Burning Question of the French Riots

Ibrahim Mansour

Posted Nov 22, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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In order to garner a more complete understanding of the recent riots in the French suburbs, which are now continuing into their fourth week, it is necessary to consider the history of the immigrants in France.

The immigrants arrived primarily after World War II to supply factory and menial workers for the booming French economy. They were desperately needed to overcome the shortage of Frenchmen, and a truncated birthrate, caused by the two world wars. The first generation of immigrants, predominately from former French colonies in North and West Africa, made a conscious effort to divorce themselves from their ethnic, cultural, and religious identities, all in an effort to become better integrated and accepted in French society. The French, however, continued to subject them to a racism that is expressed not only in the most heinous and venomous racial slurs often hurled at the immigrants, but more devastatingly, in the institutionalized racism, which has worked to keep the immigrants on the margins of society. They have been denied the educations and occupational opportunities due to them as French citizens. The French may have ended their occupation of North and West Africa, but the intellectual, psychological, cultural, and social remnants and foundations of colonialism are alive and well in France to this day.

Even today, students in the top universities - researching with the top professors - are subject to the whims and mercy of the schools’ administration to attain degrees and recognition for the academic achievements they have accomplished and if those whims are not in favor of the student of foreign lineage, he or she has no effective method of recourse in the French legal system. This blatant discrimination is evinced by the 26.5 percent unemployment rate among university graduates of “North African” origin in the country - as compared to the 5 percent overall unemployment rate among university graduates in France. The French have unfortunately responded to the problems created by their own deeply rooted hatred and age-old prejudices by simply resorting to greater security measures. The second and third generations - now realizing that their parents’ efforts to ingratiate themselves with the French by abandoning their own rich cultural and religious histories have not resulted in anything but the denigration of those legacies - are returning to their once abandoned roots.

It should be noted that security responses to social dilemmas and to structural problems in the country’s economy and government will not solve the problem. They will - as witnessed in the past - only serve to exacerbate them and to evade addressing the actual roots of discontent. It is this inability to frame contemporary problems in anything but security terms which has led us to this disgraceful juncture in the first place.

Much of the conflict we see today in the French society - with regards to the full acceptance of the immigrants into society has less to do with the second or third generation - children of the immigrants seeing contradictions between their faith or origins and being French, and more to do with the French public’s inability to share that vision. (What does this sentence mean? Super confusing) While the youth are craving for a full, unconditional, unhyphenated integration that they are entitled to, they continue to confront challenges by those who find their very presence an abomination. The separation and seclusion of the French immigrants in the ghettoized suburbs is at once a consequence and cause of the tensions - it is a consequence of unequal educational and employment opportunities, and a cause for even greater mistrust and suspicion of both segments of society towards one another.

In the name and spirit of equality, the French have formally abandoned all differences and tried to develop a social model of perfect and full integration of all into a society and polity without any recognition of differences whatsoever. Hence, all ethnic and religious figures are only estimates - as official census data do not recognize any ethnic, religious or racial differences. The problem, of course, is that beyond its ignorance of some very real factors in society, it has led to a struggle to become French - an identity itself already defined by native born, ethnic French citizens as basically reflecting themselves. Anyone falling beyond that identity is excluded in entirety as being, if not legally, a de facto alien.

One of the more interesting traits of the French society is its aversion to the recent trends of globalization. This was particularly evident in the widespread opposition to the recently proposed takeover of Dannon by PepsiCo by the French public and government. They seem particularly disturbed with greater foreign participation and ownership in the French economy - even when it translates into lower unemployment and better standards of living for the general population. This repugnance is fostered by an intense fear of losing their cultural heritage and identity to a torrential globalizing movement - one all the more repulsive for being seen as a move towards Americanization. This fear has been expressed by various political leaders in France, from President Chirac to Prime Minister Villepin - even as they themselves guide administrations and policies resulting in an inevitably more globalized French economy.

As economics is a critical aspect of the civil unrest in France, one thing the French will need to examine is their approach to the newly emerging and increasingly integrated global economy. If they continue to be guided by entrenched prejudices, it will lead to a situation which is in itself both financially imprudent and - as illustrated by the recent riots largely fueled by high unemployment rates - socially ruinous. So the French re-examination and reassessment will involve a critical process of inspecting the validity and nature of their views held of both those within and without.

It also needs to be mentioned that, almost as astonishing as the riots themselves, which to date have resulted in nearly 9,000 vehicles being set ablaze, is the abysmal media coverage and commentary on the civil unrest in France by our domestic press. We find that as we open the papers each day, and browse through the various news media, that the reporting on the recent rioting in France has been afflicted by this curious convention of viewing the entire Muslim world and population as a monolithic entity, with no significant geographic, intellectual, philosophical, or cultural diversity. This affliction has been reflected in the reporting on the rioting, and in the constant emphasis on the religious, and not socio-economic, character of the riots and those perpetrating them. Hence, we find relationships and similarities drawn between the rioting and earlier immigrant riots in France, and even al-Qaeda! But not to our own legacy and history of riots and social agitations caused by incidents police brutality here in the United States. Simply because our legacy is one of a predominately African American underclass, rather than an immigrant one, seemingly no one has been able to draw the relationship. Furthermore, the inability to differentiate between the radical Muslim fringe, which certainly exists within the European Muslim milieu, and indeed within every religious community, and every other aspect of the European Muslim reality is appalling. How could a social movement which since its inception has expressed its pains and suffering and aspirations for integration into European society through the enchanting ra music, and which has suffered tremendous pains and deaths at the hands of the extremist fringe for doing so, then be described as itself being the extremist fringe? Unfortunately, before our own writers, reporters, and pseudo-intellectuals can go on about the terrible racism in France, they must first examine some very real stereotypes and undiscerning thinking of their own.

To be fair, however, I also need to mention that perhaps the nature of the reporting and discourse on the rioting is a symptom of a general inclination to oversimplify multi-layered and multi-tiered conflicts. Often times, this takes the form of presenting what are fundamentally economic conflicts in ethnic and ideological terms - something made all the easier by the language used by the fueling sides themselves who often find it advantageous to frame their grievances in such a manner. The deployment of such language both generates greater solidarity and popularity among the targeted populaces and serves to mask their less-than-noble intentions. Regardless, our media - and those with area knowledge who commentate on such issues - owe it to us to provide accurate and informed analysis of world events. It is a debt that as yet has seen little progress in being redressed.

Ibrahim Mansour is a Rutgers College sophomore majoring in political science. His column, Uberhim, runs alternate Fridays in The Daily Targum at Rutgers http://www.dailytargum.com/media/paper168/news/2005/11/18/Opinions/Burning.Question.Of.The.French.Riots-1110199.shtml?norewrite&sourcedomain=www.dailytargum.com  Article reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.