Mary Harvan Gorgette obtained her Ph.D.from the University of Texas at Austin; she lives in France with her family.


Op-Ed: What's Up With France?

CNN and Fox News would have you believe all France was ablaze this week. But living three miles south of Paris, in this metro area of 10 million people and country of 60 million, my family has not been affected personally by the violence any more than most of you have by school shootings in the U.S.

Our own safety doesn't mean we don't care what's happening though. As the politicians say, setting fire to cars and schools, throwing rocks at police, and similar behavior is "unacceptable and inexcusable." The interesting questions are, what's fueling it? Why is it so widespread? Why now?

What set off the unrest two weeks ago were the deaths two teens, of Mauritanian and Tunisian origin, who climbed into a substation and were electrocuted. They were first reported to be fleeing police; now that story has been discredited by a third youth who survived. What matters is that the original story was credible, particularly to those who started rioting. Young people of North African, Arab, and West African origin are routinely subject to random police checks, which are legal in France and disproportionately aimed at immigrants and their descendants. Americans would call this "racial profiling." We'd call what's happening now "race riots." But not the French.

Therein lies the crux of the problem: the French state does not officially recognize race.

Historically, the French Republic has defined itself as a nation of individual citizens: free, equal, and bound by the laws and values of a secular state. Immigrants have been expected to integrate into French society. Particularly since Vichy France actively organized racial and religious hatred of Jews, the government has gone all-out to avoid repeating that history. Today no official statistics are kept on people's race, religion, or ethnic origin. To do so would be to encourage what the French call communautarisme, the idea that identity-based subcultures can exist within a society, a concept most French see as profoundly threatening to Republican values based on individual citizenship. This is why, with great public support, the Islamic headscarf and other religious symbols were banned in public schools last year: to emphasize that neutral individuality under the republic (represented by the national public-school system) trumps any subcultural identification (Islamic faith or Algerian ethnicity, for instance).

The problem is that this idealized vision of France is now, and perhaps has always been, a myth, akin to the ideal of the great American melting pot. Biological arguments against the existence of race notwithstanding, race and ethnicity are social realities. People operate on received notions about racial and ethnic groups, and they judge others by their appearance, by their names, by their accents.

So what does it mean to deny, as a matter of national policy, that race exists? It means you don't have to worry how many minorities there are in the Parlement: any French citizen can presumably represent all French citizens equally well. You don't have anything called racial profiling, just "the forces of law and order" at work. If a rental office invents interminable hurdles for perfectly qualified immigrants seeking lodging, and meanwhile a choice apartment goes to a nice "French" family, it's an uphill battle to prove discrimination. It ignores that French people talk about race and ethnicity all the time, referring to French Caribbean natives as Antillais or to corner groceries run by French North Africans as "Arab shops." Race is a reality for everyone in France except the French state.'

Particularly since decolonization in the '50s and '60s, France has welcomed many immigrants to its shores, from North and West Africa, but also from Vietnam and other former colonies. Many immigrants and their descendants live in outlying suburbs of French cities, in housing projects where jobs are scarce, education mediocre, and assistance with social integration minimal. By ignoring these realities of urban order and by completely eschewing race-based policies, the French state has actually fostered segregation and the communitarisme it dreads.

What's more, right-wing politicians here who trumpet slogans like "France: Love it or leave it" ignore the mixed feelings with which many immigrants arrive. Some blame France for the horrendous conditions in their home countries but have nowhere else to escape when their livelihoods and even their lives are in danger.

Take our friend "Ahmadou" from the Ivory Coast, a former French colony cited as a model of stability and progress until the 1990s. Now officially a refugee in France, Ahmadou is an engineer with a master's degree from a California university. He considered taking a job offer in the U.S., but his family ties in the Ivory Coast were strong, and he wanted to contribute to his country's advancement. So he went back. After the death of the country's long-reigning dictator, an admired public servant who'd been educated in the U.S. emerged as a contender for president. The French government didn't like this situation, as it could have interrupted their political influence and broken their monopoly on the Ivoirian economy. When a cabal of Ivoirian politicians started using national identity as a wedge to split the population, isolate this presidential candidate, and secure their hold on power, the French originally turned a blind eye.

The politicians' tactics went something like this. First, they redefined citizenship, said that you could only vote if you were born in the Ivory Coast. This disqualified the thousands of migrant workers (often of the same ethnicity as Ivoirian citizens) who'd been shipped in from neighboring countries to handle the booming cocoa crop and other labor, and who had made their homes in the Ivory Coast. Then the politicians went one step further and said that both your parents must have been born in the Ivory Coast for you to be a citizen. Applied literally, this law would disqualify most people of voting age, as the Ivory Coast didn't exist until 1960. Before independence, the land belonged to a huge territory called "French West Africa" that stretched from modern-day Mauritania to Chad and down to Cameroon.

In practice, the "proof" of your national identity is your name, which usually can be traced to a certain region or ethnic group in West Africa. The aspiring presidential contender, and Ahmadou himself, happened to have surnames that originated in Senegal. Why? Ahmadou's father was a teacher born in what's now Senegal. But when he worked for the French colonial schools in the '40s and '50s, he was transferred to what's now Burkina Faso and then on to modern-day Ivory Coast. Ahmadou was born during this last assignment, but that no longer counts. Under the current Ivoirian government, Ahmadou had his citizenship revoked and lost his managerial job with a national utility. Like many of his compatriots, he protested the government's machinations and continued to back the disqualified candidate. That's when the Ivoirian military started rounding up, imprisoning, and summarily executing that candidate's supporters. Ahmadou barely escaped prison, and the country, with his life.

When some in this new class of disenfranchised Ivoirians took up arms (and became, in government and media parlance, "rebels"), the French military stepped in to enforce a fragile cease-fire, while the country's economy and social structure fell into ruin. Sociologist Benoît Scheuer, who has studied Kosovo and Rwanda, says that the wedge the politicians continue to drive between Ivoirians makes the Ivory Coast a genocide waiting to happen.

Imagine how Ahmadou feels. He watched the French back a dictator friendly to them for three decades then tolerate thugs destroying his country, tearing his people apart, and nearly killing him. He flees his country with no national identity papers. It's 2002: the U.S. isn't welcoming refugees, particularly undocumented ones, with open arms. Where can he go, where can he hope to bring his family and make a new life for them, but France? Yet he arrives to face housing discrimination, delayed meetings about his refugee status (which affects his work status), and other indignities. He flees a government creating false divisions among people to live under one that pretends real divisions don't exist. You can imagine how conflicted he feels about being here. These are the people right-wing French politicians are telling to "love it or leave it."

Even so, it's not the Ahmadous or their children who are participating in the current violence in France. The vast majority of immigrants and their descendants, even if they're frustrated with the French system, are respectful, law-abiding people who seek an end to the violence rather than perpetrating it. After all, their cars and schools are being torched, their image is being smeared. But given the frustration that's fueling the riots, it's amazing that they haven't happened much sooner and grown much worse.

There is hope that the French political elite is starting to get it. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin ended an interview Monday night by citing discrimination as a factor driving the violence. He called on all citizens to take responsibility for ending discrimination. I hope that the state will acknowledge its responsibility, too. And to do that, it has to admit that in France, like everywhere else, race matters.