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French riots

11/17/05 12:00AM By Mike Martin
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(HOST) Commentator Mike Martin has been following French news reports closely - to hear what the French media are saying about the recent events there. And he thinks that French sports fans might teach French politicians a thing or two about diversity.


(MARTIN) Over the past few weeks, teenagers from poor hous-
ing projects across France have taken to the streets. They have burned as many as a thousand cars a night. They've torched buses and schools, and they've lobbed Molotov cocktails at the police. It's important to note that most of these rioters are not immigrants. While many of them are of African or North African heritage, most of them were born in France and are French citizens.

Unlike the student protesters of May 1968, these young people don't have a program for reform, and they don't have leaders.
They are lashing out at a society that they believe has excluded them. Since they don't believe they have a future, they feel they have nothing to lose, and many of them are only fourteen and fifteen. Above all, they are sick of being assumed guilty until proven innocent, of receiving racial epithets from the police, of being called "scum" by Nicholas Sarkozy, the Minister of the Interior. Indeed, politicians speak of a "parallel economy" in these suburbs, where instead of looking for a job, young people sell hashish or stolen cell phones to make a living.

Many believe M. Sarkozy might become the next French Presi-
dent, and his strategy is one of blunt talk and tough police measures. But French newscasters say the curfews of recent days have actually been applied only in relatively safe munici-
palities, mostly to make people feel something's being done. For the French of Arabic descent, however, this lock-down reminds them of the Algerian War, when entire neighborhoods were sealed off and when houses were searched without warrants. And the French newspaper Liberation points out that before the riots, the French government had cut funding for beat police who establish relationships and maintain order in the projects. They were re-
placed with roving, military-style reaction teams. This approach has set the tone - one of confrontation, repression, and isolation.

These riots are about France's failure to integrate immigrants from its former colonies, but it's not about Islam. These youths care more about "bling" and hip-hop parties than Jihad. They don't reject French society; they want to be a part of it. To believe they are full French citizens, these young people need to see people who look like them in the media, in government, and in business. Otherwise, "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity" will remain an empty promise for them.

When the French national soccer team finally won its first World Cup in 1998, the team's stars were of African, North African, and European descent. While an extreme-right politician complained that the team didn't look "French" enough, the French people celebrated this melting-pot dream team as a symbol of France's diversity. Riffing on the name of the French Tricolor flag, they called the team "Black-Blanc-Beur," or "Black, White, and Arab." Once things calm down, France needs to prove to its blacks and "beurs" that they are just as French as Monsieur Sarkozy.

This is Mike Martin of Burlington.

Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School.
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