by Henri Astier
The French youth riots were motivated not by ethnicity or religion, but by a hunger for inclusion in the national community as equal citizens, reports Henri Astier from the Paris, Lille, and Lyon banlieues.
Nadir Dendoune never thought he belonged in France until he left the country. "The best way to feel French with a face like mine is to go abroad”, he says. In the mid-1990s the son of Algerian immigrants left St Denis, a northern suburb of Paris, to spend a few years in Australia. "I became French there. When you are foreign it is easy for people to forget the colour of your skin. I told Australians I was from Paris and was an instant hit." Nobody cared about Dendoune's appearance: he was associated with the “city of light”, Dior and champagne. Everyone loved his accent. He got girls – and jobs.
Nadir Dendoune’s quest for Frenchness is shared by most ethnic Arabs and Africans stuck in France's grim banlieues. During a reporting trip around those high-rise wastelands just before they erupted in the last week of October, I realised that they were not hotbeds of separatism – or communautarisme – as they are often portrayed in France. The deafening message I got from nearly everyone I spoke to was: "I was born French. Why am I not accepted as such?"
"The kids I work with would love to feel French, but they are made to feel different", says Samia Amara, a youth worker in Gennevilliers near Paris. Some, to be sure, react by looking for an identity in the African land of their forebears. “They don’t know who they are”, says Farid Khelifi, a teacher in Villeurbanne, an immigrant suburb of Lyon. “They are told they are French but they are not given the same rights as others. So they turn their backs on France." Most, however, do not.
Especially among the young who have not experienced the difficulty of fitting in, the default setting is positive. Malek, a 17-year-old student from St Denis, believes he can make it as an accountant. "My name and the place I come from count against me”, he admits. “But I will try to take advantage of every opportunity." Malek's friend Omar, 18, wants to be in sales: “I will have to work harder than others but I will pull through.”
Kadour, from Lyon, is ambitious too. At 20, he is already putting money aside towards starting his own business. "I’m not likely to get a loan from the bank: when you have a brown skin in France you can only rely on yourself to make it."
Those in their 20s and 30s are convinced that the system is stacked against them. But their complaint only underscores their yearning to join society. "With a name like mine I can't have a sales job", Sadek, a 31-year-old from St Denis. A look at the staff in any French store or restaurant suggests he is not being paranoid. Sadek says he was told not to bother applying for a temp job at the post office: the manager had made clear she wanted whites only. Almost everyone in the banlieues has similar stories.
And if low-skill jobs are hard to get for those viewed as "immigrants", skilled employment appears beyond reach, even for those with degrees. "People prefer whites", says Yazid Sabeg, the only Arab head of a big French company. "A CV from someone called Mohammed will go straight in the bin", he adds.
Official statistics lend credence to this claim. Unemployment among university graduates of north African origin stands at 25% – against 5% for graduates of French origin. Overall unemployment among all people of north African origin is 15%, and 9.2% for whites: in other words higher education makes an Arab less likely to have a job.
Racism may not be the whole story. Girls of African or north African origin do much better than boys. And immigrants in the 1950s-60s had no difficulty finding work in France. A significant force working to marginalise the country's "visible minorities", as Sabeg calls them, is a dysfunctional labour market. Stringent rules protecting workers make employers reluctant to create permanent positions. They prefer hiring temp staff – or better still no one. With legions of desperate applicants competing for every job, those who do not quite fit the bill are bound to get the worst ones, if they get any.
This leads to a vicious circle of underachievement and despondency, with many kids opting out of a pointless education. "At school they tell us: study hard and you will get a good job. But this is a lie", says Hassan, 26. "No wonder kids drop out. They know that in the end they will get a lousy job."
The road to belonging
The anger felt by Hassan and countless others fuelled the three weeks of rioting that began on 27 October. No one – especially among the peaceful majority in the suburbs whose cars and schools were torched – is arguing that violence is a legitimate way to express grievances. What is beyond question is that the rioting was not an affirmation of a distinct identity.
There was no ethnic component to the protests. Very few in the suburbs are saying: black (or brown) is beautiful. Their message is the exact opposite: neither the colour of our skins nor our names should make us less than fully French.
Neither were the riots prompted by religion. True, many urban youths in define themselves as Muslims, in a way that they did not ten or fifteen years ago. It is also correct that the 2004 ban on the wearing of the headscarf in public schools – more accurately, the "law on religious signs" (for the display of Christian as well as Muslim signifiers were prohibited) – still rankles. But this sense of religious grievance was not in evidence during the unrest. There was no intifada. Muslim leaders and virtually all the mosques appealed for calm.
More fundamentally, very few French Muslims challenge the separation of church and state. Mohammed Elhajjioui, a youth in Lille, says the ban negates the original, tolerant spirit of French-style secularism – whose centenary is marked in 2005 and which guarantees religious freedom. Before 2004, courts had upheld the right of girls to wear headscarves in schools. "They had to create a new law to ban them", Elhajjioui points out.
The banlieues may be seething with anger, but that anger has nothing to do with a desire to be recognised as separate. Separateness is endured with resentment, not proclaimed with pride. The violence did not express a rejection of French ideals, but frustration at the fact that those ideals are not being put into practice.
First published: http://www.opendemocracy.net
Henri Astier is a French journalist who works for the BBC.