So, another class of people has been disenfranchised in France, and the government, turning a deaf ear to the problem, has again waited for violence in its streets to spur any action. From starving peasants in 1789, to disgruntled students and workers in 1968, to disenfranchised Muslim immigrants today, it seems that the only way to be heard in France is to burn a car or two, throw some rocks or even break out the ol’ guillotine and roll a few heads down the Champs-Elysees. How could the French government allow such a large immigrant group to become so desperate, so disenfranchised and economically frustrated that its members feel that rioting is the only way for their grievances to be heard?

Sarah Royce

One explanation that many are turning to is that Muslim extremists have coordinated an attack on France. This is doubtful. Put simply, these riots are the result of a failure on the part of a government that is democratic and liberal only for specific groups. Ineffective French integration policies, traditional xenophobic views of outsiders and systematic political and economic discrimination have left a generation of young Arab and North African immigrants powerless and voiceless.

Instead of the melting-pot mentality of U.S. integration policies that have turned generations of immigrants into some of the most productive members of society, France has cast immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East into the poor suburbs of Paris. These neighborhoods have become ghettos of unemployment and bottled-up anger. Now the top has blown off.

Citizenship can be blamed as a key underlying problem. Unlike U.S. policy, which grants citizenship to any child born on U.S. soil, only children born to French citizens are granted automatic citizenship, perpetuating outsider status to an entire group of people. The result is a two-tiered society, in which immigrants benefit from the powerful welfare aspect of the French state – receiving education, health care and welfare – but are barred from most jobs. In addition, recent legislation banning the wearing of traditional headscarves in French schools, while allowing students of Christian faiths to wear crosses, is a clear indicator of French religious and ethnic intolerance.

The underlying problem in France is an attitude of disdain for foreigners, especially those from Third World countries. In attempts to quell the rioters, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has called attention to the French model of integration, promising reforms. But many Muslims are worried that this is simply lip service laced with empty promises that will be forgotten once peace is restored. They are right to worry, considering the vast contradictions flowing from the French government over the past few days. Villepin has also made clear that he wants all non-French citizens involved in the riots deported immediately.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday, the right-wing extremist and National Front party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen (who found his way into the runoff election for the presidency in 2002) expressed his fear that the riots would spark more widespread violence across Europe. He used the riots to highlight what he sees as an attack by immigrants from the Third World. It is exactly this sort of sentiment that is at the core of the problem in France: safeguarding centuries-old traditional French culture from attacks by outsiders, instead of encouraging assimilation and contribution from immigrants. Le Pen and other right-wing candidates will likely use the riots as a springboard for the 2007 presidential elections.

The riots in France are not the result of Islamic Jihad or some “Clash of Civilizations” as many have claimed. The successful integration of Arab immigrants in American society demonstrates the extent of the French problem. Given tolerant conditions, Arab-Americans have shown that they can become productive and positive members of society in the United States. As much as Muslim anger in the Middle East is directed at the United States, Muslim Americans have not resorted to terrorism (as they have in Spain and Britain) or rioting. Clearly the United States is doing something right – something that France needs to learn from.

France, historically looked upon as a cultural hub, has been tarnished by right-wing, discriminatory policies left unchecked for far too long. At the same time, France has become a hub for anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiment. France faces a crucial crossroads that is long overdue. Will France use this opportunity to reassert itself as the world economic and cultural leader it purports itself to be, or will it continue to be dominated by right-wing radical nationalist ideals?


Slade can be reached at bslade@umich.edu.


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