weekend nights, even though both possessed legal status and were quite respectable in their dress and manners, notwithstanding their radical politics. They told me that even with their papers in order North Africans living in Paris could be picked up by the police without any pretext, beaten, and even killed.
Aubervilliers, Clichy, Vitry were and are ghettoes, and are now aflame. France must confront the reality of its bad history with minorities of various kinds, but especially with North African Arabs, who have never been forgiven for the beating the Algerians inflicted on France in the late 1950s, as evoked in the dramatic film The Battle of Algiers. How long ago it all seems now; in 1965 I took my girlfriends on high school dates to see Gillo Pontecorvo's film, enthused by its revolutionary vision. Nothing of that world seems to have survived. How much of it will remain intact in the ashes of the "red belt" I cannot say, but it cannot be much.
Notwithstanding the hue and cry that will be raised against Muslims in France, in the aftermath of this nightmare, the truth about French bigotry remains. A French politician declared that Turkey should not enter Europe because the latter is a "Christian" continent. Yet France hates the infamous "Polish plumbers," who supposedly are enabled to "steal jobs" from French workers, as much as it dislikes Arabs and other Muslims -- even though the Polish immigrant's family doubtless attends Catholic mass more than the average French family, which has been indoctrinated in compulsory secularism over several generations. France glorifies "its" anti-Nazi resistance, which until D-Day in 1944 was made up almost entirely of stateless Jews, Spanish Republican refugees, Armenians, and even some North African Arab revolutionaries -- all typically considered "un-French." That was another dirty little secret I learned about the French, so long ago in Paris. I already knew that the majority of French citizens had cooperated in handing over their Jewish and other "undesirable" neighbors to the Nazis.
More recently, France denounced the U.S.-led liberation of Iraq, let us not forget, so that the pretext for the Madrid 3/11 and London 7/7 terrorist atrocities was absent when the "red belt" began to blaze. Demagogic voices seeking to lay blame for the French rioting on the religion of Muhammad will have to ignore that only two weeks before, bloody disorders erupted in the British city of Birmingham. There, in another European ghetto community, called Lozells, Caribbean Blacks fought with Pakistanis. But some will, of course, find a reason to blame that on Islam, as well. The Caribbeans claimed one of their young women had been gang-raped by Muslims, and similar charges are common currency among French Islamophobes. Rumormongers and pundits opine, and anonymous, poor people die.
I recently attended a conference in Warsaw, Poland, that was intended to discuss problems of Muslims in Europe, but which was derailed by the propaganda of Islamist apologists, mostly from Britain, as described here. Had I been given the chance, I would have argued in Warsaw as follows: Islam has become the largest non-Christian religion practiced in Europe. France, Britain, and Germany all include major Muslim communities, made up of immigrants and their offspring. Most of these originate, in France, from North Africa; in the British case, in the Indian subcontinent; in Germany, from Turkey.
European Muslim relations with non-Muslim authorities and neighbors are made more difficult by the penetration of Islamic communities by extremist ideology from North Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and the Arab Gulf states. Numerous studies and commentaries on these problems are based on the presumption that the "immigrant Islam" of the first and second generations will become the dominant form of European Islam, and remain so for a considerable time, until a process of assimilation has succeeded. Because Islam cannot become European without a Europe-based Muslim leadership, a second presumption holds that Western European governments must directly intervene in the collective lives of the believer s to enable, foster, and support a moderate leadership stratum. Controversy over civil liberties, cultural values, and the gap in Western knowledge about Islam will profoundly complicate this process.
There has long been an alternative means to attain stability in relations between European Muslims and non-Muslims, possibly within a short period of time, even in less than a generation. That would mean legitimization and support by the European governments for the indigenous Islam of the Balkan countries, especially Bosnia-Hercegovina and the Albanian-speaking lands, as the spiritual and functional center of European Islam. For Sarajevo to become the effective center of leadership of European Islam would represent a number of advantageous features for Europe in general:
The French and British have deliberately ignored many opportunities to rationally deal with the issues posed by Euro-Islam. If they had perceived, as some of us did, that a prosperous Bosnia could be a center for moderate Islam in Europe, and would help defuse the social appeal of radical Islam, they might have built up Bosnia. They did not. They contributed to the destruction of Bosnia and then forced the handover of Bosnia and Kosovo to the UN, which has allowed the Balkan Muslim lands to degenerate into economic slums on international welfare. Luckily for "Christian Europe" (a term grossly insulting to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, as well as the Balkan wars), the Bosnians in particular have proven more stoic than the new generation of Arab and Black African youths of the Parisian suburbs.
But to finally emphasize, the French heritage -- which to me has come to mean nothing more than compulsory secularism, extreme statism, and extraordinary narcissism, and which I first saw up close 26 years ago -- may have begun to disappear in the fires of the former "red belt." What will replace it? Who knows? Some of "Christian Europe" seems to me intellectually, spiritually, and morally dead. How I wish it were not so.