Just as Hurricane Katrina has exposed the ugliness of America’s segregation system, the ghettoes, racism, misery and poverty that lurk beneath the thin surface of economic prosperity and social harmony, the recent riots in Paris have laid bare the darker side of the city of lights.
Paris, the capital which had once mesmerised generations of artists, intellectuals and politicians from around the world, looks today like a city of ghosts, violence, social alienation and economic marginalisation.
Watching the TV scenes of wretchedness, anger and rioting I had to remind myself that this was France, not some poverty ridden, war-stricken third world country.
The violent riots that have convulsed Paris’ banlieus for over a week are not a passing event, or the isolated acts of gangs of delinquent youths, dismissed by the hawkish French Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy as “rabble”, “scum”, “yobs” and “louts”, who need to be “cleaned up”.
These disturbances are a vivid symptom of the profound crisis at the heart of the French social and cultural system, a crisis that has been accumulating for decades, growing like a snowball with the passing of every day in the bleak enclaves of Paris’ immigrant suburbs.
The clashes began when two terrified teenagers, Bouna Traore, 15, and Ziad Benna, 17, desperately clambered the 2m wall of the electricity station on the rundown estate of Clichy-sous-Bois to hide from the police. Bouna and Ziad died promptly, electrocuted by 20,000 volts of electricity and France erupted into urban rioting such as it has not seen for decades.
“The explanation of the recent events in France is simple: the French were silly enough to believe that they could keep so many poor immigrants in the outskirts of their big cities.”
Furious youths hurled stones at the police, set light to hundreds of cars and buildings. The mayhem soon swept from the dark suburbs of Paris to become a nationwide crisis.
With Bouna and Ziad’s deaths the violent tensions seething in the depths of French society spilled over across its loathsome racial barriers beyond its poor immigrant estates into the spotlight. I remember once asking a group of young men of Arab descent, whose families have been living in France for decades, whether they felt French.
All answered in the negative. “I do not belong here” one of them said. “There is nothing for me. There are jobs. But if your name is Muhammad, Ali, or Rashid, don’t even bother to apply. The most I can hope for is a job at the local McDonald’s.” Another added bitterly: “I was born here, and so was my father. How many generations would it take for me to be considered French?”
Sons of immigrants
The rioters setting nursery schools ad shops ablaze are French by birth, language, education and culture. Yet France still refuses to acknowledge them as its own, still refers to them as immigrants and sons of immigrants.
The majority are incarcerated in poor housing estates, where unemployment figures are three times the national average. Those who defy the odds and succeed in gaining a university qualification are five times more likely to end up in unemployment than their white counterparts (26.5% compared with 5%).
Most are trapped in a hopeless downward spiral of joblessness, racial discrimination, and clashes with the police. What the inner cities are to the United States, the banlieus (suburbs) are to France.
France’s “beurs”, the sons and grandsons of its former colonials have no sense of belonging to the French nation, not because they are intrinsically unpatriotic, or naturally hostile to France, but because this land where they, their fathers, sometimes even grandfathers, were born and brought up continues to deny them a dignified existence, or a sense of respect and recognition.
No one makes more noise about integration than France does. But the gap between France’s rhetoric of equality, and abstract citizenship and its policies of systematic discrimination and hostility to its ethnic minorities could not be greater.
Beyond Paris’ official discourse, the reality on the ground, inside the fenced-off rings of wretchedness and misery that border its affluence, is one of chilling social marginalisation, destitution and profound feelings of forced otherness, and exclusion.
With more than 20% of those born in France having immigrant parents or grandparents, France is a land of immigrants. Yet France does not perceive itself as a multicultural country.
Its national identity is founded on the demand for unconditional assimilation into so-called “republican” and “French” values. Prompted by the myth of cultural and racial uniformity, France insists on keeping its immigrants invisible and turning a blind eye to the endemic racism of its socio- political system.
Instead of confronting its spiralling crises with a measure of moral and political responsibility, the French government continues to resort to repression and the greater policisation of the poverty-ridden, rundown suburbs, further stigmatising its African and Arab communities and turning them into a scapegoat for its failures and troubles.
The corrosive division in France’s heart between “indigenous” and “foreigners” is no doubt an extension of the dichotomy of the “inside” and the “outside”, which has governed modern colonial French history.
The dividing walls between the metropolis and its colonies have now migrated to the heart of France itself, between the bleak ghettoes where yesterday’s colonials, today’s “immigrants”, are confined and the forbidden white centres of power and prosperity.
Today, the French slogans of integration and equal citizenship ring hollow. They have been buried deep beneath the boots of policemen, the smoke of burnt cars and rubble of ruined buildings.
Of the Revolution’s lofty slogans of “egalite, liberte et fraternite” France’s colonial victims saw nothing but war fleets, military occupation, economic exploitation and a long trail of blood, suffering and destruction. Their impoverished descendants hear the promises of equality and integration and see nothing but a bottomless pit of voicelessness, weakness and alienation.
What we are witnessing today is the fall of the Jacobin Republican model, with its noisy slogans and radical dogmatism. A model that could not defend itself against crises in the French motherland is neither inspiring nor worthy of emulation, in Europe or elsewhere.
First Published in Aljazeera, Thursday 10 November 2005