By Sarah Alaoui
France is heralded by many as the land of pungent fromage, thin women, and trendsetting haute couture. Francophiles swoon for its rainbow macaroons and eccentric films. While I admit to my weakness for flakey croissants and admiration for the French’s chic, effortless wardrobe, it is worth putting aside the frivolity to seriously question and address the elephant in the room. With an estimated five million Muslims—most of North African origin—in the French Republic grappling with dual identities and a government determined to preserve its country’s homogenous, secular character, the formula is a volcanic disaster waiting to erupt. Sincere and effective steps to ease tensions and alleviate grievances need to be taken now or else France will be well on its way to replicating our own country’s darkest piece of history—economic and social subjugation of an entire people based on racist and xenophobic inclinations.
As is the case with many imperious whims, France changed its mind about the immigrant workers it opened its arms to decades ago at its own convenience. Following the economic boom of World War II, France needed manpower to support its proliferating factories and industries. What better source of cheap labor did it have than its former North African colonies? Doors were opened and immigration restrictions were eased to encourage the entry of thousands of individuals from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Many of them had zero chance of employment in their home countries and any alternative to the dire poverty and lack of opportunities they experienced there seemed appealing at the time. They did not prepare themselves for the further marginalization they would encounter at the hands of the French government. At least Americans were forthright with the Africans about the role they were to play in society.
Immigration in France became a real problem when the economy began to decline in the 1970s and the immigrants that came in the aftermath of World War II extended their work stays into permanent residence. Expatriates who had originally arrived to work grew accustomed to the better living conditions in Europe and began sending for their families to join them. In fact, immigration surged during that period and the French government was forced to face the question of what to do with the foreign-born people living within their borders—something that was never deliberated because of the assumption that the immigrants were only temporary workers. It never crossed their minds that the workers they’d brought in would ever want to settle down and create families—they believed that these people would continue to toil away in menial jobs until fingers were snapped as the signal to go back to where they came from. If only it were that simple. That kind of wishful thinking is what leads to large groups of ghettoized and unaccounted for people.
Not convinced? Take the metro away from the scenic Eiffel Tower and away from the shops of the Champs-Élysées directly into the slums of Paris where North African immigrants and their French-born children are, “…segregated in communities around major cities…and exist in…depressed neighborhoods, reinforcing their alienation from the larger society.” The houses in these areas, called the “HLM” or “habitation à loyer modéré” (rent-controlled housing), are often dilapidated with many people squeezing into single units. Unsurprisingly, these neighborhoods have been the breeding grounds for acts of vandalism, delinquency and other crimes that have stemmed from the residents’ grievances with a system not taking any significant steps to integrate them into French society.
These young men and women born to immigrants are overrepresented in poverty and crime and their unemployment levels are twice as much as their non-Maghrebin (North African) counterparts. The children of the original immigrants are the ones bearing the brunt of the deal because no matter what, they will never be regarded as French—despite having been born in the country. Even though,
“…they speak French fluently and readily absorb French culture does not make them welcome in France…Even those Algerians who are relatively well integrated into French society, and who think of themselves as French or Westernized, 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.”
Embarrassingly, this scenario sounds all too familiar—change the location, and the rebellious cries of North Africans in France start to sound identical to those of African-Americans in 20th century United States. African-American studies professor, Manning Marable illustrates the state of the black ghetto as a pitfall of capitalism:
“The economic relations of the ghetto to white America closely parallel those between third-world nations and the industrially advanced countries. The ghetto also has a relatively low per-capita income and a high birth rate. Its residences are for the most part unskilled.”
The conditions of the black American ghetto unquestionably mirror those of the North African inner city enclaves of France. When examining the two conflicts, it is also worth noting the striking similarities in group uprisings, violence, and government responses that resulted from the creation of both the American and French ghettoes.
Paris’s 2005 riots were sparked by the death of two teenagers of Tunisian and Malian descent who were electrocuted as they fled the police. The event marked the beginning of three weeks of rioting caused by “…mostly unemployed teenagers from destitute suburban housing projects…” and caused €200 million worth of damage. The rioters burned about 9000 cars and many buildings and schools throughout France were torched and defaced. Though the death of the young men initially ignited the riots, it became a collective outcry denouncing the French government’s failure to integrate its large number of Maghrebin citizens. Then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy’s labeling of the young troublemakers as “scum” only served to further inflame tensions.
On November 18, 2009, cities across France erupted into celebration, then riots following the Algerian national soccer team’s victory against the Egyptians that qualified them for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. More than 12,000 young people of Algerian descent poured into the streets of Paris with cries of “Vive l’Algerie” and police soon tried to break them up. The youth met them with taunts, stones and fireworks to which the police responded with teargas and beatings with batons. Cars were burned, cops were injured and young North Africans were arrested. How did a simple soccer victory turn into a full-fledged riot reminiscent of the ones that took place in 2005? Looking beneath the surface shows that, “…the anger on show was not just about football…it was [about being] treated as a second-class citizen…to be an Algerian is to be a bicot or melon—racist terms for Muslims [used by French people].”
Once again, change the language and location, and we are transported back to the 1992 riots in South Central Los Angeles following the acquittal of police officers who had brutally beaten African-American Rodney King. 53 individuals were killed, 10,000 were arrested, $1,000,000,000 in damages were incurred and the National Guard, the 7th Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Division were all called in to tame the riots. Though the outset of the violence was attributed to what many deemed as a biased trial of white officers, the rioting that followed prolonged into protests over the lack of jobs and economic opportunities for blacks in the area. How can anyone be surprised that the people in either of the two cases rioted? Of course, the ideal situation would be to have thousands of Tom characters living in the ghettos—a name referring to the caricature that “portrays Black men as faithful, happily submissive servants.” Passive, subservient people that keep their discontent to themselves would be characteristic of the utopia the French government is attempting to create as part of their “integrationist” agenda. Even French interior minister Monsieur Brice Hortefeux would agree with me. The man was rebuked this past fall for certain questionable comments he made at a political event in southwestern France. When he agreed to pose for a photo with a young man of North African descent, a bystander joked about the latter being, “Our little Arab.” Hortefeux responded, “There always has to be one. When there’s one, it’s O.K. It’s when there are a lot of them – thats when there are problems.” One small step for man, one huge leap backwards for France.
The Bigger Picture
It’s been oft-said that “Muslim is the new black”. With the current political backdrop, the terms “Arab” (which is also a term that encompasses North Africans), “Muslim” and “extremist” all seem to be used interchangeably. After September 11th, the global community’s senses heightened to Islam and Muslims. In Europe, a continent that once referred to its North African immigrants as simply “Arabs”, the norm now seems to be grouping them all as “Muslims”. The ironic thing is that most Maghrebins in Europe are not particularly religious in the traditional sense of the word. Only 26 percent pray regularly and less than 23 percent attend prayers at local mosques. Generalizing them all with the sweeping label of “Muslim” serves to further separate the already marginalized minority from European society because of the negative connotations that have been attached to the term. In fact, many Europeans—especially those in government—are taking advantage of the current, pervasive anti-Muslim sentiment to discriminate against North Africans.
Read about women’s sartorial commentator, Nicholas Sarkozy lately? French president Sarkozy thinks he can achieve ranking of renaissance man by dipping his toes into the world of fashion. His frequent comments questioning the intentions of Muslim women wearing the hijab denigrate its purpose. His recent comments that encouraged a ban of the burka on French soil have been taken by many as something that will only further strain relations between North African populations and the “native” French. Eric Besson, the French Immigration Minister, said himself that a ban of the burka would only “create tensions.” Sarkozy champions a secular country, but with so much talk and emphasis placed on whether a woman should wear a headscarf, a niqab, or a burka, how can such a state be achieved amidst such issues at the forefront of politics?I doubt first lady, Carla Bruni, ever gets questioned about her clothing preferences—should she wear a little black dress or a maxi dress, no one really cares. Trying to pass laws about how people should dress with specifications that obviously target followers of a particular religion will undoubtedly wreak havoc—especially in a country like France with a history of persistent xenophobia. Furthermore, attempting to neutralize these laws under the cover of “integrating the immigrants” is not going to work because integration does not equate shedding parts of one’s identity. When feminists wanted equal rights to males in the work force, no one told them they had to seek operations and become male. When African-Americans demanded to be treated the same as whites, no one demanded they shed their dark skin in return (though I’m sure this would’ve satisfied many). Why should the case be any different in France? Is it impossible for one to be French, Arab, and Muslim? Quelle horreur! President Barack Obama put it best, “I will tell you that in the US, our basic attitude is that we’re not going to tell people what to wear.”
While I focus on France in this piece, because it houses the largest population of Maghrebin immigrants in Western Europe, the problem of integration is one that plagues the entire continent. As a result of the Muslim communities’ high fertility rates and increasing immigration, the National Intelligence Council projects that Europe’s Muslim population will double by 2025. The Maghrebin of Europe are not going anywhere and therefore need to be accommodated for as French citizens and not second class citizens. As Americans, we learned our lesson that African-Americans were not going anywhere and that we needed to do something to make them feel welcome (to say the least), or all hell would break loose. We brought them here, we learned our lesson, and cleaned up our mess by taking steps to care of them and their offspring. In a similar fashion, the workers that were brought over from North Africa to perform France’s dirty work all those long decades ago and their posterity need to be taken care of socially, economically and most importantly, humanely. Liberté, égalité, fraternité for all. Civil Rights Movement part deux, anyone? Quelle horreur!