In France, US advocacy for Muslim rights raises more than a few hackles
The US embassy in France has become a key promoter of Muslim and minority rights as part of a long-term strategy to ease the threat of terrorism. Some in France say the US is overstepping its bounds.
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“While France is justifiably proud of its leading role in conceiving democratic ideals and championing human rights and the rule of law, French institutions have not proven themselves flexible enough to adjust to an increasingly heterodox demography,” Mr. Rivkin wrote in January 2010. “We believe that if France, over the long run, does not successfully increase opportunity and provide genuine political representation for its minority populations, France could become a weaker, more divided country, perhaps more crisis-prone and inward-looking, and consequently a less capable ally.”Skip to next paragraph
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In the cable, Rivkin says the embassy’s “Minority Engagement Strategy” should expand its youth outreach, encourage “moderate voices of tolerance” by training and supporting media and political activists who share US values, and work to reform the history curriculum taught in French schools to include the perspectives of minorities in French history.
Under Rivkin’s watch, US diplomats have made regular forays into troubled immigrant suburbs and invite immigrant youths to US embassy events. In 2009, embassy funding helped pay for a mural project in the Paris suburb of Villiers-le-Bel, the scene of violent riots by immigrant youth two years earlier. Last year, Rivkin arranged for Hollywood superstar Samuel L. Jackson to visit impoverished teenagers in Bondy, an immigrant suburb just north of Paris.
Vincent Geisser, a sociologist who specializes in Islamist extremism and who participated in the International Visitor Leadership Program in 2009, says that by implementing such a strategy, the US is betting the French power structure will change profoundly over the next 20 years and that more and more of its leaders will come from minority groups.
“It won’t transform these people into an American army in France, but what the US can do is give confidence to certain elites,” he says. “It can also create good relations so in that sense this is a very forward-looking policy. They’re saying that if, in 20 years we have a new elite, we must have an elite that recognizes us and that is ready to work together.”
Is the US going too far in France?
But critics say Rivkin’s cable and US embassy support for initiatives such as Dahhassi’s Association for the Convergence of Respect and Diversity takes US outreach program in a new and unwelcome direction.
Over the next several months, US embassy staff will work with Dahhassi to secure funds and expertise from public and private US sources to help establish the think tank’s program. Dahhassi says the focus will be to “find another approach” to addressing racism directed at all minority groups in France, and that it will likely include a debate over the divisive issue of whether France could benefit from an affirmative-action program.
The question is widely considered taboo in France, because the Constitution enshrines equality by stating that race and ethnicity do not exist. By extension, affirmation action programs cannot exist without violating the Constitution.
Ivan Rioufol, a member of the editorial board of the conservative daily newspaper Le Figaro, says he believes the US program is both hypocritical and based on a poor understanding of how the French system works. He says the US has enough trouble with racial tensions at home without telling other countries how to handle their minorities.
"The American analysis, which seems to say that the France of the future will be the France of the immigrant suburbs, is very disparaging to native French people," he says. "They don’t seem to understand that foreigners are very comfortable here if they accept that our culture is one of assimilation."