Pundits pretending otherwise have conveniently short memories of Islamist evolution, or woefully poor understanding of France's urban morass. The decrepit housing projects now hosting pitched battles are case studies in progressive French good intentions gone awry. Initially constructed in the 1960s to replace the squalid Hoovervilles once populated by imported laborers from African nations, the clusters of high-rise, rent-subsidized housing projects lost their early allure as once-abundant jobs vanished, unemployment rose, and incomes plummeted. As France's economy slowed, conditions in the banlieue began to erode, public services were scaled back, and the geographic segregation from the affluent cities such projects surround eventually produced enclave cultures and "parallel economies" built on criminal activity and drug sales. Isolation gave rise to increased lawlessness and turf mentalities; for years now, utility workers, ambulance drivers, fire fighters, and even police have refused calls for help from the worst banlieues for fear of walking into an ambush set by local gangs.
No one voluntarily moved in the banlieue, and few could ever scale the invisible barriers to departure thrown up by deplorable education levels and the unlikelihood of finding work. Periodic efforts to fix the banlieue have been launched repeatedly over the years, but the fecklessness of such initiativesand the underlying attitudes of the wider society that views as alien even France-born and -raised banlieusardsfailed to halt further festering. This month's violence appears to finally have driven home the message that the crisis of the banlieue can no longer be ignored.
As dramatic and ugly as the violence has been, however, the banlieue riots do not represent a new opportunity for jihadist recruiters, nor does it bear the fingerprints of Islamist instigators. That ethnic Arabs are vastly over-represented in the banlieue is no secret. Neither is the exploitation of the rampant misery and racism of the suburbs by Islamists recruiters. But the youths currently involved in rioting don't fit the profile sought by highly secretive jihadists, whose primary fear is infiltration by the authorities. Most rioters are active in their own neighborhoods, are known to the inhabitants looking on, and make little effort to hide their identities from police or media on hand. Their anti-social violence aside, these aren't the kinds of hotheads that Islamist extremists, already under tight surveillance, will want populating their networks.
Even if the rioters and jihadists momentarily share the same violent rage at French society, there is a critical difference: Youths of the banlieue want in on the French deal, not to destroy it. They want to be part of a French society and economy that has dangled its goodies before banlieusard eyes, only to pull them away with a taunting "sorry, not for you." They are battling the Establishment in the hopes of becoming part of it: they're after better housing, better schooling, an opportunity of a decent income, satisfying work, and the respect and esteem France extends its other citizens. In fact, they're demanding exactly those things the followers of bin Laden hate most. Perhaps, some retort, but setting cars alight and attacking cops are significant acts of violence, and a psychological step closer to actual terror acts. All that's needed, that argument goes, are that the demands of today's rioters be redirected toward jihad. It's true that France has been woefully unresponsive to banlieue aspirations. But mercifully few people there are ready to adopt bin Laden's radical worldview. You're more likely to find those who have done in Iraq than in the French housing projects most rioters still consider home.