As we learned in outrage of the attacks across Paris last week, Geoff recalled the time he spent living on the outskirts of that city during and after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
While nearly everyone vividly recalls that momentous day, his experience seems particularly poignant in light of last week’s vicious attack.
To understand this story, though, one must first understand modern-day Paris. Many Americans still idealize the City of Lights according the romantic notions portrayed in 1950s postcards. Today, however, Paris is far different than its common perception in American culture. The real Paris has been shaped through decades of socialism, with all its corrosive effects, and by massive immigration from former French colonies.
Due to falling European birth rates, immigration of working people became necessary to sustain the French welfare state. But the burdens of restrictive labor laws, heavy regulation of business and high taxes combined give these new workers few opportunities once they arrive.
In only 11 of the past 30 years has France’s unemployment rate fallen into single digits despite the imposition of harmful work-rationing laws.
As a result, many immigrants became chronically unemployed and disaffected. They moved into government housing projects built on the peripheries of Paris and other major cities. These are places where native French people generally will not go. They are plagued by sporadic rioting, filth, gang violence, lawlessness and ubiquitous graffiti. There, marginalized from society and with little hope for improvement or economic opportunity, immigrants and their children, a large proportion of whom are Muslims from places like Algeria or Tunisia, have become prime targets for radicalization.
As a young man of very modest means, Geoff rented an apartment in one of these communities. He recalls walking toward the train station one September afternoon when a middle-aged African man came running toward him.
In this neighborhood, simply being Caucasian was enough to draw the attention of any onlookers, and the American cut of his jeans probably immediately indicated his origin. As a fluent francophone, he was perplexed that the man insisted on telling him in broken English, “You must get off the street! The north tower is on the floor!”
Geoff had no idea what to make of this warning, but knew from the man’s frantic expression this was a warning he must take seriously.
He headed back to his apartment and soon learned what had happened. Within hours, the neighborhood came alive as disaffected young Muslims emerged to celebrate -- yes, celebrate. For several days, Geoff remained in his apartment as he witnessed cars burning, people rioting and the celebratory discharge of firearms on the street below.
But there was also a pronounced dichotomy of reaction. Geoff’s small apartment building was also home to some African and Caribbean immigrant families, but no Muslims. These neighbors all expressed their sympathy to him and brought him provisions from outside while shielding his presence from the rioters on the streets below. If the rioters learned an American was in the vicinity, he certainly would have been in danger.
In the weeks that followed, things calmed down and Geoff again began venturing out into Paris where he was frequently greeted with an outpouring of sympathy from the native French. Even months later though, young Muslim men would yell “Bin Laden” and then point and laugh as he passed by or would try to start an altercation. A college wrestler and amateur boxer, he was generally prepared for these encounters.
The key lesson he learned is that poor economic policies that restrain capitalism and limit people’s opportunities can easily tear a nation apart. Sure, there are hateful people in the world, but poor economic policies in France have created a subculture there receptive to radicalization.
The French ideal, though, has been one of liberty and individualism in the centuries since the Enlightenment. The French philosophes strongly influenced the American founders. And, despite its problems, Paris remains one of the world’s most remarkable cities. That’s why it’s easy, in the face of the evil we saw last week, to declare our solidarity. We think of Victor Laszlo telling the American band to play Le Marseillaise in Casablanca.
Today, we are all Parisians.
Ron Knecht is Nevada’s elected controller and Geoffrey Lawrence is assistant controller.