Human Rights Monitor
Why did French Riots erupt?
Barrister Harun ur Rashid
The unprecedented nature of riots for days together by ethnic minorities from Africa in France has shaken its social fabric to the core. Rioters burnt more than 4,000 cars, and police made more than 300 arrests. Ethnic tension continued for more than two weeks across France. More than 30 police were injured. . Curfews were declared in many areas.
It all started on October 27, when two African-French youths died at a power station in a Paris suburb and rumour spread the youths fled from police. The youths were-- one from Mauritania, the other from Tunisia. They died accidentally while fleeing a police identity check.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said : “ we will not accept any lawless zone.” French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy hinted that Islamic militants might be manipulating angry teenagers to challenge law and order.
French President declared that he would adopt firm measures with justice to arrest the social upheaval in the country of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”.
The question is why did the riots erupt?
There are many reasons for it and some of them deserve mention.
First, France unlike other nations, practices integration with respect to its ethnic minorities, from North Africa, in the sense that they are French nationals and does not recognise their culture and traditions. It is a case of when in France, do as the French do.
French governments, socialist and conservatives, have adopted the assimilation/integration policy and not multi-cultural policy. The problem in France is that France never tried policy of multi-culturalism as has been adopted in Britain, Canada and Australia. This means that anyone residing in France is expected to act or behave like the French. There seems to be no recognition or appreciation that immigrants to France or their children might like to preserve some of their ethnic culture or language while they live in France.
This integration policy has alienated the immigrants because on the ground it does not work. If they apply for jobs, they are not regarded as “white French” and are discriminated. Many immigrants have claimed such discrimination because of their “skin colour”. Because they are unemployed, they reside in apartments which are in a dilapidated state or lack modern facilities. One Moussa Diallo, 22, an unemployed French-African in Clichy-sous-Bois, the Parisian suburb where violence started on October 27, reportedly said : “ This is just the beginning”.
Second, because of adherence to integration policy, French authorities do not even monitor the results of population movement within the country. There is no statistics in France in which the ethnic variety in the country is to be found. It is because France does not recognize ethnic diversity because they are all French. There is no French-Algerian or French Moroccan or French-Sengalese.
Third, the economy of France is not in a good shape. Unemployment is 10% per cent, while youth unemployment is more than 20% per cent. Unemployment in the public housing areas, where immigrants live, is over 30% per cent. The economic performance is poor because French government has been unwilling to engage in economic reform as well its regulated industrial relations system. Furthermore trade unions are very strong and any reform in economic or industrial relations will bring France to a halt by the powerful unions.
Fourth, the immigrants are grouped together. They were not scattered in many places. The concentration of immigrants in one place or in one area has not been a good public policy. The immigrants could not mix well with the French and remained isolated. Furthermore neither local nor state officials have engaged in permanent dialogue with them. They have been allowed to feel alienated from the mainstream society.
Fifth and finally, the above policies of French authorities have angered the immigrants or their children. They are unemployed, frustrated and live in deplorable conditions in areas where immigrants are concentrated.
When people are angry, any spark on a potential divisive issue leads to conflagration. This demonstrates that the ingredients of social unrest were there and when it erupted from an incident, the unrest led to an unprecedented height of car burning and property destruction including schools for more than two weeks not only in Paris, but also in other 200 municipal areas across France.
Many human right activists believe that integration policy is against basic human rights because it does not recognize the cultural rights of immigrants as contained in the 1966 UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
France has confronted one of the worst social unrest in the country. There appears to be two Franceone is calm, comfortable, concerned with good things of life and another one kilometer away, is the stained concrete slabs and high-rise blocs, home to people for whom, the good things in life might one day include a short-term, minimum-pay job, humping bags at the Charles de Gaulle airport, if they are lucky.
Such disparity of life-style is no good for social cohesion and integration of people from diverse background. One good thing for the authorities is that riots have lacked a political focus. The French government must address quickly the root cause of riots and there will lie the solution.
Justice and fair play will be the motto in engaging the immigrant population in the country. The sooner the French government realises that the riots were greatly due to discrimination and unemployment, it will be quicker to resolve the social malaise. Otherwise indifference to them will create monsters in future, manipulated by militants.
The author is former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.