Riots Underscore Cracks in French Immigrant Policy Nearly two weeks of rioting in France is causing many to question the country's traditional sense of French equality. France has the largest immigrant community in Europe, and until now, has been proud of its policy of assimilation.
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Riots Underscore Cracks in French Immigrant Policy

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Riots Underscore Cracks in French Immigrant Policy

Riots Underscore Cracks in French Immigrant Policy

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Now a look at some of the conditions that have fueled the riots. France has more non-European immigrants than any other country in Europe. Even so, there are very few minorities in top government jobs, in the media or in French corporate boardrooms. As NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Paris, the current violence has exposed deep divisions of class and race.

(Soundbite of "Immigration: Thirty Years of Illusion")

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

At the Arab Institute in Paris a documentary film attracted an unusually large French audience.

(Soundbite of "Immigration: Thirty Years of Illusion")

AMOS: The title, "Immigration: Thirty Years of Illusion," examines a bitter history, three generations of Arab and African immigrants, all French citizens, who live in the squalid Paris suburbs.

(Soundbite of horn honking)

AMOS: The film raises this question: Does the French national motto `Liberty, Equality, Fraternity' extend to all French citizens? Thirty-five-year-old Akmed Belgovitch(ph) says equality is out of reach for many citizens with names like his. His family is featured in the film.

Mr. AKMED BELGOVITCH (French Immigrant): (Through Translator) It's very, very difficult to grow up in a suburb like that. So out of 10 people with whom I grew up, seven are now dead because of drugs.

(Soundbite of children playing basketball)

SALIM: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Akmed's younger brother, Salim(ph), is a volunteer soccer coach in Valmere(ph), one of the poorest suburbs of Paris. The field is landscaped and clean, but at night the nearby streets are a battlefield, where young men torch cars and challenge French riot police. Salim understands their anger.

Mr. SALIM BELGOVITCH: (Through Translator) Yeah, I see them all the time. They're my friends, but basically they don't have anything to do all day. When those events are taking place, then they join, you know, the fun.

AMOS: Salim has not joined the riots. His reasons may be one of the answers to the despair that is driving the violence. He is a law student in one of the most elite universities in France in one of the only affirmative action programs in the country. It is a controversial program. The French ideal of equality is so widely held that statistics based on ethnicity are illegal. So the government doesn't know how many citizens are of Arab or African origin, how they do in school, how many are jobless.

(Soundbite of crowd)

AMOS: This is Sciences-Po, the elite French university of political science. Graduates here are almost all guaranteed a future in French politics or business. Four years ago Sciences-Po admitted its first affirmative action students, 17 in all. Cyril Delhay, who runs the program, says the university staff was against the idea.

Mr. CYRIL DELHAY (Sciences-Po): (Through Translator) And implicitly didn't even believe that there were any talented kids in the suburbs.

AMOS: The tougher sell was affirmative action itself. When the school's director first proposed the program, the hate mail poured in, says Delhay.

Mr. DELHAY: (Through Translator) It was attacked from all sides, including personal attacks.

AMOS: Ironically, the riots in the Paris suburbs has given the program a boost. Last week, Delhay and some of his students were invited to meet with the French prime minister. A few days later, affirmative action was included in a list of government initiatives to address the hopelessness on the streets; a revolution in government thinking, says Delhay.

Mr. DELHAY: (Through Translator) So is it enough? Well, not really. It's a beginning and it's only a beginning.

AMOS: A few blocks from the university, there is a job fair for students. Some of the biggest companies in France are collecting resumes. Arita Percasum(ph) and Patrick Dion(ph) are minority candidates. They are submitting their resumes without a photograph because it shows their dark skin. They believe this will hurt their chances for a job. For Percasum, it is the problem of identity in France.

Ms. ARITA PERCASUM (Job Seeker): I'm Algerian, but I'm also French. I feel French, but they don't see me like French.

AMOS: It is why Patrick Dion understands the hopelessness that has fueled the fires in France.

Mr. PATRICK DION (Job Seeker): (Through Translator) I think that, you know, burning cars is probably not the solution. However, it's understandable given those people have no other way to voice, you know, what they have to say.

AMOS: It is a violent conversation, one-sided at times, that is being heard across the country. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Paris.

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