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France’s Number One American Import

In France, the demand for racism outstrips the supply.

Shop windows damaged by rioters in Marseille
(Photo by Gerard Bottino/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

I didn’t have an especially wild college experience, at least by conventional standards. I wasn’t in a fraternity, didn’t do drugs, and didn’t party much. Animal House it was not.

The most memorable thing to happen in my four years of college was probably the whole-of-campus meltdown that ensued after a few girls hosted an impolitic Halloween party. They called it a “ghetto” party, which they should have known was a terrible idea; some of the attendees posted pictures of themselves in orange prison jumpsuits and cornrowed hair. 


Within days, there were write-ups of the incident in the New York Times and Teen Vogue. Black student groups on campus were up in arms, and denounced the school and their fellow students as racist in a school-wide “conversation” on race relations. They insisted that the incident was representative of subtler forms of racism that supposedly pervaded the school. 

I did not attend the party, and certainly wouldn’t have worn those costumes in that context. But the outrage that followed—the tears, the yelling, the campus-wide struggle session, the self-flagellating apology from our president in the pages of the New York Times—was wildly disproportionate to the gravity of the incident itself.

You realized pretty quickly once you got on campus how much emotional and institutional energy was invested in the idea that our school was racist. Black student groups were constantly decrying “institutional racism." The school’s small army of diversity bureaucrats were always eager for some incident to come along that would justify their jobs, but mostly had to content themselves with offering optional seminars on “inclusive language.” The student paper was ridden with articles fretting about the lack of diversity on campus. They often ran editorials demanding a “conversation about race,” as if it weren’t the only thing we talked about.

I don’t think the activists themselves were conscious of it, necessarily, but I think they were desperate for a bona fide incident of racism to “prove” things were as bad as they claimed.

There is a similar principle at work in the riots that have possessed France since Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old French boy of Algerian-Moroccan descent, was killed by a police officer last week. There is a difference in the gravity of the precipitating events and the scope of the outrage—a crude Halloween party is not, despite what my former classmates may have thought, as grave as the taking of a human life, and my classmates didn’t burn down convenience stores—but activists in both cases saw their respective episodes as vindicating long-standing complaints about more subtle forms of racism.


In a sympathetic profile of the demonstrators, one French protestor told the New York Times that non-whites in France are regularly “targeted by the police.” Another said he doesn’t “worry about robbers,” but does worry the police will target his children. A third promised France would “continue to burn until we get justice.” 

They’ve done that, and then some. The Times reports that more than 5,000 vehicles have been torched and 1,000 buildings damaged or looted in five nights of rioting in France since the shooting. Upwards of 700 officers were reportedly injured, and thousands of rioters have been arrested. The country has seen treasured buildings defaced, and shopkeepers have lost thousands in stolen goods. The violence has been explained away and treated sympathetically by the American and international press.

Let’s stipulate, for argument’s sake, that the killing of Nahel Merzouk was unjustified. He was driving from the scene when he was shot, and the officer responsible has been charged. Let’s also stipulate, since it’s true, that human life is infinitely valuable, and its having been taken unjustly is an outrage. That doesn’t explain what’s happening in France.

More than fifteen people are murdered in France on any given week. Those murders don’t prompt nationwide paroxysms of violence and disorder, and if they did, the perpetrators wouldn’t be justified by a member of the National Assembly. Why did this death, in particular, prompt French agitators to burn the country to the ground?

It is certainly not a commitment on the part of French radicals, in the National Assembly or in the streets, to the value of every human life. When an Algerian national in France allegedly killed and raped a child late last year, for example, no buildings were torched, stores looted, or police officers beaten. No rioters toppled monuments or assaulted officers. If they had, you can be sure the New York Times wouldn’t have given their fellows a favorable hearing.

That killing was an inconvenient aberration. Last week’s officer-involved shooting was, to the rioters, an illustration of France’s subtle racism, which the majority population cannot see. The resulting riots, to the press, were an understandable response to decades of oppression.

The demand for racism, as the idiom has it, outstrips the supply. That’s true in the United States, and it’s in France. These riots are the latest fruits of that pent-up demand.