One day in the late 1970s, the writer James Baldwin was explaining to an Arab friend that he wanted to go back to America after many years as an expatriate in France. "America has found a formula to deal with the demon of race," Baldwin told Syrian businessman Raja Sidawi, who had a house near him in St. Paul de Vence. In France and the rest of Europe, people pretended that the race problem didn't exist, Baldwin said, but "someday it will explode."
Baldwin was right, on both counts. The United States began to find solutions for its tormenting "original sin" after its cities burned in the 1960s. And France, unable to make the same transition toward racial integration, is now watching flames engulf the poor suburbs of Paris that are home to many of its black and brown immigrants. By yesterday morning, the rioting had spread to 300 towns and cities, and a desperate French government was imposing curfews under a 1955 state-of-emergency law.
"The Fire Next Time" was the title Baldwin gave to his prophetic 1963 book about race. Sure enough, the fire came. Americans of my generation remember the riots in Watts and Newark, and the explosion of rage in Washington after Martin Luther King Jr.'s death. It was a trial by fire, and it changed America. Racist politicians such as George Wallace tried to sow more hatred, but a consensus emerged that America needed to provide real opportunities for the enraged young blacks who were throwing the molotov cocktails. The country began a period of court-ordered affirmative action that was acutely painful for blacks and whites but changed how America looks and feels.
The sin of slavery will never be fully redeemed, but America today is a far different place than where I grew up. African Americans now play prominent and powerful roles in every area of American life -- as chief executives of huge companies, on television and in the movies, in top positions in government and politics. Like a recovering addict, we're still solving the issue of race one day at a time, but we've come a long way.
France has scarcely begun that journey. But the events of the past two weeks suggest that the day of reckoning Baldwin foresaw may finally have arrived. Over the past two weeks, more than 5,000 cars have been set ablaze. More than 70 police and 30 firefighters have been injured in the violence. The angry kids haven't been intimidated by hard-line Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who said he wanted to cleanse the "scum" in the suburbs with a water gun. And they haven't been soothed, either, by the calls for reconciliation by French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. In fact, the catfight between these two rival politicians has made the crisis worse -- devaluing both carrots and sticks.
America's lesson for the French is that they have a long, hard road ahead. The starting point is to break the French state of denial. The average (white) French person believes fiercely in the country's revolutionary traditions of liberty, equality and fraternity -- to the point of pretending that these virtues exist for everyone when they clearly don't. France's prized educational meritocracy -- a gulag of tests and exams that prepare the way for the best and brightest to enter elite national schools -- is in fact gamed by the existing elite. They know which lycees are the fastest entry ramp for their kids, which test-prep programs will produce the best results on the feared baccalaureate exams. Right now, France has what amounts to a reverse affirmation action -- a system of supposed equality that guarantees unequal results.
I lived for several years in France, returning to America a year ago, and I was always astonished by the French inability to reckon with racial divisions. You just didn't see black or brown faces in prominent positions -- not in the National Assembly, not on French television, not among business leaders, not in the media. French analysts have been warning for decades about the dangers of warehousing African and Arab immigrants in the suburbs, but the French have refused to adopt aggressive affirmative-action programs that might change the situation. The country was so worried about Muslim extremists that it ignored the more immediate problem of the soulless, sullen suburbs.
The French daily Le Monde recalled in an editorial Monday the warning by President Jacques Chirac in 1995, when he was still mayor of Paris, that youths in the poor suburbs would end up revolting if they couldn't find good jobs. How right he was. Chirac, like most thoughtful people in France, could see the crisis coming, but he couldn't take action. Now it is upon them. As Baldwin warned: "No more water, the fire next time."