The ire of young immigrants who set fires in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities has smoldered for 30 years, but it now blazes in any living room with a TV set. The stories about why France is on fire are many, and they all tell how hard it is to reach the ideal of liberté, egalité, and fraternité.

One of these stories will sound familiar to people of all Western nations: An urbane society needs a cheap labor force for menial jobs. Somebody needs to force-feed geese to make fois gras.

Others tell the story of a well-meaning government with a generous welfare system that backfired. "The right wing in charge with Chirac has done a dreadful job," says Philippe Malidor, a French journalist of religion and society. "They demolished a few good things done by the Left, especially the so-called proximity police [which provided a way for local police to engage the youth in volatile areas]. They privileged repression over social action with the youth." France's 10 percent unemployment disproportionately affects immigrant guest workers and their naturalized children, who, depending on the suburb, face up to 60 percent unemployment.

Another story tells of France's changing numbers: as birthrates among the indigenous French decline (a trend that's echoed in all industrialized nations), the birth rates among poor immigrants are rising. More numbers: Educated, middle-class women get up to €1,000 a month—almost the minimum wage—to stop working for a year and have a third child.

And there's another story—or myth, if you will—about France's society. In France, say the French, there are no "minority" citizens. There are only the French. The society refuses to ask its citizens about their ethnicity ...

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