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Arab, Muslim Refugees in France Influence Arts and Culture - 2003-06-17

France is the third most popular European destination for refugees, with Algerians and Turks accounting for two of the largest groups of refugee applicants. But many Muslims and Arabs head to France for economic, not political, reasons.

One of the most popular music and news channels in France these days is Beur FM, broadcasting at 106.9 on the Paris-area radio dial. The channel has an estimated audience of 500,000 listeners in France, and many more in North Africa and other Arab countries.

Beur FM takes its name from the slang word beur, referring to second and third generation North Africans whose parents flocked to France in droves half a century ago. But these days, Beur FM listeners also include a growing number of so-called "Francais de souches", French whose roots here stretch back generations.

What accounts for the radio's widespread popularity? Beur FM's news director, Ahmed Nait-Balk, offers a few explanations.

"Increasingly, the radio station has become a reference point for news and cultural events involving the French Arab community, but interests French of all origins," said Mr. Nait-Balk. "The station has also become a launching pad for promising young, ethnic-Arab singers."

Algerian Rai, Berber and other traditional Arab and North African music is widely popular in France. Stars like Cheb Khaled perform to sold-out audiences.

But music is not the only way Arab immigrants have made their mark. Many French bakeries in immigrant-heavy cities like Paris and Marseille sell flat, North African bread, alongside the traditional baguette.

There is also no shortage of restaurants and coffee shops offering couscous, and North African green tea. Many supermarket chains sell North African specialties like brik, a fried pastry, or kosher delicacies, since many North African immigrants are Sephardic Jews.

French literature, sports, even the French language, has been deeply influenced by the country's ethnic-Arab population.

Catherine Withol de Wenden, an immigration expert at the Paris-based Center for International Research says the immigrants are responsible for a new, French slang language known as "verlan" that was founded in France's immigrant-heavy housing projects.

"Verlan is a kind of argotic vocabulary of the suburbs, the inner cities, where they change the order of the syllables," she said. "For example, la fete, the feast, they name that 'teuf.'"

Mrs. de Wenden says verlan has permeated mainstream society. The word beur, for example, is verlan for Arab.

Experts say, opportunities that are closed to ethnic Arabs in French business and political life, are often open when it comes to the arts and sports.

French soccer champion Zinnedine Zidane remains one of the country's most admired figures, since France's 1998, World Cup victory. But other, ethnic-Arab sports stars have since emerged. A leading member of the Paris opera ballet is of North African extraction. So are several prominent movie stars, such as ethnic Moroccan actor, Jamel Debbouze.

Malek Boutih, the head of the Paris-based anti-discrimination group, SOS Racism, believes the influence of ethnic Arabs has revitalized French arts and sports, and will emerge as a dominating influence in French culture this century.

The French, like other Europeans, appear to welcome the contributions immigrants make to artistic and athletic life. A survey by the European Center on Racism and Xenophobia found 48 percent of Europeans agreed that immigrants had enriched the cultural life of European Union countries.

But gaining acceptance in other fields is proving hard for immigrants. A government report last year found so-called glass ceilings blocking young, second and third generation immigrants from advancing in white-collar jobs.

This young generation also remains under-represented in French political parties. And, overall, unemployment remains twice as high among France's immigrant population than among the French population at large.

And even in the arts, experts like Malek Boutih say, discrimination exists. Mr. Boutih points out that the celebrated French academy and other well-established cultural institutions in France have yet to open their doors to ethnic Arabs, and other immigrants.

A striking exception is former Senagalese president, Leopold Senghor. Mr. Senghor, who died in 2001, was a gifted writer, and a member of the French Academy.

Mr. Nait-Balk, of Beur FM, says recording companies are reluctant to promote rising young, ethnic-Arab singers. He says only a small percentage of these musicians become household names in France.

As a result, Beur FM recently launched its own production company. Its crop of young artists, Mr. Nait Balk says, is increasingly blending both Arab and French musical traditions into their work.