Europe's Time Bomb

The car-body count dropped dramatically in France toward the end of last week. So vast was the orgy of auto incineration--more than 1,000 vehicles burned night after night as gangs ambushed firefighters and police, raging against French government and society--that when "only" 15 cars were torched one night in the administrative department of Seine-St-Denis, where the violence began, the head of the National Police said that things there had returned to "normal."

Statistically true, perhaps. But "normal"? In hundreds of French housing projects and ghettoes populated by mostly Muslim Arab and African immigrants and their French children and grandchildren, "normal" has been for years a sort of chronic intifada, even if it was invisible to most of France and the rest of the world. According to research conducted by the government's domestic intelligence network, the Renseignements Generaux, French police would not venture without major reinforcements into some 150 "no-go zones" around the country--and that was before the recent wave of riots began on Oct. 27. In France's "immigrant" neighborhoods, to borrow a phrase from the American military, "situation normal, all f---ed up."

Belatedly, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin invoked a law left over from the French fight to hold onto Algeria 50 years ago that allows local governments to declare curfews. No-go zones would not be allowed, he said. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to deport foreigners convicted of participating in the violence, which sounded much tougher than it was, since at least 92 percent of those arrested were French citizens. Chillier weather, marches calling for peace and the fact that no rioters or cops were killed in confrontations also helped reduce the scope of the violence last week. But a new turn for the worse was feared as police intercepted telephone text messages encouraging riots in the largely untouched center of Paris last weekend, and there was a brief stone-throwing, trash-can-burning skirmish in the heart of Lyon.

The shock of the conflagrations has raised questions not only about France but about the shaky status quo in cities throughout Europe. If most were spared for the moment (there were only minor incidents in Berlin, Brussels and Athens), few governments could rest easy. In Italy, opposition leader Romano Prodi told reporters, "We have the worst suburbs in Europe. I don't think things are so different from Paris. It's only a matter of time." Similar refrains were echoed by social workers in Spain and Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany.

The core of the time bomb is demography, and the detonator is racism. The native populations of Europe--let's say it, the white populations--are reproducing slowly and aging fast. Without continued immigration, according to the European Union and United Nations statistics, by 2050 the number of Germans will have shrunk from 83 million to 63 million, Italians will go from 57 million to 44 million. In the same period, among the North African and Middle Eastern countries surrounding Europe, the population will double.

Already on the southern fringes of the European Union, would-be laborers sometimes storm the gates. In September and early October, Africans who had walked for weeks through the Sahara charged hundreds at a time toward the double rows of chain-link and razor-wire fences around the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the Moroccan coast. About a third succeeded, but at least 14 were killed and thousands of others expelled by Moroccan security forces. Aid workers in the area have no doubt they'll be back. "The deaths of their comrades are still fresh in their minds," says Carlos Ugarte of Doctors Without Borders. "People are going to wait two or three months for the situation to cool down, then try again." Many more would-be immigrants brave the Mediterranean in fragile wooden boats or rusty scows. In the first three days of this month, the Spanish Coast Guard intercepted more than 400 in six separate attempted crossings.

Those who make it often do find work. Europe's demographic deficit demands them: for Spain alone to keep its economy growing at the robust rate it has seen for the past decade, it has to have 1 million new immigrant workers per year . And despite some right-wing backlash by locals who feel threatened, or overwhelmed, first-generation immigrants cause relatively few problems in countries such as Spain, Ireland and Italy, which just a couple of decades ago saw far more emigration than immigration. "These people still have in mind the situations in which they lived in their home countries," says Ugarte. "It is too early for our immigrants to feel the kind of resentments that have sparked the riots in France. But if we make the same mistakes as in France, it will happen."

The problem is, precisely, with the second and third and even fourth generations. The great waves of immigration to France, Germany and Britain came more than 30 years ago. Their descendants have grown up thinking they should have exactly the same rights and opportunities as everyone else, only to discover that their religion, their culture, their color or their surname still walled them out of the European dream. Not until five years ago did Germany ease naturalization for people who weren't of German blood. Since then, almost a third of its 2.6 million Turks have taken citizenship. The British favor multiculturalism, encouraging citizens with roots in former colonies to maintain their ethnic and social identities. The French insist that citizenship requires complete linguistic and cultural assimilation. Yet all have created large underclasses of profoundly disaffected minorities. "We are in the eye of a hurricane," says Azouz Begag, the minister of Equal Opportunity who is one of only two members of the current French cabinet whose forebears were Arabs. "French people who descend from elsewhere suffer because of their face, their name, the religious beliefs that are assigned to them," Begag told NEWSWEEK. As he talked about Martin Luther King and the U.S. civil-rights movement in the 1960s, Begag raised his voice. "No one here can say, 'I have a dream!' "

Strong economic growth that creates jobs, plus an open business environment that makes room for small-time entrepreneurs, can ease tensions. (France is notably weak on both fronts.) But addressing the problem of racism itself is more complex. Europe may have seen many waves of immigrants in the past and found ways to assimilate them. But no European nation sees itself as a nation of immigrants. European nationalisms are deeply connected to families, histories and faiths that are attached to specific places where people feel they belong--and they may often feel that others do not. Added to that is a colonial heritage that, even today, many Europeans romanticize. During the last years that France occupied Algeria--about the same time its emergency law was passed--the Paris daily Le Monde noted that "the majority of Europeans" living there "recall with nostalgia the massacres of old, happily citing the North American conduct toward the Indians." Only 10 years after the end of the Holocaust, these European colonists "do not recognize genocide as a crime," said Le Monde. Indeed, France is still coming to terms with the extent to which French troops used torture in the war that ended with Algerian independence in 1962. Yet just this year, a bill was pushed through the French National Assembly (which has no members from mainland France with African or Arab backgrounds) decreeing that the education system should play up "the positive role of France overseas, and notably in North Africa."

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed what he calls "positive discrimination." (Americans would say "affirmative action.") Trouble is, that flies in the face of the French republic's egalitarian ideology. Jack Lang, one of the leaders of the opposition Socialist Party, said last week that he was firmly opposed to quotas but admitted that even in his left-wing party there were few rising stars with immigrant backgrounds. (When he mentioned two, he referred to each as a brilliant or impressive "boy.") Richard Descoings, director of the prestigious Institut d'Etudes Politiques (Sciences Po), decided in 2001 that he would take the initiative to recruit kids from Seine-St-Denis and other problem areas. Today 200 of the school's 6,500 students come from the same background, essentially, as the rioters. "We have to get away from the grand French theories," says Descoings. "It is important to give examples of success."

Simply acknowledging that fact is a big step. "Everywhere, smugness about the state of race relations is being punctured," writes Trevor Phillips, chairman of Britain's Commission for Racial Equality. "This is no longer the patronizing 'be kind to blacks' territory with which politicians and minority leaders of the past may have felt safe." Yet as Europe tries fitfully to address--and redress--the racism of the past, fresh sources of confrontation arise. Already, for example, white immigrants from Eastern Europe are arriving to compete with people from African and Asian backgrounds who thought they'd found their niches in the job market. Meanwhile, warns Phillips, Britain is "sleepwalking... to segregation" as its different ethnic groups become more insulated within their own communities. To acknowledge that problem may not be to solve it--but to ignore it is to court disaster. In France, where the state claims to be colorblind, society still is not. As successive governments refused to look squarely at the issue of racism, ghettos became no-see zones, then no-go zones, where anger and violence that came to seem "normal" led straight to the nights of rage that have shaken a continent.

With Eric Pape in Clichy-sous-Bois, Tracy McNicoll in Paris, Stefan Theil in Berlin, Stryker McGuire and Katarzyna Gruszkowska in London, Barbie Nadeau in Rome, Jacopo Barigazzi in Milan, Mike Elkin and Jenny Barchfield in Madrid