A baby boomer reflects on our changing world

For decades, award-winning journalist and baby boomer Mort Rosenblum has traveled the world in his work. And as he has moved around the globe, he has seen the world change. But as Mort writes in a piece called Africa on the Seine, he really doesn’t even have to leave the confines of his own home, Paris.

The fast train from Bayeux to Paris rattles along for two hours through storybook France, past old Normandy church steeples and lush orchards along the Seine. I took a slower one, with stops in destitute outskirts of Africa and the Muslim Near East.

A street in the village of Bayeux … in Normandy. It's changing.

A street in the village of Bayeux … in Normandy. It’s changing.

“La-Jolie” once understated its translation: beautiful. Flower-bedecked cobbled streets meandered from a stunning cathedral to the square where travelers ate blanquette de veau and creamy cheeses while awaiting the train. The old stones and fresh blooms are still there, but Mantes is fast getting to be a different place.

By the station, as in the squalid sprawling immigrant suburbs here and elsewhere across France, la-jolie is a stretch. On Saturday, I foraged for lunch among boarded-up bistros and empty shops until I found some mystery-meat shawarma with greasy fries you would not fairly call French.

The famous Gare du Nord train station in Paris where trains depart for Bayeux, among many other destinations.

Le Gare du Nord in Paris – romanticized in the 1870s through paintings by Claude Monet – where trains depart for Bayeux, among many other destinations.

In the ticket line, a Senegalese mother wrapped in vivid color struggled to keep tabs on her boisterous brood. Algerian men waited stoically among gesticulating friends of indeterminate origin. Among perhaps 100 people at the station, I saw three “francais de souche,” the euphemism for white folk.

The French civilized us all, whether we wanted it or not, and strangers in their midst are a familiar phenomenon. Now something new is happening, in France and across all of Europe. And it is about to get much worse – and far more complex than most Americans realize.

Thousands of refugees sleep on the streets of Paris.

Thousands of refugees sleep on the streets of Paris.

Although much is made of Sam Huntington’s hoary phrase, clash of civilizations, Mantes reflects a more common reality. Rather than clash, civilizations fit together with great grinding of gears. This creates low-grade tension emanating from mutual mistrust. As friction increases, it can easily burst into violence.

Syrian war refugees, many of whom are skilled professionals, are likely to blend in. Less so the millions of desperate Africans and others who are victims of big business, exploitative foreign aid and climate change. Tumult in North Africa and the Middle East has opened new ways of escape.

Refugee camp beside the River Seine in Paris.

Refugee camp beside the River Seine in Paris.

At a distance, it may seem that “economic migrants” are simply leaving home to enjoy the good life in Europe. When my train reached Paris, I mentioned this to woman cabbie from Cameroon, who burst into a word fury.

“You think a mother with kids who is seven months pregnant is going to face all that hardship and risk on some little boat if she has a choice?” she said. “People don’t want to leave, but what can they do besides stay home and die? Now they can come through Libya or someplace else, so they do.”

Migration north began in the 1960s after the Algerian War and independence for French African colonies. For decades, this added spice and verve to an Old World culture. As numbers grew, immigrants settled in especially designed suburbs with street names like Moliere and Victor Hugo to encourage integration. Jobs would have done that a lot better.

By the 1980s, they were explosive.

Journalist Mort Rosenblum (photo by John de Dios)

Journalist Mort Rosenblum
(photo by John de Dios)

I visited some of the worst near Paris, guided by a Basque photographer with serious street smarts. The ugly mood lifted when a tough Algerian kid picked up my accent. “You’re American?” he said. “Why didn’t you say so?” My new best buddy then took me into the depths. “We’ve got nothing here,” he told me. “All we can do for fun is take the train into Paris and beat up some Frenchman.”

By the 1990s, as guns and drugs permeated those once hopeful settlements, cops tended to go in only well-armed and in numbers. And more recently, radical imams and Islamist zealots began recruiting at in a quickening pace.

It is hard to generalize, but two things are clear. Something smart ought to be done – effectively and immediately – to help desperate people stay where most would prefer to be: at home. And it is no longer a good idea to tell gang members in the exurbs that you are American.

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