France is in flames. Not the elegant, discreet, bourgeois France that is Paris and the great cities. Not the countryside, where the late grape harvest is peacefully nearing its end and the white cows graze untroubled, as they have for generations. But the other France: the France that is marooned between town and country, shut away behind ugly concrete walls, confined inside rotting tower blocks: the France of the cités, the banlieues and the quartiers difficiles. The France that has failed.
Few claim, even in the tough estate where it all began, that Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna lost their lives other than accidentally. Apparently fleeing a police patrol, they scaled the enclosure of a high-voltage transformer and were electrocuted instantly. But the sparks from that one incident, 11 days ago in Clichy-sous-Bois outside Paris, ignited a fire of anger and frustration that has leapt across France.
Day after day, the rest of the country has awoken to learn of new estates licked by the flames. Toulouse, Strasbourg, Lille, Bordeaux ..., the ever-lengthening list heading the morning news sounds like the football results. Then comes the tally: hundreds of buses and cars have been incinerated; scores of schools and businesses ransacked; tens of police and emergency service workers injured and dozens upon dozens of mostly young people arrested.
When the violence began, it suited the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, and his patron, President Chirac, to leave the ambitious interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, to take the rap. If his presidential hopes lay somewhere in the ashes - as they may well do - that was fine by them. That the banlieues are burning, however, is M. Sarkozy's problem only in so far as he holds the office of interior minister and - unlike his predecessors - decided to try to take the problem in hand.
The truth is that these vast estates that surround most of France's cities and towns have been the obverse of France's agreeable reputation for quality of life for two decades or more. They have been convenient repositories for all those who could not, or would not, join the French mainstream: the poor, certainly - but mostly first-, second- and now third-generation immigrants.
M. Chirac well knew when he came to office that the banlieues were powder kegs in the making. Indeed, he won the presidency as a result of a campaign in which social "exclusion" and the need to make France "one nation" again were the central issues. Yet that was more than 10 years ago. And what has M. Chirac to show for his victory then, and his re-election seven years later? An embittered class of second- and third-generation immigrants without jobs, and garages full of burnt buses. The degradation of the banlieues, and the widening state of apartheid they represent, is without doubt, the biggest domestic failure of his presidency.
It is arguable that had France's housing estates been more visible, their problems might have reached the top of the political agenda sooner. Successive French governments have got away with neglecting them so disgracefully largely because they are out of sight, and so out of mind, of the mainstream.
If they have been left to their own devices and accepted as virtual no-go zones beyond the reach of French law for so long, this was also because successive politicians chose to do so. They saw no votes in doing otherwise.
Covering two French presidential campaigns (1995 and 2002), I rarely saw a mainstream politician venture into the banlieues. The communists occasionally tried to rally some support; the National Front was always active around the edges, citing the banlieues as reasons why their programme of limits on immigration and repatriation was the only way to make France truly French again.
Of course, politicians of all complexions are well aware of the problems, and successive governments and local authorities have funded experimental programmes for literacy, child care and jobs. Tackling the deprivation and disaffection of the banlieues, though, has less to do with money than with attitudes. The pervasive view of the French mainstream has been that the problems of the banlieues are either intractable or the fault of those who live there. It is a recipe for inaction.
For years now, the banlieues have been spoken of in the codes that oh-so-respectable France reserves for matters it finds unpalatable. Many estates carry the quaintly bucolic names of the villages they supplanted. Clichy-sous-Bois, where the latest trouble began, is one such. All the terms used for the most deprived and lawless estates are euphemisms: from the banlieues themselves (the generic word for suburbs) to the quartiers sensibles, or difficiles.
These are words mainstream France uses to mean only one thing: places populated largely by immigrants and their offspring where French law hardly runs. Even les jeunes, the generic term for "young people", now conjures up an image of exclusively black and brown youths lounging around without jobs and up to no good.
It is to M. Sarkozy's credit that he decided, on his return to the interior ministry earlier this year, to tackle the banlieues head-on by doing the blindingly obvious, but almost unheard-of: actually visiting a few of the most difficult estates and talking to the people who lived there. The message he took with him was that they would no longer be literally or figuratively beyond the pale; they would be part of state policy. The message he delivered to the rest of France was a different one, but the one it wanted to hear: that there should be no parts of the country that were outside the law.
This, though, is far easier said than done, as the mayhem of recent days has shown. In an unwitting illustration of the gulf of understanding, French television last week aired an episode of its Lifeswap series ("Vis ma vie") that took two "grannies" from a genteel blue-collar suburb of Marseille to "swap" lives with two "kids" from a council estate outside Paris. What could have been an opportunity for hard questions and soul-searching on both sides, however, became a saccharine exchange in which both sides agreed they had misjudged the other.
The "grannies" gamely allowed themselves to be kitted out in "gangsta granny" parkas, baggies and trainers, before being instructed in the finer points of hip-hop. The "kids" were good sports about learning how to cook chicken "à la basquaise", setting the table and going to afternoon bingo.
None of the hard questions about jobs, housing conditions or racial discrimination were addressed. There were only fleeting references to crime and no reflections at all on why their life's experience had been so different. Mainstream France can, when it chooses to, be colour-blind; it finds cultural difference far harder to accommodate.