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France finds that not all Frenchmen feel French

NBC News' Jim Maceda tells how the seeds of the angry riots in France were probably sewn by adoption of an assimilationist immigration policy that failed to address racism and multiculturalism.
A car set ablaze by rioters is burning,
A car set ablaze by rioters burns in Toulouse, a city in southwestern France. Georges Gobet / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

PARIS — France has been suffering from continual riots since Oct. 27, which have resulted in one death as well as considerable damage to private and public property.

Many of the youths involved in the violence are the French-born children of sub-Saharan and North African immigrants who have expressed frustration with racism and lack of economic opportunity.

NBC News' Jim Maceda has been covering the story and discusses the roots of the rioters' discontent.   

France has long had a model of integration based on the idea that if you speak French and adopt its culture, the you will be accepted as French — in a sense, turning a blind eye to multiculturalism. In addition, it has resisted the concept of affirmative action. How have these riots laid bare the failures of that policy?   
Of course, the French ideal or model of integration has always been a very lofty goal. The French have always been extremely proud of this system that they felt applied to all French — blind to color, blind to creed. The idea was that once you arrived in France and adopted French values, paid your taxes, and learned the French language, then you, for all intents and purposes, are part of a French society, and equal to everyone else.  

The idea was kind of like Communism — it worked on paper, but not in reality. It did do OK for the first 20 years or so with the first wave of Algerian immigration that began after the war in Algeria in the late 1950s. Why? Basically because the French economy was moving along briskly and there were enough jobs to go around.

However, in the last five to ten years, since a period of stagnation has set in for the French economy, the problems have really begun.

The Arab and African immigrant families never had the best education or the best access to jobs, but when there were enough jobs to go around, things were not at a crisis. Now that the slice of the pie is so thin and those that do get the few jobs tend to be white, that has triggered a lot of the current problems and the ghetto-ization of the immigrant community.

Part of the French model of integration was in the “cites,” the term they use here to describe the low-income or block housing. The idea was to create immigrant towns and attach them to pre-existing, older cities. Originally, they were considered cutting-edge for many of these immigrants because they incorporated schools and created local jobs. All of that worked out well for a time.

But now, 50 years after the “cites” were created, many of them have basically become ghettos because of the economic situation and because of the racial discrimination that basically every Arab or African immigrant believes is hurting him or her directly. 

Originally, affirmative action was something that was not necessarily needed here because things economically were moving at a good clip and people from all walks of life had jobs. Now, in this current climate, the feeling is that the government needs to reach out and embrace these people.

The French government was always very sensitive of favoring one group over another group or officially recognizing any minority group here — they felt that would be a destabilizing factor. As a result of that there have never been any affirmative action programs in place.

Many experts today would argue that is just what is needed to level the playing field and to give the Arab and African immigrant families a kick-start to break the cycle of poverty and to get them perhaps out of these ghettos.

Some reporting on the riots has alluded to the idea that there is an Islamic fundamentalist tinge to these riots. Is there any credence to that idea? Can you clarify that idea?
What we are seeing here now is much more political and economic in its origin. It’s not being driven by or fueled by Islamic fundamentalism at this stage. And there are no terror tactics being used.

This is what they call here a “crie de coeur,” a “cry of the heart.” Many of these people, who are between the ages of 13 and 18, see that they are really stuck in the middle.

These young people can not really relate anymore to the values of their parents, many of whom are still very traditional and maintain their Arab or African culture and customs. And yet they don’t feel like they are integrated either. They are supposed to be French, but they are not accepted by many as French. So, they are like second-class citizens.

It's that frustration that grows from being stuck right in the middle of family and society that has probably created this new phenomenon of youth rioting in the streets. 

Despite the fact that Islamic fundamentalists may not be behind the recent attacks, are they hoping to take advantage of the situation?
The people involved in the riots are non-Muslim African, as well as Muslim Africans and Arabs. But the Muslims who are involved are not necessarily fundamentalists. Many of them are secular Arabs, like most people you would find in an Arab country such as Tunisia or Algeria, or the Africans from Mauritania.

This is not being driven by Islamic fundamentalists. That said, there is no question that the Islamic fundamentalists in France, and there are certainly plenty of them, are taking notice. For the time being, though, they are standing by, watching and not participating. They are waiting to see if perhaps they think that as a result of this destabilization that they could stand to benefit from this latest wave of violence.

As I said, though, all the tell-tale signs of the violence we’ve been looking at over the last few weeks is that it is very amateur and based on text messages or cell phone calls. (We talk a lot of the tell-tale signs when we are analyzing violent attacks to see if there are signs of attack or bomb to see if it was al-Qaida, or a copycat attack.)

They have been extremely spontaneous with groups of kids often on small motor bikes rushing from one neighborhood to another. They might have one guy on the back of a seat dropping a petrol bomb and one in the front throwing a match and then rushing off to another location.

So, while French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said on Tuesday that there are criminals and there are gangs out there that are perhaps part of this, there is no sense at all that it is being driven by terrorism.

What happens next?
In terms of what the government has promised or what happens next, the French government has admitted that there are legitimate grievances. They have admitted that the Arab and African immigrants do have issues with racial discrimination and that they do have little access to good schools or decent jobs.

Villepin has promised to launch what he calls “an ambitious plan” in response to this wave of violence. He promises to increase what he can increase — scholarships, apprentice-ships, internships for youth and students. But very few experts here think that kind of remedial response will make a very big difference. 

The economic problems of unemployment and the problem of discrimination against non-whites in this country is so deep and so endemic that experts are calling that type of government response remedial. Saying it’s a band aid over an open wound and that it’s just going to trigger more violence in the end, and not less.