Why Is France Burning?

France authorizes dusk-to-dawn curfews under a state-of-emergency law in an attempt to stop nearly two weeks of rioting in suburbs dominated by Muslim immigrants of African origin. Ed Gordon discusses the underlying causes of the violence with author Miles Marshall Lewis and Clarence Lusane of American University.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

French officials are threatening to impose a dusk-to-dawn curfew on low-income areas outside of Paris and elsewhere hard hit by two weeks of rioting. For the past several nights, African and Arab French youth as well as poor whites have staged running battles with police. Groups of mainly young people roam the narrow streets of more than 300 French towns. They torched hundreds of cars, dozens of businesses and a handful of schools. On Monday, a man was killed during the unrest. The violence was triggered almost two weeks ago by the deaths of two teen-agers of African descent who were hiding out from police. They were killed while attempting to scale an electric fence. But many say the causes of the violence go much deeper. According to some, the rioting is an outcry for better living conditions and more economic opportunity for those in immigrant communities.

Joining us from Paris is journalist and author Miles Marshall Lewis. Also with us is Clarence Lusane, assistant professor of political science at American University. He studied race, culture and immigration issues in Europe. He joins us from Washington, DC.

Gentlemen, thank you for joining us. Mr. Lusane, let me start with you. With what you've studied, your history and background here, does this come as any surprise to you?

Professor CLARENCE LUSANE (American University): No, not at all. In fact, it's been going on for a while. I'm reminded of the Langston Hughes poem "A Raisin in the Sun" where he asks the question, `What happens to a dream deferred?' And he says it's like a raisin, it explodes. And that's what's been happening for a while, and now we're seeing a crescendo of those activities. And it's shaped very much by the outcast generation. These are the young people from the global south who've come to Europe, to France, to Germany, to the UK who essentially have been abandoned and they are alienated not only from their parents, who came from another different time and generation, but they're also alienated from the societies they're in. And in France in particular, the abandonment of young Muslims, young North Africans has been in effect a social policy for the last three decades. And so all of that's starting to kind of come up now, and what they're trying to do is impose a police solution on what in effect is a social problem.

GORDON: How much of this is, in your opinion, Mr. Lusane, an issue of race more so than what we would see in many areas and have historically seen in many immigrant areas, and that is the ghettoization, if you'll allow for that colloquialism, of a particular area?

Prof. LUSANE: Well, in part what people are responding to is what we call over here racial profiling. And that's exactly what has been the situation in France. But France, even more so than many other countries in Western Europe, at the same time denies that racism exists. In fact, it's the official policy of the French government that racism simply does not exist in France. And that actually is a popular view. And you talk to people across the political spectrum, from the far right over to the Communist Party, and they all deny that racism is a factor in French life, but in fact, if you look at who's going to prison, if you look at the shape of the ghettos, if you look at who's being denied job opportunities, education opportunities, it very clearly boils down to people of darker skin; it boils down to the Muslim populations that are a part of French society. But they refuse to acknowledge that, which means part of the solution, which is documenting and establishing the degrees in which and how discrimination happens is not even an option in France. In the Netherlands, in the UK and other countries, they've moved at least to the level of recognizing that racism is a variable, racial discrimination isn't just individuals but that it affects whole groups of people. But France hasn't even moved to that level yet.

GORDON: Miles Marshall Lewis, let me move to you. I heard you in agreement to what Professor Lusane was saying, and I'm curious, an expatriate there and not living in these areas, we should note, but dealing quite a bit with how African-Americans and other expatriates and other Africans and people of color are dealt with in this area, talk to me about what you have seen.

Mr. MILES MARSHALL LEWIS (Journalist and Author): Sure. I think that the racial profiling issue is a serious one. I know that going to an area called Les Halles, where there's a popular mall, I have seen teen-agers ask for their identity cards. I've been in Paris. I'm a native New Yorker, I've been here now since last May, and I've never been asked randomly for my passport, for example, whereas local French citizens of, you know, the young, the youth are being asked for their identity cards. They're people who hop the train, for example, and, you know, are put up against the wall and taken off to police stations and stuff like that. But, you know, there are teens who haven't done anything, just by virtue of their color, by virtue of, you know, their look, they're being racially profiled just as if this were New York, for example.

GORDON: Mr. Lewis, let me ask you, as relates to the response that you have seen from French officials, it took Jacques Chirac over a week to even talk about publicly this situation. Two days ago was his first official statement on the goings-on. Does this speak at all, in your opinion, to how this situation has been handled in the past and how they're dealing with it now?

Mr. LEWIS: Yes, I think so. I mean, I think that there is a reticence on the part of the government here to discuss matters of race, and I think that one of the main reasons behind the rioting is the marginalization that people are feeling in these communities. For example, in the media, when the two youths were killed that started the whole uprising, their names are never identified, you know. I think that in a similar situation where the police were involved in killing white French youth that we would get background information and statements from their families, and it would be covered completely differently. But here it's just this anonymous sort of treat that makes the marginalization be felt in these communities, like they're not fully French or like they're not dealt with in quite the same way as white French.

GORDON: Mr. Lusane, when President Chirac comes out to admit that and notes that unemployment runs as high as 40 percent in many of these suburbs, four times the national rate, and talks about the idea that integration just has not worked in most of these areas, is this now, in your opinion, the idea of awakening to these officials or is this the party line that has to be read?

Prof. LUSANE: Yeah, I think it's the party line. Now we should remember that the only reason Chirac is president is because he made it into the runoff with Jean Le Pen. And Le Pen was so extreme that the country voted for Chirac. But Chirac is essentially a conservative. He comes out of the law-and-order mode. And he's appointed people who have taken a hard line, who have taken essentially a zero-tolerance approach to dealing with crime. And that has meant they specifically have targeted these young people, as your other caller talked about, who are out in the streets and they're identified. And any young black person or any young Muslim-looking person or any young North African-looking person is going to find themselves subjected to being questioned, being interrogated, whether they were born in France or not. And that's been the code. And in fact, when, after the first couple of days, things were actually starting to cool down, the statements that came from the French government, particularly the interior minister, Nikolas Sarkozy, calling these young people scum and saying that we're going to rid the country of these criminals, all of that is what escalated the situation because it's been part of a consistent pattern coming from the Chirac government but also the governments before.

In the 1990s, if you were a black person from anywhere in the world, from United States to UK, South Africa and you were in France, you were probably going to be stopped because of the Pasqua Laws. These were the laws that said that the police could stop anybody and ask them for ID. What that essentially meant was they stopped anybody who they thought was not French or French-looking from their vantage point. So there's a long history that's there, and all of that has been building for years and years and years. And the death of the two young people just was the trigger for what had been...

GORDON: Yeah.

Prof. LUSANE: ...an undercurrent.

GORDON: Miles Marshall Lewis, let me ask you, from a very unique perspective, being an expatriate living in the United States and in New York City, you certainly understand the history of prejudice here in this country. What do you see as the difference between the two countries, and what's the biggest similarity?

Mr. LEWIS: I think similarities, as I mentioned earlier, you know, the racial profiling and the way that, you know, blacks are often dealt with in both countries is similar.

You know, one of the things I wanted to mention, which is sort of off question, but there were four hotel fires that killed a lot of African immigrants this year.

GORDON: Right.

Mr. LEWIS: And one of the things that is happening here is that social services puts people, African immigrants, into hotels with bad conditions, like electrical wiring issues and stuff like that. And, you know, it goes to the housing issue. You know, these fires found African immigrants, like, jumping out the window and stuff like that to escape the flames, and a lot of children were killed in the last fire. And, you know, this is the type of thing that, you know, builds up after a while in the minds of those who feel that they're being marginalized, you know? It's...

GORDON: And--go ahead, I'm sorry. Very quickly, please.

Mr. LEWIS: No, no. It's just a dire situation.

GORDON: All right. Well, it seems to be the case as we've gone into almost two weeks literally of the streets burning and upheaval, and we will continue to watch that situation. Clarence Lusane, assistant professor of political science at American University, and Miles Marshall Lewis, a journalist and author who lives just outside of Paris, I thank you both for joining us. Appreciate it.

Prof. LUSANE: Thank you.

Mr. LEWIS: Thank you, Ed.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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