France: racism, poverty lead to violence

Fires burned across France this week as young people from immigrant families, mainly from North and West Africa, protested life on society’s working-class margins.

The crisis began when two teenagers, Bouna Traore, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17, were accidentally electrocuted in Clichy-sous-Bois, one of a ring of working-class suburbs on the outskirts of Paris, when they were hiding during a police chase. The Oct. 27 incident ignited long-standing tensions over discrimination, high unemployment and poverty in these communities, where thousands of immigrants are crowded in housing projects.

Within days, violence spread to hundreds of French cities, including Paris. On Nov. 8, the first death was reported when a retired worker died of injuries he sustained in a beating the previous week.

The Communist Party of France, in a Nov. 4 statement, said, “With families devastated by unemployment and insecurity, day by day experiencing the denial of fundamental rights that the Republic proclaims — starting with equality before the law and security … when young people only see comfort and wealth on television and daily experience, for themselves and their families, unbearable discrimination — how can they feel an integral part of this social order that despises them and denies them their rights?”

Saying “it is extremely urgent to re-establish order,” the French Communists called for a series of measures to stop further escalation of violence, beginning with the ouster of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who on Nov. 9 called for the deportation of all “foreigners” found to be taking part in the violence. They called for genuine, respectful dialogue with affected communities, community policing and expanded public services, making housing, jobs and youth programs a public priority, a mass program for the eradication of poverty, eliminating discriminatory laws and practices and “restoring the dignity” of youth and families.

International coverage of the crisis has focused on images of burning cars and other violence rather than the issues that have led to it. The young people involved in the unrest are primarily French-born children of immigrants from former French colonies, many of them Muslim.

In Clichy-sous-Bois, where the violence began and where tear gas canisters were fired into a mosque during a Sunday prayer service, a few hundred people gathered with the mayor, Claude Dilain, to appeal for calm Oct. 29.

Violence of all kinds was condemned by the Union of Islamic Organizations in France. In a Nov. 6 statement, the group termed the attack on the mosque an “irresponsible act” during the holy month of Ramadan, and called for “a return to calm as soon as possible.”

The statement called on the government to correct the problems that brought on the violence. It also urged other suburban and youth organizations, parents, and groups in other nations to pursue the national cause of equality and social, political and cultural integration of the youth.