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by Archives November 9, 2005

The riots going on in France aren’t riots at all, but they’re the most significant challenge to Western multicultural democracy in history. Never before have such a large proportion of a religious and ethnic minority effectively declared war on the country in which they live. Unlike the Basque ETA in Spain or the Catholic IRA in the United Kingdom, this wave of violence isn’t meant to achieve a political end, be it independence, equality, autonomy, or some other goal.

The youths who are burning France have no manifesto, no list of demands. They are simply reveling in the destruction of the civilization that surrounds them. Nor are they targeting government offices or police stations. They’re burning down schools, shopping malls and daycare centers. They’re torching city buses and attacking commuter trains. They’re not attacking the government of France, they’re attacking France itself.

That these riots are occurring in France of all places is very surprising. France is widely perceived as the most pro-Muslim country in the Western world. France is the country that worked hardest to prevent the war in Iraq, single-handedly stopping the passage of a UN Security Council resolution that would have authorized it. France, more than any other European country, has been critical of the United States’ handling of the war and of terrorism in general. If any Western country though it could avoid the anger of their own Muslim minority, France did.

Now the French government has invoked a state of emergency, using a 1955 law passed during the Algerian war to increase police power. The law authorizes curfews in Muslim-majority areas and loosens restrictions on the police to arrest and detain anyone suspected of engaging in the destruction. While the French government seems most worried about the damage to their international image and their relations with the Muslim world, they should worry instead about the future of the Republic.

The history of democratic France is much more chaotic than Canada’s, America’s or Britain’s history, for example. The French are already on their fifth Republic. This means that since the French Revolution in 1789, the entire system of government has collapsed and been rebuilt four times. After each Republic falls, it’s usually followed by an interlude of Fascist military control, complete with Stalin-style political purges, one-man rule and mass arrests of anyone considered an enemy of the regime.

This new wave of violence has the potential to propel the Fascists back into power in France. This is not nearly as far-fetched as one might think. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right, anti-immigrant National Front came second in France’s last presidential election, defeating Lionel Jospin’s Socialist Party and forcing a runoff vote between Le Pen and Jacques Chirac. Imagine if Pat Buchanan had received more votes than John Kerry last November; that’s the equivalent of what happened in France in 2002. That’s how close the far right came to ruling France more than three years ago. These recent events have only improved their chances.

The best-case scenario for the National Front is continued chaos, and the arsonists seem happy to provide it. When the government is incapable of maintaining civil order, as Chirac’s government now appears, Le Pen’s message of ethnic nationalism, low immigration and a strong police and military looks more and more attractive. You can probably add thousands of drivers, parents, and small-business owners to the list of Le Pen’s supporters after the events of the last two weeks.

And if France makes a hard right turn, expect much of Europe to follow. The violence has begun to spread to neighboring Belgium and Germany, which are also home to millions of second- and third-generation Muslim immigrants. These countries have their own ascendant ethnic nationalists, and they too will be strengthened by what’s taking place.

Even if the violence were to end today, the consequences of these nights of wanton destruction will be enormous, far-reaching and may take years to fully develop. They will permanently alter the way all Europeans view their multicultural and immigration policies.

And as anyone with a passing knowledge of history will attest to, Europeans don’t have a good track record of dealing with these kinds of problems.

Neglected Story of the Week: Regional and global superpowers watched with interest as Azerbaijan held its most free elections to date on November 6. Everyone has a stake in the future of the oil-rich republic wedged between Russia and Iran on the Caspian Sea.

Russia and Iran were both accused by opposition leaders of interfering with the election. Russia, which used to own Azerbaijan during the Soviet era, wants control of the oil resources. As Ukrainians will be happy to tell you, Russia’s not shy about influencing elections in neighboring states.

Iran fears becoming completely surrounded by American allies as Azerbaijan increases its ties with the democratic West. Already Iran is ringed by U.S. allies on its borders, with wildly pro-American Armenia and allies Pakistan and Turkmenistan, not to mention Afghanistan and Iraq.

The election returned longtime leader Haidar Aliyev to power in a process that still failed to meet international standards of transparency. However, all parties are continuing their efforts to pull Azerbaijan into their sphere of influence. This is a place to keep an eye on as the U.S., Russia and Iran try to outflank one another. I wouldn’t be surprised if Aliyev is hosted by the White House in the coming months.

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