Over a century ago, the French invaded and then colonized many areas of North Africa. Subsequent to forceful and violent takeovers, Northern Africans became citizens of the French Republic by defeat not by choice. This French colonization precipitated a sea of migration of many Northern Africans to France over the next 100 years. Ironically enough, on October 27, 2005, two young people of second and third generation immigrants from these same colonies were electrocuted trying to evade French police in Paris. Much like their ancestors may have reacted to a forceful takeover, these two youth, fearful of being wrongfully accused and imprisoned by the French police, sought protection for their own their lives.
The French republic prides itself in its founding principles of "liberty, equality and brotherhood" (Khilifah 2005). Yet, if the color of one's skin is black, the police of France have historically applied undo force, harsher punishment and lack of respect (Honicker 2006). Historically, as well as now, African citizens have suffered from racism at the hands of men in authority representing the French government.
After these two youth were killed in October of 2005, riots erupted throughout many of the suburbs of Paris inhabited by African immigrants. This event not only triggered outbursts of protest but also revealed intense feelings of long tern mistrust of government oppression and a chronic pattern of discrimination by authorities. Other incidents of racism were subsequently highlighted in the newspapers and media. North African businessman, Yazid Sabeg, for example, became the chief executive of a large communication firm in France in the early 1990's. Sabeg said, "The establishment, notably the military establishment, did not like it" (Astier 2005). In 1991, the intelligence service wrote a report about Sabeg that was based on false allegations. Sabeg is still convinced today that people in his company are trying to get him fired. Sabeg said, "In their minds you can't be both Arab and French" (Astier 2006). Currently, Sabeg is the only North African leading a French company in France.
Similarly, in 2002, African descendents, Abdel and Mohamed Djaiziri opened up a small supermarket chain in a primarily Muslim area. They turned the supermarket into a halal shop. The mayor believed that they were making life difficult for non-Muslims. The mayor subsequently tried to get their store to close based on health issues. In 2003, life worsened for the brothers. The company Franprix, where they obtained their products, abruptly stopped supplying them. They lost several customers and went deeply into debt. They are not sure why the company withdrew; however, they speculate that the chain wanted to be clear from conflict with the mayor. Two years later, the business still stands. Debt continues to be a burden for the store. The mayor is still trying to get them to close. In fact, the mayor is quoted as saying, "The store is filthy. I want them to go. I want to rehabilitate the square and bring in quality shops" (Astier 2005).
Beyond other specific first hand accounts of racism too numerous to mention, the government does not track statistics on the basis of race and religion. Through legislation upholding ideals of "liberty, equality and brotherhood," it is against the law to collect data on the race or ethnicity of its citizens. Indeed, the French are "blind" to acknowledging or even reporting differences among its citizens (Honicker 2006). This "blindness" leads the government to ignore pervasive problems of poverty, segregation, and preferential treatment for citizens of European decent. Yet during the weeks of racial unrest in November and December of 2005, many reporters collectively called for the politicians of France to review their policies and ideologies. For example one reporter wrote, "The time of cultural innocence and political naivette, when the French could blunder without seeing or feeling the consequences is closing" (Pipes 2005). This reporter made reference to the "political naivette" or "blindness" of the French government.
During November 2005, the very real ethnic differences that the government historically turned a blind eye to were now being blatantly broadcast throughout the world. During this time, Ziwyana Cherif, a resident of a northern suburb of Paris said, "I do see racism everyday. People's faces change as soon as they see a black or Arab face. The death of those boys was the straw that broke the camels back" (Siddiqui 2005). Another citizen with African descent said, "We just want to be recognized as human beings, instead of being seen as Arabs or blacks" (Siddiqui 2005). Ironically, "a blind eye policy" on paper has lead to overt discrimination and differential treatment on the street and in reality. According to resident, Mamadou Nyang, "I left school two years ago but never had a job. As soon as I say my name and where I live, they tell me the vacancy has gone. I am happy to do any job, except be a policeman. I hate the police. As soon as they see black or Arabs, they just try and cause trouble" (Siddiqui 2005).
Even though racial discrimination is officially outlawed in France, the vast majority of shops and offices are operated by people of European descent (Honicker 2005, Siddiqui 2005). The government does site unemployment statistics according to different areas and neighborhoods within the city although the reports do not specifically delineate the ethnic representation in each of the neighborhoods. Upon closer inspection, in neighborhoods where people of mostly French origin live, unemployment is only around nine percent. Whereas in neighborhoods where people of Arab and African descent live, unemployment is reported at more than 40 percent (Siddiqui 2005). These statistics alone belie the French government's claims of "liberty, equality and brotherhood."
The two youth, who were so brutally killed in October 2005, may have awakened the world to the French government's mistreatment of its own citizens. The ensuing riots were merely an alarm to alert the world of long standing racism against people of color in France. This country that historically tried to colonize and dominate people from Africa, now must address the fallout of such discriminatory policies and practices.
Astier, H. (2005). France's Disaffected Muslim Businessmen. Retrieved April 3, 2006, from http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/mpapps/pagetools/print/news.bbc.co.uk/2/he/europe/4405790.stm
Honicker, N. (2006). On the Outside Looking in. Retrieved April 10, 2006, from American Scholar; Spring 2006, Vol 75 Issue 2, p31-40, 10p, 1 map, 1bw
Khilafah R. (2005). French Riots-Enough is Enough. Retrieved April 10, 2006, from http://www.khilafah.com/home/category.php?DocumentID=12212&TagID=1#
Pipes, D. (2005). Front Page Magazine. Retrieved April 12, 2006 from www.FrontPageMagazine.com
Siddiqui, H. (2005). Reflections on the Riots in France. Retrieved April 14, 2006, from http://usa.mediamonitors.net/content/view/full/22767