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Next French revolution: a less colorblind society

Proudly held French ideals of citizenship have been shaken by the riots.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 14, 2005


Now comes the hard part. As the nationwide violence that has racked France for two weeks begins to abate, the country's leaders and citizens find themselves facing tough questions about the fundamental values that define the French dream: liberty, equality, and fraternity.

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In the face of dramatic evidence that so many of France's ethnic minority citizens and recent immigrants feel that their society has betrayed its promises, one of the pillars supporting France's vision of itself is shaking.

"The events mark a failure and perhaps the decline of the French model of integration [of its immigrants]," says Michel Wieviorka, director of studies at the School for Higher Social Science Studies in Paris. "It is not working any more, and needs at least reform, if not replacement."

This will take a revolution in French thinking about integration, but there are signs that the recent violence has begun to persuade some policymakers that they'll have to overhaul their color-blind ideals of citizenship and face up to the existence of ethnic minorities.

That is likely to be a long and difficult job. France is proud of its ideals and the way it thought it was offering them to newcomers. French politicians may not find it easy to acknowledge how far the country has fallen short of its goals, some immigration experts predict, though Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin acknowledged last week to parliament that, "the effectiveness of our integration model is in question."

Paris remained relatively quiet over the weekend, with authorities implementing a state-of-emergency ban on meetings. Lyon and other cities were ensconced in the ongoing rioting widely seen to be protesting inequalities suffered by France's immigrant population. Nationwide, fewer than 400 vehicles burned, down from highs of more than 1,000 last week.

"When the flames are out, we will have to rebuild not just schools but trust and fraternity," says Marc Cheb Sun, an Egyptian-Italian journalist who edits "Respect," a magazine aimed mainly at young ethnic minorities.

Even before the recent trouble erupted in the country's poorest and most heavily immigrant suburbs, business leaders, government advisory boards, and the intellectuals who dominate the policy debate in France had been inching toward new ways of thinking about immigrant integration. Their moves could provide the foundations for future reform, optimists say.

For example, 40 of France's top companies - including Total, Peugot-Citroën, and Airbus - last year signed a Diversity Charter that commits them, among other things, to "seek to reflect the diversity of French society" in their hiring policies. And one of France's most prominent business leaders, Claude Bébéar, is leading a campaign in favor of anonymous résumés, so that job applicants are not rejected because their names are not French.

France's policy is to treat all its people as citizens, with no consideration of their color, creed, or race that could undermine national unity. The republic does not recognize ethnic differences; there is no room in the official view for "Arab-Frenchmen," in the way a "Mexican-American" is seen as such in the United States. No official statistics are compiled to count the number of people descended from immigrants, or to pinpoint the number of Muslims in France.

Acknowledging ethnic differences and measuring them, runs the official view, would lead to ethnic separatism and weaken the unitary state.

"The French approach is that if you don't attach too much importance [to ethnic and racial divisions in society] and don't talk about them, they will shrink and disappear," explains Patrick Simon, a social demographer, who says that the riots have created a general awareness - similar to that experienced by Americans in the 1960s - that the inequalities faced by ethnic minorities go beyond individual cases of discrimination.

"The system is theoretically defensible but ineffective in practice," continues Professor Simon. "Instead of having the positive effects that were hoped for, it has the opposite effect."

That supposedly color-blind treatment has not led to equal outcomes is clear from the suburbs where violence exploded two weeks ago: The poorest districts of French cities are overwhelmingly inhabited by North African and black African immigrants and their descendants who complain bitterly about discrimination.

"Your name says everything in France," says a young black man in the Paris suburb of Grigny, who gave his name as Billy Fabrice. "If you are called Diallo or Amir, that's all they want to know. If you are called Jean-Pierre, you show up for a job and they take you."