Fireworks in France: Bastille Day and riots

A 4th century Berber bishop on what drives young men and a murder story

Welcome to the fifth instalment of This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s news and developments. The few minutes you take to read this newsletter will make you smarter, faster…guaranteed. Here, you will find a deep dive on fiction and non-fiction about the week’s big story and/or perfect watercooler convo and dinner party small talk.

(The first post on ‘dictator chic’ is here. The second on ecocide and the late, great Cormac McCarthy is here. The third post on what to know about Russia, revolts and 1917 is here. And here’s the fourth one on America’s 247th birthday, Bidenomics and To Kill a Mockingbird.)

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July 14 is Bastille Day, a countrywide celebration in France of the moment in 1789 that sparked the French revolution. This Bastille Day, as always, official fireworks will light up the night sky. But barely a fortnight ago, flares were being fired in anger at symbols of the French Republic.

The violence erupted after a police officer shot dead Nahel, a teenager of Algerian and Moroccan descent during a traffic check. Rioting spread from the deprived suburbs of Paris to most French cities, more than 3,000 people were arrested with an average age of 17 years; 721 police officers were injured, some of them shot at by rioters with live ammunition. The devastation left the following trail of debris: 12,031 torched cars; 23,878 burnt rubbish bins; 2,508 buildings and shops set on fire or looted, among them 273 police stations, 168 schools and 105 town halls.

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So what was that all about?

This week, we’re lucky to be given a steer on how to interpret events in France by Henri Astier. He’s a Paris-born, London-based journalist and my former colleague at the BBC.

After reading a piece by philosopher Gaspard Koenig on the riots in France, Henri was reminded of Saint Augustine’s autobiography, Confessions, which dates to the late fourth century AD. Confessions, which consists of multiple volumes, details Augustine’s misspent youth and conversion to Christianity. It is considered influential in terms of both Christian theology and secular philosophy — and now, as a way to understand why young men run riot!


In Confessions, Augustine does not portray himself as a holy man but as a sinner — some resonance there with the rioters? And here’s another interesting point of linkage. Of Berber or indigenous North African origin, Augustine served as the bishop of Hippo in Numidia, Roman North Africa, now modern day Algeria. Nahel, of course, was half Algerian.

Dear Reader, this week reminds us of those books:

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