France's worst civil unrest in decades was sparked by the accidental electrocution of two Muslim teenagers who fled into a power substation while apparently avoiding police. The ensuing weeks of unrest have forced not just France but other European nations to examine the alienation of their Muslim immigrant communities.
European leaders are watching with apprehension the violence spread across districts of France that are heavily populated by disaffected Muslims, in what European media call the "French intifada". The riots that have shaken France and stunned the continent have been carried out mostly by African and Arab teenagers who see themselves as victims of racial and religious prejudice.
Most of France's Muslims live in poor neighborhoods separate from the white Christian mainstream, in suburbs often rife with crime and seething anger. Unemployment in these communities is 20 %, double the national average. It's more than 30 % among 21-to-29-year-olds.
Alienated Muslim Youth
But to most observers, young Muslims from the slums outside of Paris, Lyon and Marseilles are no more alienated than those living on the outskirts of many other European cities. In 2001, riots erupted in several towns in northern England. The following year, Muslim neighborhoods in Antwerp, Belgium swelled with violence. Since the unrest in France, suspected copycat torching of cars have taken place in Berlin and Bremen, as well as Brussels.
Western Europe is home to roughly 20 million Muslims. The largest concentration -- about five million -- live in France. Belgium, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands and Italy also have large populations of Muslims.
According to Charles Kupchan, Director of Europe Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, at the center of the problem is an uneasy relationship between primarily Muslim immigrant communities and the dominant white Christian populations. He says it stems from a long history in Europe of identifying nationhood with ethnicity.
Mr. Kupchan notes, "Even though in France on the books you have a civic definition of citizenship, there is still a tendency among the French and other European countries to believe that the national community has an ethnic component. And that has left immigrants feeling as if they are second-class citizens, somewhat isolated from the socio-economic mainstream. And you couple that sense of isolation with economic immobility and, I think, you get a huge amount of frustration that is now breaking out into violence."
Other analysts point out that unlike immigrants who flocked to resource rich continent-size America, Muslim newcomers to Western Europe risk crowding smaller, ethnically and culturally homogenous states.
Robert Leiken, Director of the Immigration and National Security Program at the Nixon Center in Washington, adds that the immigration of Muslims, which took place in the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s, created communities with customs, traditions and a religion that often did not fit seamlessly into Europe.
"It is usually the second generation that is really the key", says Mr. Leiken. "They are the kids who go to school and in the school learn to mix with other kids and become part of the French, or the American or the British nation. And that's not happening here. One thing is the schools are pretty much segregated. Not intentionally, but that's a result. The other is that sometimes the kids feel less of an identity than their parents. They often feel that they are not French, because the French society does not really accept them, nor are they Moroccan of Algerian. If they were to go back to Algeria, they would find a Third World country that they would not be comfortable in, that they would be considered a tourist in."
Mr. Leiken contends that street-violence and intolerance threaten to further polarize immigrant Muslim and majority populations across Europe. He says, "It is a huge crisis because it is not a problem that is going to be solved in any foreseeable future. You have societies, which are not immigrant societies. Not nations of immigrants the United States considers itself to be or Australia or some other places that are not used to absorbing immigrants and you have an immigrant cohort that has resistance in integrating. So you have the gravitational forces moving in the wrong direction."
A recent public opinion survey shows 71 percent of French do not believe President Jacques Chirac can solve the social problems fueling the riots. However, nearly a quarter of the respondents say far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen can restore order.
Last year's murder by a Muslim immigrant of the controversial film-director Theo van Gogh -- a distant relative of 19th century painter Vincent van Gogh -- shook the Netherlands, which has an image as a tolerant, peaceful country. The incident set off a series of attacks on Muslim sites, followed by retaliatory attacks on Christian churches.
Although most analysts agree there isn't evidence that radical Islam is influencing the rioting in France, they caution that unintegrated and unemployed Muslim communities in Western Europe could become incubators of Islamic extremism.
Dieter Dettke is Director of the Washington office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation that supports education, research and international cooperation. He says European nations have failed to find the right immigration policy, which would focus more on integration and less on welfare programs. But he adds worldwide Islamic revivalism is a daunting obstacle and notes the rejection of western democratic values by Islamic extremists like Mohammed Atta, the suspected ringleader of the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States.
Dieter Dettke contends, "We have to face the reality of a revitalization of Islam that reaches out to European societies and wherever people of Muslim faith are. Let's not forget that Mohammed Atta and others planned what they did in Germany, in a democratic surrounding and were radicalized in a totally democratic environment. But can you blame Europe for this? I doubt it. You have a phenomenon here with roots that are more in Islam than in Europe."
Still, most observers hope that Europe will be able to borrow from the American model of tolerance and inclusion for the successful assimilation of immigrants into mainstream society regardless of their religious, ethnic or national origin.