French Racism

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French Racism

Excerpt from "Colonial Legacy Weighs Heavily on France"

    Written by Joji Sakurai

    Published by The Associated Press, November 12, 2005

Following World War II (1939–45), laborers from Northern Africa journeyed to Western Europe looking for jobs in construction, rebuilding the war-damaged cities. Between 1946 and 1974, approximately one million immigrants (people who leave one country and settle in another) legally entered France. France prided itself on its immigration policy based on the promise of liberty, equality, and social acceptance. However, in return for such promises, the French expected immigrants to assimilate, which means to conform to the French way of life, its values and culture. While some adopted the French lifestyle, most immigrants were followers of the Islamic faith and resisted assimilation. Followers of Islam are called Muslims.

The foreigners, as they were routinely called by the French, built mosques, Muslim places of worship. They established their own market places, ate traditional food, and wore traditional clothing, including head coverings for women.

By 1974, France was experiencing difficult economic times. To reduce the competition over jobs, the government moved to limit the number of foreign workers coming into the country. However, since Northern Africa was only a short trip across the Mediterranean Sea, workers, both Arab Muslims and black Africans, continued to pour illegally across France's unguarded southern coastline.

"The future is not ours."

Continuing into the 1990s, French unemployment rates soared. The immigrant population became scapegoats for the angry and frustrated French. Violent attacks on the Arab Muslims and black immigrants became commonplace. The problem as a whole became known as "the foreigner issue." Young men and women of legal immigrant families felt betrayed and exploited by a nation that used their fathers and grandfathers to rebuild war-ravaged France and then denied them respect and employment when French economic fortunes turned bad.

In addition to the legal foreigners, by the late twentieth century at least five million illegal foreigners, mostly from Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, lived in France. Legal and illegal foreigners together accounted for an estimated 25 percent of France's fifty-eight million residents in 1995. The majority of immigrants and their families lived isolated (cut off) in slums on the outskirts of major cities, including Paris. They lived in housing projects of concrete-block apartments, with plywood covering broken windows, graffiti on walls, and garbage strewn about. By the early 2000s, unemployment was close to 40 percent in the projects, even though France's economy had improved with overall unemployment at 10 percent.

In late 2005, the hopelessness and anger of the projects' young people exploded into rioting. Stores and buildings were set ablaze as were cars the young people knew they could never afford. The following excerpt from "Colonial Legacy Weighs Heavily on France" explores the foreigner issue. Residents from Clichy-sous-Bois, a slum near Paris where some of the worst rioting took place, speak out about their lives and expectations.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from "Colonial Legacy Weighs Heavily on France":

  • French society was rapidly becoming multicultural. However, prejudice and discrimination accompanied increased diversification. Young, second-generation Arab and North African Muslims were unable to find work and assimilate into French society.
  • The frustrated rioters, rather than targeting government buildings, instead self-destructed by burning local stores and their neighbors' property. They desperately wanted to be heard by government authorities and society in general.
  • The riots exposed what many call the two faces of France: one welcoming and the other conceited and prejudiced against ethnic minorities.

Excerpt from "Colonial Legacy Weighs Heavily on France"

In a cafe with no name, where flies swirl around chipped coffee cups and the wall tiles look nicotine-stained, Bilaire Hamdi jabs his finger at an old man in a fur cap.

"It's men like him who rebuilt France!" Hamdi, 30, said of the Algerian man staring blankly at a soccer match on Arabic satellite TV.

While immigrants from former colonies helped rebuild post-World War II France, many of their children and grandchildren are setting fire to its buildings and cars in what appears to be a blind explosion of rage against the schools that failed them, the cars they can't afford to own, the government offices they say treat them like foreigners.

The legacy of France's African colonies weighs heavily over the riots that first exploded in this decaying, largely immigrant suburb of Paris two weeks ago.

Hamdi, a secular Muslim of Algerian parentage, said youths from immigrant families feel betrayed by a nation that plundered their homelands, used their forefathers' muscle for post-World War II reconstruction_then turned its back once the labor market dried up in the late 1970s.

French unemployment is just under 10 percent. Among young people in the housing projects it's as high as 40 percent.

Hamdi flashed his identity card. "I have it, m'sieur, I'm French," he said. "Why can't I work in a government ministry?… They think we're dirt."

The government has announced speeded-up spending to improve housing, education and employment, but it has also antagonized many immigrants by declaring a state of emergency and curfew powers, reviving a law enacted in 1955 to quash rebellion during Algeria's war of independence from France.

The riots were triggered by the accidental electrocution of two African youths who hid from police in a power substation and drug-dealing gangs also appear to have incited violence in the early stages. But it was soon fed by anger over shoddy [substandard] housing, lack of employment, poor education, and for some Muslims a feeling that France tramples on their religious traditions.

"The grandchildren are the heirs of a history made of colonialization, decolonialization, of over-exploitation in factories and of disappointed hopes," said Michel Wieviorka, a sociologist at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences.

Unlike former colonial powers such as Britain and the Netherlands, France prided itself on an immigration policy based on republican ideals_a promise of liberty, equality and fraternity in exchange for adopting the nation's values and cultural norms.

Muslims from North Africa have had more difficulty than poor European newcomers in complying with France's demand that they adapt to the host culture. Many expressed outrage at last year's ban on Islamic head scarves and other religious symbols in schools.

A common sentiment here is that having largely ditched their cultural heritage, the white French mainstream nonetheless pushed them into housing projects, out of sight and often out of mind.

Paris "effectively expelled the poor to the suburbs," says Simon Mundy, director of the Centre for Cultural Environment at King's College London….

"France has two faces," said Hanuachi Mokded, a youth counselor of Pakistani origin who runs a community center in Clichy-sous-Bois. "It has the face of welcome and asylum which it presents to the world, and it has a haughty and contemptuous [disapproving] face with respect to people of foreign ancestry."

Interviews with people of different generations and backgrounds in this suburb shared a common thread: Deprivation has bred not only anger but helplessness.

"They are destroying what's rotting, it's their only way of expressing themselves," said Sabrina, a 16-year-old girl of Algerian origin who looked like any other French teen in her eyeliner and brown turtleneck sweater. "Do you see the squalor that we live in?"

Like most people here, she wouldn't give her full name for fear of trouble with authorities or neighborhood gangs.

Indeed, the decay of places like Clichy-sous-Bois, just a 30-minute drive from the Eiffel Tower, provides the grimmest of contrasts to the glorious poetry of the capital's streets, hitherto untouched by riots.

Here, the dreary regularity of concrete apartment blocks is broken only by the myriad ways in which things can fall apart: smashed windows covered with wooden planks or cinderblocks, crumbling walls smeared with obscene graffiti, overgrown grass littered with coke cans and plastic bottles.

A gutted Volkswagen two-seater, set ablaze two weeks ago, now serves as a trash bin, because the municipal one is overflowing with garbage.

As though encapsulating how unready France was for the rioters' rocks and firebombs, a sign on the door of the Romain Rolland middle school warns: "IT IS STRICTLY FORBIDDEN TO THROW ACORNS."

The ambitions of youths here are modest: construction work, electrical maintenance, truck driving.

At the nameless cafe, bartender Hassan, 40, said he expects his 10-year-old son to become an electrician but "my son says he's going to become a doctor when he grows up."

Then, with a shake of the head and a sad smile, he mutters in Arabic: "Inshallah"—Allah willing.

As he heads home from school, 14-year-old Kamel Alfaoui is more blunt about his generation's prospects: "The future is not ours."

People in Clichy-sous-Bois accuse the government of lumping them all together and stigmatizing them as thugs. But the housing projects also reveal images of diversity.

On the walls of Le Norway bar hang posters of Al Pacino [American actor], Che Guevara [Latin American political revolutionary], Bruce Lee [Asian actor] and Turkish actor Yilmaz Gouney.

Three young friends—Ibrahim, a Gambian; Bizmout, a Turk; and Farid, an Algerian—tell a reporter about growing up together on the project and not experiencing any ethnic conflicts.

"Why is France strong?" says Farid. "It's because we have a lot of cultures. Without these cultures we'd be nothing."

But Bizmout vents his resentment. "You go on the construction site, there aren't any French who are working there," he said. "Then they come in suits and tell you—this is no good, that's no good."

What happened next …

The riots ended in mid-November when French prime minister Dominique de Villepin (1953–) established strict curfews. Villepin promised better education and job opportunities for immigrants. Acts of ethnic discrimination in schools or the workplace were to be punished by hefty monetary fines. Firms were to make job application processes nondiscriminatory. Villepin ordered trade unions (an organized group of workers with similar skills joined together for a common purpose, such as negotiating with management for better working conditions or higher wages) and the government to increase diversity in membership and hiring policies.

Villepin promised more support for children having difficulty in school and more parental involvement in their children's schooling. The entry age for apprenticeships (on-the-job training) was lowered from sixteen to fourteen. Villepin assured immigrants he had heard their pleas and would find solutions.

Did you know …

  • Clichy-sous-Bois, which saw some of the worst riots, is only a 30-minute drive from the landmark symbol of France, the Eiffel Tower.
  • Muslims were outraged when in 2004 France banned Muslim head scarves and other religious symbols in schools.
  • Ethnic conflict was expected to grow in Western Europe as Muslim immigration continued. Muslims from North Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Asian countries were not easily fitting into Western European culture.
  • At the beginning of the twenty-first century, in addition to France, the countries of Britain, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, and Sweden reported ethnic issues of widespread prejudice and discrimination against foreign workers.

Consider the following …

  • Do you think the French public heard the message of desperation from the rioters? Do riots work—always, sometimes, never?
  • Predict what might happen if immigrants saw little progress from Prime Minister Villepin's proposals.
  • Is the American Muslim experience similar to the Muslim situation in France? If so, how is it the same? If not, why is it different?

For More Information


Horowitz, Donald L. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Rudolph, Joseph R., Jr., ed. Encyclopedia of Modern Ethnic Conflicts. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003.

Silverstein, Paul A., and Michael Herzfeld. Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race, and Nation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.


Sakurai, Joji. "Colonial Legacy Weighs Heavily on France." The Associated Press, November 12, 2005.

Secular: Nonreligious.

Antagonized: Angered.

Colonialization: One nation gaining control of another, usually less developed, nation.

Decolonialization: One nation withdrawing control and, usually, a major means of income from another country.

Republican: a form of government governed by the consent of the people for the benefit of the people through elected representatives.

Fraternity: Brotherly love and acceptance.

Expelled: Forced out.

Asylum: Safety.

Haughty: Conceited, unwelcoming.

Myriad: Many.

Encapsulating: Illustrating.

Stigmatizing: Condemning.

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French Racism

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