SPIEGEL Interview with Daniel Cohn-Bendit on the riots in France "Rubbish, Nonsense, Hogwash"

Once again, the fires and violence raged in the Paris suburbs last night. "Interior Minister Sarkozy has failed", says Green Party European politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, the former street fighter discusses what he calls useless "action plans," the need for school reform and the potential for violence in Germany.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now in the European Parliament with the Green Party, was a major character in the 1968 Paris riots against Charles de Gaulle's leadership.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now in the European Parliament with the Green Party, was a major character in the 1968 Paris riots against Charles de Gaulle's leadership.


Mr. Cohn-Bendit, the violence in the Paris suburbs has been going on for two weeks now and has spread to to other parts of the country. What is your view of French Interior Minister Sarkozy's assessment that the riots are "perfectly organized?" 

Cohn-Bendit: Rubbish, nonsense, hogwash. That shows that he hasn't just failed as interior minister, but that he is now also attempting to cover up his failures by pursuing a conspiracy theory.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The riots were triggered by the deaths of two boys who were electrocuted in a power substation. Witnesses claim the police drove the boys to their deaths. But the police report tells a different story. What should police activity look like in these troubled neighborhoods?

Cohn-Bendit: These are areas that see police raids on a daily basis. In most cases, the police are there to keep tabs on young Northern Africans; the suspects are humiliated, kept in police stations for four hours and then released. The boys who were killed were also caught up in one of these checks. It was still Ramadan on that day, at about 4 p.m., and they'd been fasting all day. They just wanted to eat their first meal at nightfall and not spend four hours in police custody. That was why they fled.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You don't believe the police report that the boys were not chased?

Cohn-Bendit: What do you mean by chased? It was a police check. The boys wanted to avoid the check, so they ran away, and the police ran after them.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So you view the policing methods in these neighborhoods as a fundamental problem?

Cohn-Bendit: Ever since Nicolas Sarkozy discontinued the policy of using police officers with links to the neighborhood. All Sarkozy does now is send special units into these areas, and they check everyone. This has led to a mood of mistrust and control there for years which, when mixed with high unemployment and police racism, can become an explosive social force.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You are a symbolic figure of the Paris student riots in May 1968. Can you understand why these youths are venting their frustrations and discontent in the form of street violence? 

Cohn-Bendit: Violence is a fact of life in these suburbs. In this situation, the interior minister appears and says: 'I'm going to clean up there, and anyone who opposes me will be blown away. Has anyone got the guts to stop me?' Of course there are plenty of young people who already live in a violent environment and say: 'Yes, of course we've got guts and we'll show you, you windbag.'

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You're talking about Sarkozy's zero tolerance strategy. But the administration is also saying that it wants to establish a dialogue...

Cohn-Bendit: ... later, of course! Once the child has fallen into the well, it's already wet. Then I can use two towels to dry it off, but the fact remains that the child is already wet. The situation in the poor suburbs has been highly volatile for years. One incident is enough to set off a raging fire. Then the media sensationalize the first outbreaks of violence, other youths see the stories and say to themselves: We'll do the same thing. It was a similar situation in the '60s. A demonstration in Hamburg or Berlin would trigger a demonstration in Frankfurt. It's a well-known phenomenon.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Sociologists fear that the violence could be radicalized even further. Participating youths have been quoted as saying: 'This is just the beginning.' Do you believe that the situation could deteriorate?

Cohn-Bendit: These things usually end as quickly as they began. No one can predict how or when that will happen.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin have announced an 'action plan' to give jobs to unemployed youth, to be launched at the end of the month. How do you feel about this? 

Cohn-Bendit: They've had 1,783 action plans. The problem isn't that easily solved with an action plan. They have to solve the ghetto problem first. These are the kinds of ghettoes we don't see in Germany. They have to solve the problem of youth unemployment, which is far more significant than in Germany. France has nothing comparable to Germany's dual system [of education and vocational training]. They have an extremely high rate of unemployment in immigrant families. There are families who have known nothing but unemployment for two generations. Besides, gangs and drug rings have formed in these neighborhoods over the years. I think it's charming that Chirac and de Villepin plan to put their heads together now, but whatever they do, it won't take hold that quickly.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What could take hold quickly?

Cohn-Bendit: An entirely different policing strategy. Some cities already have mediators who are attempting to gradually defuse the atmosphere. But that would require a considerable willingness by the police to engage in self-criticism. However, for those officials who believe that the only way to deal with the violence is to crack down even more severely, I have this warning: It's a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: If an action plan makes no sense, what could a long-term political strategy look like?

Cohn-Bendit: Well, it's easier said than done, for one thing. We need a strategy that doesn't just reduce unemployment, but also encompasses measures to enable these youths to become materially integrated into society.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What role do schools play in this process?

Cohn-Bendit: The schools in these neighborhoods are completely overburdened. The teachers are fleeing in droves, and the overall educational strategy in these troubled neighborhoods has failed. These schools were never truly able to address the crisis of immigration, because they operated on the principle that all the immigrants needed was better education in the traditional sense. What they should develop is a system that provides schools with greater autonomy, including the authority to use reform-minded educators. That, of course, requires substantial investments, both educationally and financially.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What can Europe contribute to resolving this problem. What about further development of the European social model?

Cohn-Bendit: Nothing -- in the short term. In the long term, however, Europe must compare the various integration strategies in individual member states [of the European Union]. We will then discover that every European education system has failed in countries with high levels of immigration. Whether you look at England, France, Belgium or Germany -- all these countries have school systems that essentially exclude the children of immigrants. This is where the Europeans ought to start. 

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You mentioned the differences between France and Germany. Complaints about ghettoization and parallel societies have also surfaced in Germany. Could Germany experience a similar outbreak of violence?

Cohn-Bendit: I believe that if it comes to these kinds of conflicts in Germany, the violence would not be as great. We would certainly see a significant amount of violence and disruption, but there just isn't as much explosiveness in Germany to begin with. As I've always said, Berlin-Kreuzberg is an island of contentment compared to what exists in France.

The interview was conducted by Philipp Wittrock

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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