THE RIOTS in France have provoked their own mini-storm of misinterpretation, outside the country and among some of the French. So it's worth noting what 12 days (so far) of car-burning, looting and occasional shooting in the poor suburbs of Paris, and now dozens of other towns, is not about. It's not the European version of an intifada: Islamic ideology and leaders play no role in the disturbances, and many of those participating are not Muslim. But not all the demonstrators are hoodlums and drug dealers either, as some senior French officials portray them; anger over high unemployment and racism has been building in these ghettos for years.
It's also too facile to say that French authorities have ignored the problems. Billions have been spent on urban renewal: High-rise projects have been torn down and enterprise zones created, much as in some American inner cities. As in the United States, interlinked problems of jobs, schools, crime and discrimination have not easily yielded to government solutions. Yet until now, many in France assumed that what they regard as a superior "social model" protected them from the eruptions of lawlessness that in recent years have touched Los Angeles, Miami and New Orleans.
Caught by surprise, slow to react, plagued by political posturing and finger-pointing, the French leadership is demonstrating that poor crisis response is also not unique to U.S. administrations. Yet beneath the disarray -- embodied in the simultaneously laconic and belligerent behavior of President Jacques Chirac -- some fresh thinking is evident. Ironically, some of it comes from Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been pilloried by the demonstrators and left-wing press for his own ugly rhetoric. Mr. Sarkozy recently suggested that France abandon the pretense that all of its citizens -- including an estimated 5 million Muslims -- are treated equally, and adopt affirmative-action policies. He has also promoted the idea of a peaceful and tolerant "French Islam" to compete with imported ideologies of extremism.
In the short term, French authorities have to take forceful measures to restore order. Should the violence persist, extremists could use it to create political or religious causes that do not now exist. But in the medium term, France would benefit from the kind of reexamination of its policies toward minorities and immigrants that Mr. Sarkozy suggests. It's no longer reasonable to pretend that the poor Muslim descendants of North Africans in crowded housing projects are indistinguishable from all other French. If mainstream politicians do not fashion an agenda of inclusion for them, more militant actors will have a vacuum to fill.