Friday, November 04, 2005

The French Handling of Its "Scum" Reflective of Europe's Bigger Problems

PARIS - The worst outbreak of urban violence in France in 15 years has triggered renewed fears about the country's alienated youths and rattled the Government.

The clashes in the Paris down-at-heel suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois spread into nearby towns with high immigrant populations, an indication of growing unrest among immigrant communities...


I remember going out to lunch with a -born colleague of mine back in California years ago. During the meal, we ended up getting on the subject of race relations in the U.S.; she was fascinated by the fact that a white Southerner like myself had - gasp! - only dated a grand total of one WASP while a teenager. I remember explaining that that was just how the cards fell - race has never been a criteria for attraction for me.

I remember, too, her reaction when I turned the tables on her, asking how many non-white people she had dated growing up in Paris.

She got defensive. Her friends would've laughed at her if she'd ever dated an or a immigrant. I remember vividly how she always used the word immigrants when referring to people of color in France; not as Afro-French or Sino-French, but as immigrant. When she would refer to the French people, it was clear she was referring only to people of European decent.

In the time since that lunch date, I've met many more people from Europe, including those same immigrants, some of them supposedly still considered diaspora two, three generations removed from Algiers, Tripoli, and the Congo. Almost all have had some story of feeling like outcasts, French or German yet not French or German, second-class citizens in their own birth countries.

The white Europeans I've met, none of whom I'd classify as racist or bigoted in intent, have often used the same language to distinguish themselves from those who've come from former European occupied territories in Asia and Africa.

Reminds me a lot of the stories and experiences I grew up hearing from Civil Rights Movement veterans, from both sides of the Movement.

Watching Paris erupt into violence these last few days, with France's immigrants rising up from their government-designed holding pens, the harsh gaping wounds of Europe are now being broadcast around the world - once again.

"The violence is an expression of despair, fury, a feeling of injustice...For the last 25 years, no government, be it right or left, has been able to tackle this structural problem ... France can't cope with the fact that its model of integration is all at sea."

- Michel Wieviorka, School for Higher Studies in Social Science

While people have long made jokes about the Jim Crow embarrassment of the American South, most of those comments are merely relics of the past. Sure, there's still groups like the Klan and race-relation problems, but there is public outcry that follows these days, regardless of race. When South Carolina refused to finally retire the ol' Stars and Bars from atop its Capital, there was media coverage and protesters of every race, color and creed.

And most were Southerners, reaching for MLK's dream, marching to the top of that hill, demanding to be free at last from the past.

And now part of Paris are burning. And immigrant protesters are rioting; those riots may be spreading to the rest of France, to its ghettos and government housing projects.

The French government? Its response has been to tear-gas mosques. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has been displaying the kind of rhetoric that would've made George Wallace proud, adding gasoline to France's integration fire.

I wonder what my lunch partner those years ago thinks of all this? Is she sitting in her Paris loft, yelling at the television about how a government could let these immigrants get out of hand? Or is she demanding that her government work towards peace?

For some reason, I really hope she's thinking about how France can become a country for all of its people.


Leigh said...

I spent 3 months living and studying in the city of Paris. I certainly hope they can figure out how to deal with the city's diverse culture.

pia said...

France has been simmering toward the boiling point for some years now. Like your story--think it expresses it well

Alice: In Wonderland or Not said...

Intersting Jason.

I don't know what to make of it really but you have some great points.