November 11, 2005
The New York Times

France Faces a Colonial Legacy

What Makes Someone French?

by Craig S. Smith

PARIS, Nov. 10 - Semou Diouf, holding a pipe in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood amid the noisy games of checkers and cards in the dingy ground-floor common room of a crowded tenement building and pondered the question of why he feels French.

"I was born in Senegal when it was part of France," he said before putting the pipe in his mouth. "I speak French, my wife is French and I was educated in France." The problem, he added after pulling the pipe out of his mouth again, "is the French don't think I'm French."

That, in a nutshell, is what lies at the heart of the unrest that has swept France in the past two weeks: millions of French citizens, whether immigrants or the offspring of immigrants, feel rejected by traditional French society, which has resisted adjusting a vision of itself forged in fires of the French Revolution. The concept of French identity remains rooted deep in the country's centuries-old culture, and a significant portion of the population has yet to accept the increasingly multiethnic makeup of the nation. Put simply, being French, for many people, remains a baguette-and-beret affair.

Though many countries aspire to ensure equality among their citizens and fall short, the case is complicated in France by a secular ideal that refuses to recognize ethnic and religious differences in the public domain. All citizens are French, end of story, the government insists, a lofty position that, nonetheless, has allowed discrimination to thrive.

France's Constitution guarantees equality to all, but that has long been interpreted to mean that ethnic or religious differences are not the purview of the state. The result is that no one looks at such differences to track growing inequalities and so discrimination is easy to hide. . . .


Jon Henley, "Chirac admits riots had 'exposed inequality'," Guardian, November 7, 2005

Ron Jacobs, "Paris in Flames: A Sign of France's Failure to Deliver Liberty, Equality and Fraternity to All Its Citizens," CounterPunch, November 8, 2005

Diane Johnstone, "Paris is Burning," CounterPunch, November 9, 2005

Robert Fisk, "The Roots of Civil Unrest in Europe," DemocracyNow!, November 9, 2005

Meg Bortin, "France Says It Will Deport Foreigners for Rioting," International Herald Tribune, November 9, 2005

Charles Bremner, "Cameras capture racist taunts of anti-riot police," Times (UK), November 10, 2005

Jon Henley, "Chirac admits riots had 'exposed inequality'," Guardian, November 11, 2005

[First, the facts. According to the French intelligence services, the areas where radical Islamic ideologies have spread furthest in France have actually proved the calmest over recent weeks. Second, characterising the rioters as 'Muslim' at all is ludicrous. Most were as Westernised as you would expect third-generation immigrants to be and far more interested in soft drugs and rap than getting up for dawn prayers.

Indeed, a high proportion was of sub-Saharan African descent and not Muslim at all. Others were white and so, following Phillips's description of the darker skinned rioters as 'Arab Muslims', should presumably be referred to as 'Caucasian Christians'.--Jason Burke, "France and the Muslim myth," Observer, November 13, 2005]

Christopher Dickey, "Rage on Rue Picasso: Will the riots swell the ranks of jihadists in Europe?," Newsweek, November 14, 2005

[. . . the president said companies, unions and the media must help bring diversity to French society and combat what he called the poison of discrimination.--Elaine Ganley, "Chirac Says Riots Reveal Identity Crisis," Associated Press, November 14, 2005]

Immanuel Wallerstein, "The inequalities that blazed in France will soon scorch the world: The tensions between a dispossessed underclass and the comfortable majority have only been repressed, not solved," Guardian, December 3, 2005

[It is now a matter of public record that for about 12 hours mobs rampaged through Sydney's southern beach suburbs of Cronulla, Maroubra, Brighton-le-Sands and Rockdale hounding, harassing and beating those who fitted their Middle Eastern stereotype. Women were not spared. Then came the inevitable revenge raids later in the day when some 60 cars were trashed by carloads of youths from the western suburbs, the homeland for some 200,000 Muslims.--Russell Skelton, "Bali, Tampa, 9/11 : a potpourri of causes," The Age, December 13, 2005, 2005]

Mike Marqusee, "Who needs to fit in?: Behind the culture clash between multiculturalists and integrationists lie harder issues of injustice," Guardian, April 12, 2006

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