Leaving Islam




The French Riots

Paolo Bassi

November 14, 2005

Something has gone terribly wrong with the French Republic . The world is accustomed to watching France ’s intellectuals wringing their hands over the real or perceived loss of national importance and cultural drift at the hands of globalization. The current rioting however, by young North African Arab and black youth, is a crisis of France ’s very own making. The rioting all over France in and around the depressing concrete enclaves that surround the major French cities, where hundreds of thousands of immigrants are housed, may have finally shaken the French government out of its slumber. It has also raised critical questions for all of Europe, since history has shown that when unrest starts in France it often spread to the rest of Europe

France is home to approximately five million people of North and sub-Saharan African descent. Most are the descendants of Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians who came to work after World War II when French business needed cheap labor. More came after the pathologically violent Algerian War of independence that forced France to grant independence to Algeria in 1962---a war that in some minds is still going on. The French housed these early Arab and black immigrants in large housing estates well outside the main cities—out of sight and out of mind. That was 50 years ago. The tragedy is that the children and grandchildren of these immigrants are still labeled as Arabs and live on the same estates. However, whereas the first generation had patiently worked hard to become established, their children have now reached snapping point. The reasons are not hard to understand. Chronic unemployment and racist employers, crime ridden housing estates, police harassment and above all, a sense of hopelessness, have driven young Arabs and blacks to the most serious rioting in France since the May 1968 student uprising. 

What has gone wrong?  France ’s republican, secularist integration model recognizes only type of citizen, French, with no regard to the past. In keeping with the tradition of the French revolution, immigrants simply become French citizens, without color, religion, race or previous culture—all equal before the law and all mystically transformed into descendants of the ancient Gauls. This unrealistic Gallic embrace seems wonderful in a perfect world–however, it is a mere legal embrace. The fate and progress of most immigrants is usually determined by the cultural attitude of the majority population, especially the employers. The French citizenship of an Arab seeking a job makes no difference to an employer who sees him only as another faceless Arab or to the police who daily harass immigrant youth. Since the French state does not classify its people by race or religion, neither do they keep statistics based on such things. Therefore, racism is given a free hand in France . The French have created a circular argument worthy of Descartes. French citizens have no race, thus, there can be no racism. There can be no racism since we have no such thing as race. 

France provides good evidence that legal equality is not enough as does the black struggle in America or that of the Dalits of India. Stigma, racism and indifference do not disappear simply because color-blind law dictates it. The eradication of racism and inequality requires strong government action and laws that are easily accessed, understood and enforced. It also requires inclusion of minorities in the police, media, universities, courts and above all in the government itself. It is much less likely that police brutality against minorities would exist if Arab and black police were involved in community policing. It is much less likely that companies would get away with not hiring minorities, if minorities with power were there to challenge discrimination. 

The causes of the current riots according to general consensus are largely over economic injustice, racism and exclusion. These injustices in themselves need not represent an unbridgeable gap between the European French and those of immigrant descent. These are not uniquely French issues and with sufficient political will can be solved by a wealthy nation like France . Neither should the French be panicked into accepting multi-culturalism as a social model. Their republican secularism has worked in the past with integrating European immigrants and, with more involvement and sensitivity, it can do so again with the Arab and black population. 

There are however, far greater dangers lurking just underneath the overt issues of racial and economic injustice. If the French government, despite Prime Minister, Dominique De Villepin’s stated desire for dialogue, does not make lasting structural changes, it is very possible that Islam will fill the void to provide unity and solace to Arab youth. Radical Islamists would like nothing better than this alienated generation to draw their recruits from. Battle lines drawn around religion are far more dangerous and complex than issues of poverty and class. If Islam is allowed to become the badge of identity for young French Arabs, a permanent and more dangerous sub-class will be created. This in turn will trigger an even more racist, violent backlash led by French right-wing parties ready to exploit the situation. In the 2002 presidential election, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the candidate of the fascistic, xenophobic National Front party, made it to a run-off election against the eventual winner, Jacques Chirac. 

France now faces a decision that will lasting impact. How it deals with the causes of the riots will determine the future influence of both Islam and the French radical right. If France is to win the allegiance of disenchanted Arab and black youth, it must enforce an audacious program to bring economic justice to its minorities and actively fight racism in employment, even if it means a temporary quota system. If France does not act, the forces of Islam and the political right will. 










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