Reporter's Notebook: The Fire Next Door

Greg Palkot
Regular FOX viewers know my bosses often send me to some pretty rough neighborhooods … Iraq, Afghanistan, the Mideast. But I never thought one of those rough neighborhoods would be my own.

For the past five days I’ve been chasing thugs and fires in the Paris region (the French capital is my home base) as rioting by angry youths threatens to rock the French government.

Last Wednesday night as we drove around the outskirts of Paris, a half hour from “home,” it looked like nothing short of Baghdad — burning cars and trucks littering the sides of the road. Lines of riot police ready to do
battle with insurgents ... I mean angry French mobs

The next few nights we got our noses filled with noxious fumes as the rioters shifted targets and started torching warehouses.

Then in broad daylight, as I was doing a live shot in the town of Bobigny, five miles from Paris, a courthouse 200 yards away went up in smoke. I haven’t had that kind of “real time” illustration of badness since a car bomb blew up during a live shot in Baghdad, forcing me to do an on-air gulp seen ‘round the world.

No fewer than three French newspapers have quoted my analogy of the problems now plaguing France with ANOTHER American problem from a few months back. In one live shot I dubbed the Paris riots the “Katrina of social disasters.” And I don’t think I was that far off.

French authorities (read that, FEMA) had a whole lot of advance warning of what was going to happen. Over the past 30 years a huge immigrant and descendant population of Muslims and Africans has been building in this country. France promises them equal opportunities, then dumps them in ghettos outside their glossy city centers. It offers them little chance
for jobs or much-heralded integration. The French “suburbs” have been ticking time bombs for years. Is it a surprise that they are exploding now?

Then, French authorities were remarkably slow in realizing they had a national catastrophe on their hands. It took until Day 11 for President Jacques Chirac to step foot outside the Elysee Palace and say law and order must be restored. Even President Bush got down to New
Orleans five days after Katrina hit.

Not to speak of the damage done by this criminal “hurricane" — $10 million dollars and counting — and the lesson in what the country is all about. Just as Katrina helped some folks in the States realize that New Orleans was more than Mardi Gras and a good time, the current round of riots is reminding France that there’s more to their country than 35-hour work weeks, great food and wine, and high style. They’ve also got a big, ugly, broiling underclass that is festering and ready to engulf them.

Of course, this IS France, so it's all about politics and passing the blame rather than solving the problem.

On one side you have the French Rudolph Giuliani, Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy. He is the designated fall guy in all of this. Sure, he said some dumb things about the rioters (they were scum that needed to be cleaned up is one translation), but his zero-tolerance approach to crime is not a bad idea. The folks in the housing projects are the victims of the rioters as much as anyone else. At the same time, he is trying to offer young people in the ghettos more opportunities, the older people more voting rights, and even money to build more mosques!

On the other side you have the prime example of why France is in the mess it is: French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin (who is Sarkozy’s rival for Chirac’s job in 2007). First he tried to let Sarkozy twist in the wind for a few days. When people started to suggest that perhaps the prime minister should do something, he called for dialogue (always helpful when your neighborhood is going up in flames), and, of course, a grand master plan to do everything for the 5 million Muslims in France and others that they’d forgotten to do for the last three decades.

Which leads me to the other hot button question in all of this: Is this the beginning of the war of the worlds in Europe? The clash of Christian and Muslim civilizations? Ummmm … No, and maybe not necessarily no.

The rioters are more motivated by joblessness, crummy schools and heavy-handed police tactics than messages from Usama bin Laden in a cave on the Pakistan border. But the rioters are predominantly Muslim. They come from ghettos that are breeding grounds for jihadis ready to do battle in Iraq, Afghanistan and closer to home.

If they take their cues from anyone, it's from Muslim youth leaders to whom the French government is turning. And just to heighten the religious tone to this whole thing, the umbrella Muslim body in France has just issued a Fatwa (luckily) AGAINST the violence.

That’s why this whole thing is more serious than France fixing up a few dozen community centers with table soccer equipment.

I got knocked on the air one day by a reporter from the French nespaper Le Monde for comparing the situtation to Baghdad, but then police discovered a molotov cocktail-making factory south of Paris. They also started to admit that there is at least some coordination and organization among the rioters. Maybe now just from older punks or criminals, but the Islamists could
at least be waiting in the wings. All of a sudden it doesn’t quite seem like this is all the work of a bunch of dead-enders.

Of course, the piece de resistance (as we say here in France) was when the trouble outside Paris hit Paris itself. This weekend some 30 cars were torched and some nearby buildings were damaged in the French capital. This is the beginning of the nightmare scenario French officials were fearing. It's one thing to burn a run-down Renault in the parking lot of a housing project. It's
another thing to start tarnishing the crown jewel. Then all of those banner headlines about Paris burning might actually turn out to be true.

Two final observations:

The relatively thin coverage by the French media of the riots — one of France’s equivalents to Time Magazine devoted only four pages to the troubles Monday. Time itself devoted six! Compare that to the wall-to-wall (concealed glee) coverage of Katrina, and it makes you wonder. Does France really want to come to terms with all of this?

And … hey, my stays in France were supposed to be filled with relatively less taxing assignments than I get in places like Baghdad and Kabul. Don’t you just hate it when THEY’re fighting THERE and they’re fighting HERE, as well?

C’est la vie.

Greg Palkot currently serves as a London-based senior foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 1998 as a correspondent. Follow him on Twitter@GregPalkot.