Race not ready to be non-issue
For many Americans, the French seem inexplicably different, embodying everything that is ?European.? Recently, however, more astute citizens have seen that we have something very grave in common with France: a national underclass that is unrecognized, underappreciated, and now reacting in a horrific but sadly familiar way.
The Parisian riots have revealed the disenfranchisement and dissatisfaction of a growing class of French who are predominately young, and of foreign heritage. Racial, generational, and economic aspects of their inequality cannot be ignored, neither by the French government nor by the international community.
France?s efforts at eradicating racism have backfired. After the carnage of the Algerian Revolution in the 1950s and 1960s, France adopted, at least externally, a policy of strict racial egalitarianism. Housing discrimination and job preference are punished under France?s criminal law, and it is illegal to publicly contest the existence of crimes against humanity in WWII. However, in their effort to prevent race from becoming a contentious issue, France attempted to erase all forms of racial difference from its records; it is illegal for focus or census groups to collect any kind of ethnic data.
These well-intentioned but misguided laws, which coincided with an influx of North and West African immigrants, have resulted in a subgroup of French whose differences are ignored by the government but exploited by their native-born neighbors. Add to that a rising level of unemployment among young men ? most of the rioters are male and between the ages of 12 to 25 ? and you have a guaranteed recipe for uprising.
This uprising was not unexpected. Although the riots have spread as quickly as their characteristic fires, there was unrest long before its explosion on October 27. According to the New York Times, more than 80 cars per day were set on fire in the country throughout 2005.
Americans might see a sad parallel between the Parisian riots and the disaster surrounding Hurricane Katrina, in which an entire city?s population ? predominantly poor and African-American ? was the collective victim of ignorance and poor rescue strategy. Many people have accused the government?s slow reaction as the result of a deep-seated racial and economic bias. Now, as poor immigrant communities go up in flames, the French government has gone from keeping total silence ? President Jacques Chirac has barely addressed the issue in public ? to confusedly fumbling for recourse. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy suggested the deportation of all rioters, regardless of whether they are French citizens. Clearly, French officials are doing ?one heckuva job.?
Obviously, rioting and violence are unacceptable means of voicing political discontent. However, such a terrible incident is indicative of France?s unwillingness to acknowledge the poor, the young, and those in a racial minority. Both France and the United States should think carefully about this event, and take heed of Tony Blair?s response to the fiery violence: ?You should never be complacent about these things.?