Examining Youth Riots in France Rioting in France is spotlighting Muslim youths who don't feel part of French society, even though they were born and raised there. An alienated Arab population concerns all of Europe, but much less so in the United States.
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Examining Youth Riots in France

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Examining Youth Riots in France

Examining Youth Riots in France

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

After almost two weeks of riots, French officials hope that the disturbances across the country are beginning to wind down. Out of the smoke and rubble comes a picture of disaffected youth. Most, though not all, are young Muslim men whose homes are concentrated in rundown housing projects on the outskirts of French cities, most are the children and grandchildren of the Africans and Arabs who came to Europe 30 and 40 years ago looking for work. These days, work is hard to find. The unemployment rate in these enclaves is several times the national average, services are substandard, relations with police are often tense.

French President Jacques Chirac was slow to respond to the crisis. He spoke to the nation 10 days after riots began. Critics say that Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has been ineffectual and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy provocative, which is important because those two are early favorites to replace Chirac in the next French presidential election in 2007.

Later in the program, British Prime Minister Tony Blair loses an important parliamentary vote on his terrorism bill and Ken Rudin will join us to look at politics closer to home after yesterday's elections.

But first, Europe and Muslims. We want to hear from you, especially from Muslims who've lived in Europe. How does the experience there differ from life in the US? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And we begin with Molly Moore, The Washington Post's Paris correspondent. She joins us from The Post bureau there.

And good to have you back on the program, Molly.

Ms. MOLLY MOORE (The Washington Post; Paris Correspondent): It's a pleasure to be with you, again.

CONAN: Last night was less violent than the night before. Any indication yet that the trend will continue tonight?

Ms. MOORE: Well, it's a little too early to tell because already tonight there has been violence in some cities. A nursery school was burned in the southern city of Toulouse. Now several cities have imposed curfews tonight, especially along the French Riviera, the cities of Nice and Cannes, and hope that that will calm some of the tension. But many of the young men that we have been talking to out in these suburban areas say that, in fact, the curfews may only increase the problem.

CONAN: And why?

Ms. MOORE: Well, the police throughout this have been a target for the gangs of young men who last night in Toulouse, for instance, the problems didn't start until the first group of police came into one neighborhood. The young men who are perpetrating some of the violence are, in fact, trying to taunt the police and the other problem is many of these cities just simply don't have enough police forces to enforce a significant curfew.

CONAN: Let me ask, first, about the state of emergency that's been declared. As you said, curfews have been set in place in several cities and towns. But this state of emergency, as I understand it, only allows local administrators to set these curfews if they want to.

Ms. MOORE: That's right. What it is, it's a national authority. It's based on a law from 1955 that was used during the Algerian war of independence from France. And this, of course, is--concerned many French people that this curfew law from this turbulent time in French history is now being reimposed. And...

CONAN: Yeah, symbolism lost on no one.

Ms. MOORE: Exactly. And what it does is allow local authorities to impose the curfews if they feel they're needed in their cities. It does not mandate that curfews be imposed.

CONAN: Now in terms of the riots themselves, are there indications that these are organized, locally organized or they're--what's going on?

Ms. MOORE: Well, the police authorities have been trying to say that they see organization. But when you go out into these neighborhoods day after day, you see that it's young groups of angry young men that everyone in the neighborhood knows, that when you go out and talk with them, say, `Look, you know, we just burned whatever we come across and is available.' The only organization, per se, is that all these young guys have cell phones and they notify each other of where the police forces are in the city so they can either try to avoid them or they can try to run out and throw rocks and bottles at them.

CONAN: The French police also arrested two teen-age bloggers yesterday. What was that about?

Ms. MOORE: Well, there was a blog site on one of the most popular radio stations among young people that, in the view of the French authorities, had just become too provocative. These youths were recommending, you know, more burning, bringing down the government and they were arrested and charged with incitement and this blog site has been shut down by the radio station.

CONAN: Now there have been suggestions and descriptions of this as sort of an insurrection of sorts. The government, though, was very slow to react.

Ms. MOORE: The government was extremely slow to react and the government still has reacted only minimally. The crisis began on a weekend. It was a holiday weekend here when a lot of government officials were out at their country houses, outside of Paris. And then as the crisis gained momentum, they seemed to be paralyzed by infighting. As you mentioned in your opening, two of the main players here, the interior minister, who is the top law enforcement officer in the country, and the prime minister basically are both trying to run for president in 2007. They don't like each other at all. They barely speak to each other when you see them shown on TV sitting next to each other in the Cabinet meetings. And that has incapacitated the government. That along with the fact that you have a lame-duck president, Jacques Chirac, whose political career for all intents and purposes is over. So, you know, he sees no value in coming out and appearing as the government face during this crisis.

CONAN: In the midst of all of this, Mr. Sarkozy, who, as we mentioned, has been accused of being provocative, said again today that if any foreigners are arrested and convicted of participating in these riots, they ought to be deported.

Ms. MOORE: Right. And what he's talking about as foreigners are the children of immigrants. Very often in these families--the whole family doesn't come over at once because there's not enough money. In fact, the boys that start--that sparked this riot when they were electrocuted when they thought they were being chased by police...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MOORE: ...in one of the northern suburbs. One of those youths had only come to France four years ago. These are poor, impoverished housing project areas. Unlike the US, the housing projects here are in the suburbs, not in the cities. And many of these are newcomers to France; although many, many others of them are French born and are French citizens. It's their parents and their grandparents who are the immigrants.

CONAN: If you want to--if you have questions about this or if you want to join the conversation, our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail: totn@npr.org.

And let's talk with Ali. Ali joins us from Philadelphia.

ALI (Caller): Hi. Thanks for the show.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ALI: I appreciate it. I'd like to comment. I'm an immigrant from North Africa, Tunisia. I've been living in the US for eight years and have actually lived several months at these suburbs that they're talking about.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ALI: My first comment is: French people, they seem to be--when there's some kind of--when they're against, for example, working a certain amount of hours or anything like that, they go and protest and they're known for their violent protests. So they burn cars, all kinds of things happen. But now when everybody's trying to avoid really understanding what the real problem is, which is these people are rejected by the government, they live in so-called like subsidized housing which look like Third World countries. You know, when you go there, you feel like you're totally not in France, absolutely not in Paris. Maybe you're somewhere in Africa or something like that. They can't get jobs, even though they're qualified. Like if you graduate, if your name is Abu or Muhammad or Ali, it is almost impossible to get a job at a bank or even as a bus driver.

So instead of maybe having all these curfews and thinking about bringing in the army or increasing police, they should perhaps find the solution and then this would be, I guess, a lesson to maybe understand what happens when you isolate a few million people for a certain amount of time. And I'll take the answer off the air.

CONAN: Well, thanks for the call.

ALI: So my question is--my question to your callers is--I'm sorry--what do they think is the best solution for this...


ALI: ...being realistic? Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Ali.

Ms. MOORE: Well...

CONAN: And, Molly Moore, does that description of the suburbs square with what you've seen?

Ms. MOORE: Oh, he's absolutely correct in everything that he says. And part of the problem here is that, thus far, the government has treated this only as a law-and-order problem, not as a much larger social problem that France has. And what most people here believe needs to happen is that the government needs to pay greater attention to these areas. It's neglected them for decades. There are not even any immigrant--single immigrant representative in France's Parliament. It's a country that's completely segregated, leaving its--most of its immigrant community in these housing projects and separating the old, white European communities, who remain in the cities. So there needs to be a complete overhaul of the system here and a recognition of what the problem is.

CONAN: And are--white people in France, are they calling for social reforms or are they calling for law and order at this point?

Ms. MOORE: Well, a little bit of both. The Socialist Party, as you would expect, the left-leaning parties are expecting--are calling for greater social action, putting more money into schools, housing, providing for more integration of the immigrant and first-generation French-born citizens into society. But also the far right is saying it's getting more people into its ranks like people that are angry at the violence and angry at the destruction and saying that the government really needs to clamp down. The problem is, it--the government is talking--if you're talking about clamping down, you're talking about clamping down on your own citizens. And in any country, that's extremely dangerous.

CONAN: And one final question before we let you go, Molly. There were reports of sort of, I guess, copycat incidents near the French border in Germany and in Belgium as well. Any suggestion that this is going beyond the borders of France?

Ms. MOORE: Well, it's concerned the leaders of Europe very much that, in fact, it might, because to a certain extent, many countries in Europe have these same problems, although they are somewhat more difficult here in France. But that's something that's being watched very closely here and today we didn't see any further expansion of it. But European leaders are very concerned that it, in fact, could spring up in some of their poorer immigrant neighborhoods.

CONAN: Molly Moore, thanks very much.

Ms. MOORE: You're quite welcome.

CONAN: Molly Moore is The Washington Post's Paris correspondent. She joined us from The Post's office in the French capital. And we're talking about urban unrest in France, why it's happening. Next we'll hear from someone who studies Islam in Europe and the United States. We'll talk about--also talk with an imam in Detroit. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us: totn@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. Back after a break. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

France's prime minister said his country must do more to fight discrimination against immigrants who feel left out of French society. That's one of the issues underlying two weeks of riots across France. If you have questions about what's happening and why, give us a call: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

In a few minutes we'll also be talking about whether conditions are similar in this country; whether the same kind of thing might happen here.

Jocelyne Cesari is visiting professor of Islamic studies at Harvard and associate professor at the French National Center for Scientific Research at the Sorbonne. And she joins us now on the phone from Berlin, where she's attending a conference.

It's good of you to be with us today.

Professor JOCELYNE CESARI (Harvard University; French National Center for Scientific Research): Hello?

CONAN: Hello. How are you?

Prof. CESARI: I'm fine. Thank you. Thank you.

CONAN: Can I ask that same question that we were talking with Molly Moore about at the end: Is there concern outside of France that these--this rioting may spread in other parts of Europe?

Prof. CESARI: Absolutely. There is a concern in Germany, a concern in the UK, in Belgium, that what's going on in France can--could happen over there as well. But if I think of it--and we have been discussing this here in Berlin--I don't think that all the reason that explain the French situation are the same, let's say, in Berlin or in Brussels or London or the northern of England.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, let me ask you about that. For one thing, is this about religion?

Prof. CESARI: No. This is not about religion. What we are witnessing now is a high level of frustration and anger. It has been said everywhere. We have maybe to go back a little in the past to understand that. You know, this is not the first time that immigration--youth from immigrant origin are revolting in France. The big brothers of this generation did that in the '80s--1980s--and nothing has changed since then. And the question is not only to look at the socioeconomic integration--lots of policies have been made since the '80s and none have been successful because, also, these people are part of France. These youth consider itself as part of French society, but all the indicators--the political discourse, the intellectual discourse--is always putting them out and external to any mainstream options or situation in France today. And I think we are paying now the cost of looking at them with particular lenses, ethnic discourse, religious discourse and not really making room for them in mainstream France.

And I think that these are citizens. We are not talking about an external group revolting in the outskirts of Paris. We are talking about the products of a French system, you know, of 20 years of failure in some way. And once again, it's not only--it's not because money has not been put in the banlieue. It's not because there is no policy there. There are. But how do we phrase and communic--phrase particular discourse for this problem and how do we communicate with this part of the society?

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Alex. Alex is calling us from Lyndhurst, Ohio.

ALEX (Caller): Good afternoon to you all.

CONAN: Afternoon.

ALEX: My question stems from lengthy visits to France over the last 30 years. I would like your speaker to respond to this broad question. France culturally regards all immigrants as French from the moment they land and that therefore, under the egalite concept, no differentiation is made as to whether you are born in France or have arrived and become a French citizen. I think that has fired the government's policies over the last 20 years of ignoring the fact that there may be cultural differences which have to be accommodated, vis-a-vis employment and opportunities within these subdivisions. Britain has been guilty of allowing ghettos to emerge; France, I believe, has denied that they exist. I would be interested to know the comment of your speaker on that.

CONAN: Jocelyne...

ALEX: I'll take the answer off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Alex.

Jocelyne Cesari?

Prof. CESARI: Yes. I mean, the situation is a little more complex than that. I mean, it's true that the French tradition is ignorance of cultural differences in public space. But to--this immigration is not the same as any kind we got in the 19th century or early 20th century. We are talking about post-Colonial immigration. This immigration--the fathers or grandfathers of these young people today have always been treated differently because they come from--they came from the former Colonial space. And, you know, there's always been in the public discourse a sort of discrimination and particular qualification for them. You know, in France when you are second- or third-generation, nobody reminds you your origin theocratically and historically. This has not been the case for this particular group and there is a reason here.

To say it differently, there is a shared conflictual memory on both sides, on the side of the family of immigrants and their children and on the side of the dominant French society. And, of course, there has been discrimination and discrimination in housing, in employment, in education and so on. But this is--this kind of particular qualification, always negative, always despising or condescendant, has been very deeply harmful on this group, the young people now, that say `That's enough. We are'--what they are saying because they don't have words anymore is their rage to still be out there.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. CESARI: And these are external situation, it's plain. This is a symbolic alienation, and the French government over the last five years has tried to counter discrimination, racial discrimination, in housing, employment, public administration--didn't go very far, because, you know, we are--hear about the cumulative memory starting, let's say, with the end of the colonization until now.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Scott Jackson in Fairfax, Virginia. `I lived in France in the summer of 2003,' he writes, `in Marseilles and was surprised that even not-so-young Muslim men in Marseilles felt that though they had exceptional academic qualifications, they were in a way confined to the city. They were not welcome outside of Marseilles; were not free to work elsewhere.' And in that light, I wanted to ask you, Jocelyne Cesari, that if this rioting is not about religion, is the discrimination, is that about religion? Is that about race?

Prof. CESARI: No. The discrimin--I mean, once again, for French and--religion, race and culture and ethnicity are all together because they are all concentrated, crystallized in this particular group. The French don't make the difference that most Americans do between race, ethnicity and religion. And when it comes to Islam, because we are here facing immigration, never forget that in Europe most migrants are Muslim, and this is the case in France; it is the case in other European countries. They are of a particular ethnicity in France. Most Muslims are north African and they are from immigration waves, and they are post-Colonial. So all this make the situation very difficult because they have this kind of continuous correlation between Islam, ethnicity, race and socioeconomic exclusion.

And in my book on Europe--on Muslims in Europe, I show this clearly. And for me to see the sign that there is something wrong here and we going to--we are paying the political cost of this very dangerous discourse.

CONAN: Here's another e-mail. We got this from Mike Alexander in Palo Alto, California. `I can't help but compare current events in France to the Watts riots of the 1960s. As was true in Watts,' he writes, the French unrest seems to be driven by the frustrations of a marginalized and impoverished minority railing against symbols of the master. However, restraint on the part of French authorities has minimized loss of life and property. Rather than being criticized for their lack of forcefulness, I believe the gendarmes ought to be praised for their sensibility.'

First of all, the comparison to Watts, is that apt?

Prof. CESARI: The comparison to--I'm sorry, I didn't hear the...

CONAN: To the Watts riots of--in Los Angeles, 1968.

Prof. CESARI: Yeah.

CONAN: 1966.

Prof. CESARI: It does have a part of--you can make the comparison, yes. Because in--I mean, when you have this conjunction between racial exclusion and socioeconomic exclusion, this is the kind of situation you can compare with France. The particular addition to that is that, for Muslims and for this particular young population, and for non-Muslims as well, politicians, particularly the Islamic dimension is also present in the way--not now, not in the riots right now, but in the way that this population has been depicted and described. And just to give you an example of that, you know, why the law prohibiting religious signs has been voted in France after this huge debate is because some people coming from the outskirts of Paris have made it clear that women with a scarf were oppressed by this particular male population and so on in the banlieue in the outskirts of Paris. So the discourse of the banlieue and socioeconomic exclusion came as a justification in some ways of the law, you know, concerning secularization and seculary--so there is something...

CONAN: This is the law that covered head scarves in--girls wearing head scarves in schools.

Prof. CESARI: Yeah. Not only a scarf but all kinds of religious signs now are prohibited in French public schools. So this is something that came as an argument, so once again it is this kind of mixing different levels of reasons and justification. And I think that this--and it's not the coincidence in my mind that young male are now revolting. You know, there's also a huge discourse on what these people are doing and how they treat the women and the young women in the banlieue, and so no male really--there's no particular voices for male in this area, you know, talking and expressing themselves. So we are--hear about mythical voices talking about the banlieue, the outskirts of Paris, and not automatically making room for their voices, multiple, diverse and so on.

CONAN: Thank you very much for being with us today. We appreciate you taking the time.

Prof. CESARI: OK. Bye-bye. Thank you.

CONAN: Jocelyne Cesari is the author of "When Islam and Democracy Meet: Muslims in Europe and the United States." And she joined us on the phone from Berlin in Germany, where she's attending a conference.

We leave Europe now and return to the United States to look at Muslims in America and how their conditions here differ from those of Muslims in Western Europe. Dawud Walid is executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations for the state of Michigan. He's also assistant imam at the Masjid Wali Muhammad in Detroit and he joins us by phone from Detroit.

Good to have you on the program today.

Mr. DAWUD WALID (Council on American-Islamic Relations; Assistant Imam, Masjid Wali Muhammad): Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Are the conditions for American Muslims different? And first of all, just demographically are American Muslims different?

Mr. WALID: Yes, demographically, in comparison to France, the mixture, also the level of education and the accessibilities, the opportunities in general differ greatly here from France. But before I go into that, I would like to make the statement that it is our view and the view of many Muslim American leaders that the point that the rioters--the majority of the youth happen to be Muslim is not a direct consequence of their religion or even the riots themselves aren't being done in the name of religion.

CONAN: As we heard from the people who we've been talking to from France.

Mr. WALID: Yes, as we've heard before. But one thing is that the immigrants that have come to America from South Asia, the Arab world, also Subsaharan Africa and Iran and Southeast Asia--their annual income in comparison to the American society in general is higher, and it's said that 50 percent of Muslims--their household income is more than $50,000 per year, and this is one thing which is a stark contrast to France, which in France, the average income for a Muslim household is lower than the national average of France.

Also, here in the United States of America, which is a very big difference, I would say, from America than France or for western Europe, for that matter, is that within the United States of America's Muslim population, we have an extremely large indigenous population of Muslims which France and western Europe don't have. And particularly the African-American population, which are Muslims, their families have been here since the construction of this society. African Muslims came to America before Columbus even landed here and, for that matter, the majority of countries which the slaves were brought from from West Africa were actually lands of Muslim populations. So there have been African-Americans here for a very long time and many of their ancestors were Muslims, so this is something that is very different than in France.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And you're talking about different conditions. Yet, certainly there can be situations of anger that develop in a lot of minority communities in this country as well, including the Muslim community.

Mr. WALID: Yes, but as far as the minority situation here in the United States of America and Muslims, there haven't been an outright isolation that we see in France. But for that matter, I would say that--and I was listening to your last speaker--the majority of immigrants that are in France do come from colonialized lands where the French had colonialized the area that just happen to be Muslim, but as we have seen in the media--and I saw on BBC myself last night, they were speaking to a young man named Peter, I believe, with some Senegalese background, and there are Muslims who are--excuse me, there are also people who are involved in the social unrest who are non-Muslims, but their isolation and their being placed into these ghettos have more so to do of where they come from, their national origin or the national origin of their parents, and that although they may be considered by law French citizens, they have been excluded because of their national origin or skin color.

CONAN: I did want to ask you--we just a minute or so left with you, but what's been the reaction in the Islamic community in Detroit there to the situation in France?

Mr. WALID: It's been twofold. First of all, looking at the American media, we are somewhat disappointed that so much emphasis is being placed on the rioters as being Muslim when, in fact, they're not saying this in the name of Islam and, of course, Islam does not condone riotous behavior or any type of anarchy or lawlessness. And secondly, we are also somewhat apprehensive. Directly after the London bombings of July the 7th, there was somewhat of a backlash over the next with--like two months after the bombings, and there were a number of houses of worship which were vandalized and desecrated, and our concern is is that there's--through the connection between the rioters and some of the rioters or a percentage of the rioters being of Muslim background, that there may be some possible backlash by some extremists or some fringe groups of individuals against our houses of worship or Muslims in general.

CONAN: Dawud Walid, thank you very much for speaking with us today.

Mr. WALID: Thank you.

CONAN: Dawud Walid is executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations for the state of Michigan, and he joined us by phone from Detroit.

When we come back from the break, we'll talk politics; first in Britain where Tony Blair lost a big one, and then here at home.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


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