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A Look Behind the Riots that Swept France

Weeks of rioting in France have damaged that country's self image as a land of equality and tolerance. The violence started on October 27th when young people took to the streets after the accidental deaths by electrocution of two ethnic immigrant youths who were apparently hiding from police. The rioting seems to now be abating, but as VOA's Brian Padden reports, solving the problems of racial integration and unemployment will take longer.

On the surface the riots in France seem to be self destructive, even mindless acts of defiance.  The thousands of cars burned belong to the working poor in the immigrant neighborhoods.  The businesses destroyed, such as a car dealership in Aulnay-Sous-Bois just north of Paris, employed the working poor.  And the young people who are rioting, teenagers like Youness and his friends, second- and third-generation immigrants from North and West Africa, seem to be acting out of boredom as much as out of anger. 

Youness expresses his fustrations, "Other people have lots of things but we don't have anything."

But the riots have focused the country's and the world's attention on the plight of the immigrant population here, segregated for the most part in rundown neighborhoods. Catherine Wihtol de Wenden, with the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris, says it is hard for the French to face the fact that the ideal of equality for all does n ot match reality.

"Very often France is blind to discrimination which takes place, and in which these young people are the victims. The fact of having been born in these suburbs poor and alienated, your school, your housing and your chances for a job are determined by where you live, and that is a very strong social determinism and a flagrant inequality."

The heart of the problem is entrenched unemployment, which runs as high as 30 percent in the immigrant community.  Dominique Sopo, president of the minority rights organization SOS Racisme, says it has destroyed the family structure and created an angry, alienated generation. 

"Obviously a father who is unemployed is a father who is broken.  He lacks authority with his children.  And the children feel that their parents have been humiliated."

Outside the immigrant neighborhoods the public disapproves of the violence and is concerned for its safety.

One French woman says, "...a lot of fear.  A lot of anxiety.  The fear that it will continue and that it will end badly in civil war." A French man countered, "I don't approve of these immigrants.  The people who are not happy here should go back home."

Inside the immigrant neighborhoods the sense of alienation runs deep. 

Even one French citizen identifies with the way he says immigrant feel and are treated. "Someone like myself is not considered a French citizen even though I was born in France. And I am a French citizen.  But the French don't think so."

Many elected leaders, like deputy mayor of Aulnay-sous-Bois, Frank Cannarozzo, are fed up with lenient laws that allow juveniles offenders to repeatedly break the law.

"If they cross the line it is over.  In the case of delinquents who have been dragged 15 times before a judge and who have been arrested again for violence, we need a different solution.  These individuals should be thrown out of the town or thrown out of France."

While authorities do not believe there is a link between the rioters and Islamic terrorist organizations, there is concern that if France does not assimilate these young people, some other group will. 

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