Flashpoint in France

Print edition : December 02, 2005

The riots draw attention to the way Arab and African immigrants from former French colonies remain unassimilated in French society, unlike earlier waves of immigrants from Europe.


A car set ablaze by rioters in Neuhof, a southern suburb of Strasbourg, on November 9.-VINCENT KESSLER/REUTERS

NIGHT after night, France burns, caught in the grip of unprecedented urban violence, wreaked by angry young men, most of whom trace their origins to former Arab and black colonies in Africa. As darkness falls, hooded young men from underprivileged urban slums descend upon the streets carrying petrol bombs, baseball bats, and more recently, firearms. They go on the rampage systematically, burning schools, cars, businesses and police stations and taunting and attacking policemen and other symbols of state authority.

What began as a protest against the accidental death of two teenagers fleeing police identity checks took on a dangerous edge with remarks by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy describing the residents of the dilapidated housing estates as "scum". The lobbing of a tear-gas grenade in a mosque during prayers for Id further ignited the powder keg that has now exploded with violence spiralling out of control. The intensity and extent of the violence has left the authorities reeling. The government led by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, in a bid to stop the riots, has finally taken recourse to tough measures such as mass arrests and the selective imposition of curfew through a law promulgated in 1955 to quell an insurrection in Algeria.

The French government has come in for some sharp criticism worldwide for its failed integration policies, as a result of which immigrant communities have been marginalised, parked on the outskirts of major towns in run-down ghettos marked by high crime rates, delinquency, failure in the education system and joblessness.

So what went wrong? It would be ludicrous to surmise that France adopted a machiavellian policy aimed at keeping society segregated and the immigrants depressed, although some extremist critics have used the term "apartheid" in the past fortnight to describe the de facto segregation that has occurred.

The present problems faced by France's high-rise suburban ghettos have their roots in the late 1950s and 1960s, when there was large-scale immigration from former North African Arab colonies such as Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco and, at a somewhat later date, which saw the arrival of black immigrants from France's former colonies in black West Africa. France, then in the midst of the post-War economic boom, needed immigrant labour to man its newly mushrooming factories.

In creating these self-contained high-rise settlements close to factories and other workplaces of the new arrivals, urban planners in France were convinced they were putting in place a new and innovative concept. They did away with fields and harnessed the countryside surrounding Paris and other large towns to create mini satellite cities that would offer inhabitants low-cost housing with schools, shops, places of worship and recreational facilities, all in one place.

"It worked well for the first 15 years or so when the neighbourhoods were truly mixed and you had white-collar and blue-collar workers living together. There were French, North African, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian families living in the same housing blocks. Then came the oil shock of 1973 and the situation began to change. From full employment in the 1960s, you moved towards rising unemployment and the closing of factories. The shoddy materials used in building began to show up and things went downhill very fast. Those who had made good economically moved away. But the bulk of the immigrant families, struck by unemployment, were trapped in what progressively became ghettos and there they have remained," Mehdi Lallaoui, a noted author and prize-winning documentary film-maker who grew up in the suburb of Argenteuil, north of Paris, told The Hindu. His work has been on immigration, the hangover of colonisation and how it plays out in modern-day France.

Argenteuil today is not the peaceful suburb he grew up in. Mehdi said: "I have seen that place change from a relatively calm, semi-urban haven to become what the administration terms ZUP - Zone Urbain Prioritaire. For that read crime, a very high school drop-out rate, gang warfare, drug-trafficking, big-and-small-time crime, and unemployment rates that are twice the national average of 13 per cent. In such circumstances, hopelessness is bound to creep in and I understand the anger of today's youngsters who have gone on the rampage even though I do not condone the vandalism. In such circumstances too, the lure of radical Islam which claims to give back the community its lost dignity is very strong."

France has tried hard to put in place what it calls its "Republican Pact" - equal treatment for all its citizens based on the 1789 Revolution's precepts of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Catholic immigrants from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Poland and other states have been integrated successfully. But a problem has arisen with coloured, especially Muslim, immigrants, whether black or North African Arab, who feel that the Republican Pact has passed them by. One teenager said: "We are the forgotten children of the Republic, those whom the state treats as its stepchildren."

The problem is most acute with the Algerian community. There are still a substantial number of people in this country who feel Algeria was a part of France and should never have been granted independence. They see the presence of Algerians and other North Africans here as adding insult to injury and cannot let go of sentiments of racial and colonial superiority. Prominent among them are politicians such as Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the extreme right wing, anti-immigrant National Front, who proposes the expulsion of Muslim immigrants.

"The history of French colonisation has never been publicly scrutinised until a few years ago. No policeman has ever been punished for racist acts. If the white European immigrants have assimilated successfully, it is because of their religion and the colour of their skin. For us, it is an entirely different matter. France has never accepted second-and-third-generation citizens from their former colonies as being entirely French. Even today people ask me where I come from. I was born here, I am French. I know no other reality, no other language. Yet I am constantly made to feel like an outsider," Khatir, a 40-year-old educator of Moroccan origin, who works with young delinquents, told The Hindu.

Ghettoised, marginalised, unable to find acceptance and facing racial and religious discrimination, a large percentage of disenchanted youth from these tower blocks have taken to crime or to radical Islam as a means of forging some kind of identity. The Islamic hijab or headscarf debate in France a year ago affected girls who mostly lived on these housing estates.

Both Khatir and Mehdi talk of a conscious or unconscious national consensus in France to keep immigrants depressed so that they will always be around to do the dirty, low-paid jobs that the French disdain. Mehdi said; "I was sent to a technical school, the Lycee Technique Fernand Leger, even though I displayed intellectual capacity and was keen to go to university. I learned to be an electrical technician. So I am a self-taught film-maker. Intellectual jobs were presumed to be too good for the children of immigrants. We did not have the required cultural baggage, many of us came from homes where the parents were illiterate or semi-literate and these decisions were made for us by teachers who showed the same bias."

Khatir, on the other hand, started life in the Cite - as the housing estates are called - as a school dropout and delinquent. "Seeing the police massed here today reminds me of the time they picked me up for stealing a pair of shoes. It's a memory I had blotted out. They made me stretch my arms, palms upwards, and placed telephone directories on my hands. I had to stand like that for hours taking that weight until I gave them names of friends. I can tell you a great deal about police brutality towards immigrant kids," says Khatir, who experiences the riots sweeping France today as a personal failure. "These kids tell me: You chose the straight and narrow, you accepted the system and look where it got you? They are right. The prejudices have not gone away, the tensions have increased. We have no jobs, no prospects and an atmosphere of suspicion with identity checks galore."

The immigration debate has been around in France for a very long time. Some French politicians argue that policies that successfully integrated immigrants in the past no longer work, and that zero immigration is needed coupled with a renewed effort to restructure housing and welfare policies. They contend that so long as the doles offered to unemployed immigrants in France remain on a par with the minimum wage, immigrants would prefer to go on them rather than actively seek employment. Others suggest starting afresh by demolishing the housing estates, which end up segregating immigrant children and massing these populations in far-flung neighbourhoods away from jobs. Some accuse local mayors of selectively using central funds allocated for immigration towards their own re-election, and propose re-centralising both power and resources in Paris. Yet others insist on the need to educate immigrant populations better.

Successive governments have failed. This will be the nth plan for renewing the suburbs. Resources have been used in an unfocussed and wasteful manner. The present government has cut subsidies to local associations doing excellent work and dismantled the neighbourhood police force. Sarkozy told policemen they were law enforcers, not members of the social service.

"The neighbourhood police force was made up of locals who worked painstakingly, building up trust with the kids, something like the neighbourhood Bobby. All that has been destroyed," says Khatir.

One of the sources of this segregation and large-scale rejection is the French fear of Islam, which explains many of the legal and social biases against North African Arabs. The second generation of people of North African origin, known as the beurs, express anguish and anger at being treated as second-class citizens. In a society which has more than 13 per cent unemployment and which has become increasingly hostile towards immigrants, they have little hope of upward mobility.

Political observers say France has never fully accepted North African immigrants, and the second generation perhaps even less than the first. That they speak French fluently and readily absorb French culture does not make them welcome in France as earlier waves of immigrants had been, including the Jews and Protestants, Italians and Russians. Even those Algerians who are relatively well integrated into French society, and who think of themselves as French or Westernised, sometimes find themselves treated differently from the indigenous French people. Most North Africans feel they are trapped in a hopeless downward spiral of joblessness, racial discrimination, and clashes with the police.

The French reject accusations of racism. It is not skin colour, they say, that scares them. It is the difference in culture. Arab culture (or the lack of it, say supporters of Jean-Marie Le Pen) threatens French civilisation and identity. "Muslims are frequently accused of being an alien presence, unable or unwilling to adapt to the ways of the host nation," says social psychologist Marie Perez. Immigrants are no longer rejected because they are unskilled but because they are different, so different they cannot be assimilated.

"France is in the grip of a civil war," Jean-Marie Le Pen declared. The present riots, with violent attacks and the wanton destruction of public property, mean that the immigrants are playing straight into the hands of his National Front. It is likely that the man who beat the socialist candidate to come second in the first round of voting in the 1995 presidential election might pull off the same feat.

A deep malaise grips French society, one that couples economic sluggishness and job insecurity with fears of Islamic radicalisation.

The French today feel their culture and way of life is being threatened by outside forces, including globalisation. Immigration in France is based on the precept that everyone assimilates - meaning that whosoever comes here adopts the French way of life, French values and culture. This has not happened with North African immigrants and the French are withdrawing into themselves, actively rejecting the immigrants' right to be different. Having rejected the Anglo-Saxon model of separate development, the French are finding that their own model of total republican assimilation no longer works.

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