November 18, 2005

France Burns – Is Europe Next?


By Paolo Pontoniere

All the elements for the outbreak of youth rebellion are present in Western Europe. Hardly unique to France are the marginalized second or third generation immigrants out of place in their parents’ old countries but not fully accepted by their own. So are unemployment, social discrimination and underclasses packed in dismal neighborhoods of despair.

The question is where the next conflagration will be, and when. There are usually warning signals, if anyone cares to listen.

In France the powder keg is in the banlieues, suburban neighborhoods conceived at the beginning of the 1950s to provide modern housing to low and moderate-income families. But yesterday’s brilliant solution has become today’s nightmare.

As white families’ incomes improved, they moved out of the banlieues, and ethnic immigrants moved in. Pied-noirs (black feet, a derogatory term used for Algerian French of mixed blood), Sub-Saharan Africans and French-speaking subjects from the former colonies were the bulk of the new arrivals. As their numbers increased, the state’s investment in the banlieue decreased.

These neighborhoods, counterparts of the American housing projects, plunged into profound decline. Today, they can be compared to decrepit ghettoes where youth unemployment can reach 40 percent and crime is rampant.

France’s current crisis was foretold. In 1981 a series of riots against police brutality erupted in the banlieues, resulting in special state programs for the restoration of disadvantaged areas and special educational initiatives.

The 1981 uprising also led to an alliance between French extra-parliamentary groups and North African immigrant organizations, which would eventually give rise to SOS Racisme, a nonprofit institution to counteract racism and prevent acts of violence against immigrants.

By 1983 SOS Racisme was successful in bringing the problem of racial discrimination to the forefront of the French political debate, organizing a Marseille-to-Paris march of hundred of thousands of people. In 1989, more than 60 North Africans were elected to office in various French cities. Former SOS Racism and France Plus (another immigrant rights group) activists were elected to the European Parliament.

It seemed that great stride were being made in race relations in France. The gains were symbolized by the French national soccer team, which won the World Cup in 1998, and was composed mostly of children of immigrants from the former French colonies. While after Sept. 11, 2001, anti-Arabism raged across Europe, Droits Devants, a confederation of French organizations advocating for labor rights and housing for Sans Papiers (undocumented immigrants) helped lead a continent-wide campaign supporting the rights of illegal immigrants.

France also rode high on the sympathy for its opposition to U.S. invasion of Iraq. But war brewed at home. Ceaseless run-ins between ghetto youths and overbearing police became a corrosive common occurrence, filling the banlieues with pent-up resentment.

After the London terrorist bombings, France’s situation really nose-dived. Old fears simmering under the lid of political correctness boiled over. Security forces constantly pursued potential threats arising from Muslim communities. On Oct. 27, in the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, this pursuit turned deadly: two French-Arab kids reportedly being chased by the police sought refuge in an electrical sub-station and were electrocuted to death.

Some 300 cities in revolt, 2,000 torched vehicles, one death and hundreds of arrests later, everybody in France and in the rest of Europe is seeking an explanation. More often than not the finger points to the Muslims, Arabs and the Africans, the bad immigrants — as if the rebels were not French themselves — who don’t want to integrate, who insist on gender-segregated physical education classes and wearing head scarves.

But if in France the bad guys are the Arabs, in Germany they are the Turks, in Italy the Albanians, in England the Pakistanis. Every European country has its own enemy within and a mainstream united in their fear of Islam.

Muslims are experiencing widespread discrimination across Europe, reported the Helsinki Federation, which was founded by 44 human rights groups. In 11 of the 25 EU countries, Islam is equated with terrorism, a federation study found.

Far-right parties in Italy, Belgium and Austria depict Muslim immigration as a security threat. In the Netherlands, a majority believes that Muslim schools undermine integration efforts, while 80 percent of Germans associated the word “Islam” with “terrorism” and “oppression of women.”

In Sweden and France people with Arabic-sounding names have a reduced chance of landing a job interview, regardless of their qualifications for the position. Animal rights groups, like those in Denmark, are even asking for a ban on Islamic ritual animal sacrifice.

“Media accounts very often use stereotypical and negative descriptions and tend to contribute to a popular perception of Muslims as aliens and dangerous,” says Aaron Rhodes, executive director of the Helsinki Federation.

This trend, if not reversed, doesn’t bode well for France and the rest of the continent, which could soon be swept by the fires of ethnic unrest. Recent car burnings in Brussels and Berlin indicate that the fire is already lapping at other powder kegs.

Paolo Pontoniere is a correspondent for Focus, Italy’s leading monthly magazine.

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