French youth try to halt racism

THREE months ago, Harlem D'esir was just another college student loafing around the Latin Quarter of Paris in jeans and a leather jacket. Today, the 25-year-old Mr. D'esir has transformed himself into France's most prominent campaigner against racism. He and his equally youthful friends have sold more than 300,000 hand-shaped badges bearing the slogan, ``Don't touch my buddy.'' They have also persuaded actors, writers, and politicians to join their organization, and in the process put anti-immigrant, extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen on the defensive.

``We acted,'' D'esir explains, ``because racism is growing, and nobody seemed to be doing anything about it.''

His organization, SOS Racism, marks a departure for French youth. Since they stormed the barricades in 1968, their militancy has ebbed. The French version of the ``me'' generation, the so-called ``bof'' generation, is full of docile, self-centered, and apolitical young people.

No West German Greens-type movement has developed here, and according to one recent survey, 90 percent of all youths between the ages of 19 and 23 felt unaffected by last year's elections for the European Parliament. Some 86 percent felt the same way about the nomination of Laurent Fabius as prime minister.

``The young mistrust adults, especially politicians,'' explains Jean Duvignaud, a sociologist at the University of Paris who has written numerous books on modern youth. ``But these days instead of rebelling, they retreat.''

SOS broke through this apathy by appealing to an issue that directly affects youth. The group scorns May 1968's dated utopian leftism as well as the sterile ideological splits that mark most conventional French political debate.

``Adults fall easily for racism, for [ultra-right-winger] Le Pen, but not their children,'' explains Jean-Charles Lagr'ee, a researcher at the national center for scientific research who specializes in studying teen-agers from working-class neighborhoods. ``They live with the immigrant youth, sharing the same perspectives and the same pressures.''

Mr. D'esir illustrates this solidarity. Son of a mother from the Alsace and a father from Martinique, he was brought up in Bagneux, a grimy Parisian suburb. He felt comfortable only among his schoolmates.

``In school, there are no problems between us, Jews, Protestants, Muslims, and Catholics, whites, yellow, brown, or black, whatever,'' he says. ``The problems start in the street.''

His fight against racism grew out of this realization. In October, a Senegalese friend of his was attacked in the subway. D'esir rounded up his chums and founded SOS Racism with its catchy slogan.

``Our friend had been hurt,'' he says. `` `Don't touch my buddy' tells everyone that youth are together.''

D'esir explains the symbol of the open hand: ``It means stop, but it isn't aggressive like a closed fist.''

The message took off immediately. When the group started selling its badges on the street Dec. 1 for 50 cents each, the first printing of 5,000 sold out within an hour.

Soon afterward, D'esir was invited to appear on a prime-time television talk show. Prominent personalities such as the comic Coluche, actress Brigitte Fossey, soccer player Alain Giresse, and writers Marek Halter and Bernard Henri-Levy began wearing the badge. Throughout January, the group received constant free publicity.

``Before, all antiracist movements were weepy, negative,'' explains Mr. Henri-Levy. ``These young people are effective because they are positive.''

At the same time as ``Don't touch my buddy'' was sweeping the country, Le Pen's anti-immigrant rhetoric was heating up the local election campaign. For weeks, the traditional conservative parties flirted with making alliances with his National Front.

SOS organized a colloqium against racism. It brought together politicians from both the right and left. It also sent out questionnaires to politicians, asking, ``Do you think the National Front is a racist party,'' and ``If tomorrow one of your children told you he was going to marry a black, a Jew or an Arab, what would your reaction be?'' The answers were later printed in most national newspapers.

These actions angered Le Pen. He refused to respond to the questions. Instead, he printed up his own badge -- a closed fist -- exclaiming, ``Don't touch my people.''

But the counterpunch failed. A week before the election, the traditional conservatives declared they would refuse any alliance with Le Pen.

``While SOS isn't directly responsible,'' says Gerard Vincent, a professor at Paris's Institute of Political Science, ``it tapped a deep anti-Le Pen feeling among the youth which the politicians could hear.''

SOS did not stop with the elections. Taking the proceeds from badge sales and the subsidies from prominent members, the group has rented a five-room office in a low-rent district of northern Paris.

The atmosphere resembles a commune. One group of teen-agers after another arrives, asking to buy badges. Volunteers representing all colors and ages come and go.

``We have no quotas,'' explains Fatima, one of the original band. ``We're all just friends.''

The friends have an ambitious program of activities. In one room, Eric directs the group's press agency, which is dedicated to publicizing problems stemming from racism. In another, Bertrand heads the legal section, which hopes to provide legal advice for victims of racism.

Most of all, the group plans to organize protests whenever necessary. Recently they responded to the murder of a young Moroccan in the Cote d'Azur with a ``day against racism'' that included discussions about racism in school and demonstrations at the murder site.

So far, D'esir and his friends insist they will not use their new-found celebrity to found an alternative youth party like the Greens. D'esir admits the temptation is there. French youth, he says, have other problems in common besides racism, especially the specter of unemployment. But he fears the consequences of descending into the game of ordinary politics.

``We don't trust any of the parties,'' he explains. ``To be effective, we must remain a broad-based movement encompassing all ideologies except racism.''

Whatever the final form of their group, D'esir and his friends are likely to make a lasting impact on the French scene. They have shaken the old assumption of a subservient youth, and politicians such as Socialist Party spokesman Bernard Delano"e say the conventional parties realize ``we must modernize our message.''

``It's the end of the `bof' generation's attitude, `I don't care,' '' concludes Henri-Levy. ``SOS will be no temporary cry of distress.''

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