Anger of the poor ignited the fires in France, immigrants contend

November 09, 2005|By TODD RICHISSIN | TODD RICHISSIN,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

PARIS -- They are French-speaking youths, sons of their country, but largely unaccepted by "true Frenchmen," who still see them as grandsons of lands elsewhere.

The frustrations of France's immigrant youth, caught up in the ghettos where unemployment figures reach 40 percent, has long been obvious, and nowhere more so than in the north of the capital, where teens have less attachment to the Eiffel Tower than the millions of tourists who flock here each year.

"Put yourself in the skin of a young person," said Kart Tahar, who has been in Paris for 25 of his 42 years, an immigrant from Tunisia who arrived with his family. "He looks for a job for one year and then for two years, and he cannot find one, and he cannot go to the restaurants of Paris. He is not part of the city. What is to stop him from burning it?"

By yesterday, French authorities were able to present tallies from the fires that snapped through the capital's northern suburbs, in Toulouse and Strasbourg, in Marseille and Bordeaux: how many fires, how many arrests, how many injured, how many dead.

That was the easy part.

Coming to terms with the root causes has been more difficult.

The rioting began two weeks ago when two teens of Mauritanian and Tunisian descent were electrocuted in a northern suburb called Clichy-sous-Bois after they slipped into a power substation to hide from police. But the deaths were just the latest in a long line of flash points.

Some here say the fuse was lighted a couple of years ago when the government cut benefits that affected mostly immigrants in the country's suburbs, or banlieues, grimy areas of large, concrete boxes that pass, barely, as housing.

Others trace it back to Sept. 11, 2001, because starting then, immigrants here will tell you, it became clear to the Arab and North African youths of the suburbs that escaping their ghettos was not going to happen anytime soon.

Consigned to ghettos

Still others point to two or three generations ago when immigrants, mostly from northern Africa, were consigned to the same ghettos that burn today.

"I cannot say exactly when we started to build the trouble we see," said Tahar, the Tunisian immigrant. "It has been 30 years of mistakes, 40 years, by the government and by immigrants, by both sides.

"Finally, after building, building, building - everything has exploded," he said.

Tahar runs a fabric shop in the teeming market of the 18th district, or arrondissement, which borders the northern suburbs where most of the current troubles began.

From stalls and shallow stores, immigrants, some of them first generation, but most second or third, speak in accents from Tunisia, Togo, Nigeria, Morocco and elsewhere. They sell fish and cosmetics, fabric, vegetables, music, cows skinned and hung whole from their back legs in the afternoon sun.

Virtually nobody here seemed surprised yesterday, nearly a full two weeks after the nightly fires began, about the trouble. Police have said it is mostly young people - 12, 14, 16 years old - who have set cars and buses afire, some of them at the direction of young men 18 and 20 years old.

`Improve economics'

The frustrations among those burning France are not dissimilar to those of economically excluded young men who have led riots in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Detroit and many other large U.S. cities over the decades.

"Do not make this a Muslim problem, because that is not what it is," said Farhat Ali, 35, also a Tunisian immigrant. "This is about discrimination in jobs and education and about frustration by people who are poor and believe they will always be poor.

"The only thing Muslim about this is that when Sept. 11 happened, then - for sure - there was going to be more discrimination against these same people. Improve the economics and the situation will improve," Farhat said.

The violence, in fact, eased somewhat overnight Monday to Tuesday, after Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin announced a restoration of some benefits that had been cut by his government.

He has also reached out to the immigrants, telling them he knows of their plight, acknowledging that racial discrimination is a "daily and repeated" fact of life.

His words were in sharp contrast to those of France's interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is widely expected to run for president in 2007. For months he has been on a law-and-order campaign in the immigrant areas, which many in those neighborhoods have been leery about and who said they have determined Sarkozy's motive for sending in police when he referred to the protesters as "scum."

"When you call people such names, they behave like that," said a 56-year-old woman from Togo, working a market in the 18th district, who did not want to give her name, she said, because she feared the police.

"These `scum' are the grandsons of the people who built France," she continued. "Now that France is built, it is kept for everybody but us who built it."

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