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A Perspective on Life in France
November 8, 2005

What follows is a first-person account of life in France by Calvin professor Otto Selles who is leading the college's semester-long program in Grenoble, France.

Until this past Sunday night (November 6), the rioting plaguing the Paris suburbs and numerous towns across France had not touched Grenoble, where a group of 19 Calvin College students are currently studying French.

That evening, however, 62 cars were either completely destroyed or damaged in the cités — housing projects — located in the south of Grenoble as well as in the surrounding suburbs.

The police made 14 arrests and five of the rioters — all under 20 years of age — were sentenced the next day.

According to the local paper, one 12-year-old youth was caught with a “cocktail Molotov.”

When asked why he participated in the riots, he said wanted to imitate what was happening on TV. A great deal of the violence seen during the past week and a half is the result of such copy-cat crimes, with the youth of one suburb trying to outdo the violence of another.

The rioting reflects, however, profound problems in French society.

In one Grenoble suburb, unemployment among youths is at an incredible 50 percent. It is easy to understand that such youths, often of North-African descent, feel cut off from mainstream, white society.

In the late 1980s and early 90s I had lived in Paris and had witnessed first-hand similar events there. Since then, attempts to integrate the recent African immigrant population through the French public school system and various social programs have largely failed, leaving a lost and angry generation, stuck in concrete-ugly housing projects.

Aside from sports and media stars, French citizens of North-African descent are cruelly underrepresented in government and corporations.

Post-9/11 economic woes and recent cuts to social programs have only made the situation worse.

And France’s get-tough Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, certainly didn’t improve matters when he spoke of suburban “riffraff.”

Last night, France’s Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, announced that the government has allowed local authorities to declare curfews as part of a state of emergency.

To grant this right, the government invoked a law created in 1955 during the Algerian War. Such an extraordinary measure highlights the seriousness of both the rioting and the government’s attempts to combat it.

That said, France is not in a state of revolution or civil war.

The rioting is terrible, "mais la vie continue" — but life continues as normal in Grenoble.

As I walked just now to an internet café downtown, I could see the streets filled with shoppers, an electrical crew putting up Christmas lights, and both young and old enjoying on park benches the last rays of a beautiful autumn day.

Judging by emails and calls I have received from home, I suspect the North America media have given the impression that France has become another Iraq.

This simply is not true. Indeed life continues for the Calvin group much as it has for the past two months. My students study at the University of Grenoble and travel across France and Europe freely.

In light of the recent events I have instructed them, of course, not to stay out late and absolutely to avoid areas where violence has occurred.

Given the French government’s recent decisions to combat the rioting and provide opportunities for young people, I am hopeful that the violence will decline and decline soon.

But the recent rioting in France, and parallel issues of poverty and racism in the U.S. and Canada, will naturally be the focus of our group’s “cross-cultural engagement” discussions this month and will provide the real-life context for the discussions that off-campus programs often bring home in a way a semester on campus cannot.

Indeed, while I would gladly do without the current state of affairs here in France, I am again grateful for the intellectual and spiritual challenges a study abroad experience offers.