Soccer Match Reopens Ethnic Tension Wounds

At an October soccer match between France and Tunisia in Paris, the crowd booed when the French national anthem was sung. Many of those booing were French citizens, the descendents of North African immigrants. The incident coincided with the anniversary of the 2005 riots, and again raised questions about the state of ethnic relations in France.

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Let's talk about another set of protests: protests at a recent soccer game between France and Tunisia. The French national anthem was booed. The game was not in Tunisia. It was in Paris last month, and those people booing were immigrants to France. The episode comes three years after riots by immigrants in 2005. And it once again raised questions about how well France has assimilated those of Arab and African descent. Eleanor Beardsley has this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Paris's Stade de France stadium was packed for a friendly match between France and Tunisia. When the Tunisian national anthem was sung, cheers rang out from the crowd.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

BEARDSLEY: The Marseillaise got another response altogether.

(Soundbite of crowd booing)

BEARDSLEY: The incident made headlines in all the papers the next day and so infuriated President Nicolas Sarkozy that he threatened to cancel any game if it happened again. Those who whistled and booed weren't Tunisians but mostly French born, second- and third-generation immigrants from Tunisia and other former French colonies in Africa. Thirty-one-year-old Aziz Seni(ph), a Frenchman of Moroccan descent, says he understands why it happened.

Mr. AZIZ SENI (Frenchman, Moroccan descent, Business Owner): (Through Translator) What I know is that these young people are the same youth who are rejected when they look for a job or an apartment. Why? Because of their original - skin color. They are French, but they want to send a message. It's not that they don't like France. It's just that they feel rejected by society.

BEARDSLEY: Seni is an immigrant success story. He started his own business eight years ago, a collective taxi service. His company is located in Mont Ligulae(ph), one of Paris's biggest minority populated suburbs. Just three years ago, young males of Arab and African background rioted here and in similar suburbs around France. Today, Semo looks out his office window at a barren scene of gray, cinderblock housing projects and finds the words in English to describe life there.

Mr. SENI (Business Owner, France): I see many sad people. A lot of young people with no job, no dream, no hope. Politic people come here when there is election and after go back, but nothing change.

BEARDSLEY: Communities like Mont Ligulae, where unemployment hovers around 20 percent, are a blemish on what some see as a mostly successful French model for integration. France has absorbed Europe's largest Muslim population and done so more successfully than many of its neighbors, but problems remain. Two blocks from Seni's office, 10 young black males hang out on the street in front of a café filled with elderly Arab men. Twenty-five-year-old Ashil Boundar (ph), whose parents immigrated from Marli, says nothing has changed since the riots, and he isn't surprised the Marseillaise was booed.

Mr. ASHIL BOUNDAR (Son of Immigrants, France): (Through Translator) France is a lousy country. We're left out here in our misery. No jobs, no youth associations here. I've signed up at the unemployment office but when your address is Mont Ligulae, you have no chance of finding a job.

BEARDSLEY: Sixty-four-year-old Algerian immigrant and now Frenchman Ahmed Rouii (ph) greets the young man as he leaves the teahouse. Rouii, who came to Mont Ligulae 40 years ago, says everything has changed.

Mr. AHMED ROUII (Immigrant, Algeria) (Through Translator): It's another world. France brought us here to work, we had children and they grew up, and now there are no jobs for them. And the French people who lived here have all left. Now it's just us Africans.

BEARDSLEY: After the 2005 riots, Sarkozy promised a massive urban- renewal plan. It will be carried out by Fadela Amara, his feisty and outspoken minister of urban affairs. The 43-year-old daughter of Algerian immigrants grew up in the French projects. Amara says in spite of a few adolescents who burn cars and jeer the national anthem, the French integration model has worked.

Ms. FADELA AMARA (Minister of Urban Affairs, France): (Through Translator) The French secular integration model has allowed Muslim women like me to succeed.

BEARDSLEY: Amara says the problem is mostly about class and poverty and not ethnic origin, but she concedes that France is a long way from electing its own Barack Obama. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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