|Just a whiff of Neo-Fascist Europe....|
Born in France, Reared in France, but Not 'French' / Questions of colour
June 11th 2000, Charles Trueheart, Washington Post Foreign Service
MARSEILLE, France -- It was always Ferid Gourar's dream to become a police officer. Now he's training at the French police academy here and is only a few months away from wearing a uniform. His immigrant parents back home on the outskirts of Nice are thrilled. But not all of his friends approve.
"They don't like the police. They've had troubles with the police. Some are just jealous," said Gourar, 24. "But to me as a North African, as a foreigner in France, this means I can have a job like any other French person. And it means France has a police force that represents everyone--black, blanc, beur." That is, black, white and the common shorthand here for North African.
Gourar was born in France. He holds French citizenship, speaks unaccented French and is about to become an official agent of the French state. But still, he calls himself a "foreigner."
To many French people, he is.
Throughout the 20th century, France was a magnet for immigrants. Generations of Spaniards, Poles, Italians and Portuguese flocked here in search of once abundant jobs and have long since been absorbed, culturally and economically, into French society.
But for people of color, who make up 10 to 15 percent of France's 60 million people, the path to Frenchness has been more problematic. Many of them feel like exceptions to France's professed commitment to human and individual rights, its cosmopolitan openness and its belief in egalitarianism and the power of the state to eliminate social inequality.
Racial discrimination, even racism itself, remains a persistent fact of life in France--and the French themselves admit it under the anonymity of a pollster's survey. According to a Louis Harris opinion poll released in March, only 29 percent of those surveyed declared themselves "not racist." More than 6 in 10 said there were too many people of "foreign origin" in France, and they were specific about it: 63 percent said there were too many Arabs, and 38 percent said there were too many blacks.
An estimated 4 million to 5 million black people live in France, most of whom trace their roots, if not their birthplaces, to former French colonies in Africa and the West Indies. The number of Muslims is between 5 million and 6 million, the vast majority of them from what is called the Maghreb--the three North African nations of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
Such numbers are only educated guesses. Unlike the United States, which asks residents about their race and ethnicity at each census, counting by race is illegal under France's strict color-blind policies.
It is not just counting that the French object to. What Americans call affirmative action, the French reject as "positive discrimination," and they resist other deliberate efforts to propel disadvantaged minorities up the socioeconomic ladder. The French often cite the divisions created by busing and race-based gerrymandering in the United States as reasons to avoid such social experiments.
Such efforts, many French say, run against the traditions of the centralized French state and violate the melting-pot ideal that many Americans have abandoned. List-keeping, or ethnic branding, still carries the waft of France's ugliest modern period, Vichy, when French authorities under Nazi occupation assisted zealously in the identification and deportation of more than 70,000 French Jews who were made to wear Stars of David sewn to their clothing.
By adhering strictly to its color-blind policies, France has not violated its national creed of egalitarianism. But another consequence is that "France is 30 years behind the United States" in its efforts to become the multicultural, integrated, tolerant society that it claims to be, said prize-winning author Calixthe Beyala, an African immigrant who is known for her uncompromising views on institutionalized French racism and is active in the uphill fight here to promote affirmative action.
The government is showing new signs that it is determined to help root out racism; this month it opened its first anti-discrimination hot line to field complaints about hiring bias. But simultaneously, there are clear indications of how far France has to go: The French Senate last month blocked government legislation to give tax-paying immigrants the vote in municipal elections--a right that citizens of other European Union countries who live here enjoy automatically.
The distance France has to travel is visible. Garbage collectors, street cleaners and dishwashers come in all colors--but not usually white. Move up the economic scale, and the number of black and brown faces drops significantly.
There are few non-Caucasian workers visible in hotels, banks, restaurants or department stores frequented by mostly white clienteles. A retired Air France flight attendant, who is white, said few black or brown-skinned hostesses ever flew with her--and she said, matter-of-factly, that that had to do with their looks not being in conformity with the airline's appearance standards.
Among corporate executives, business leaders and government officials, a black or a brown face is still a novelty. A non-European diplomat said he has never met anyone at any level at the Quai d'Orsay, the French Foreign Affairs Ministry, who is not white.
Of France's 577 National Assembly members, there is only one nonwhite--a black man from a Brittany district--who does not represent one of France's overwhelmingly black overseas territories.
A French insurance company investment manager who has worked in the Paris financial world for 30 years has to think hard to come up with someone in his profession who isn't white--not, he added with conviction, that his line of work is closed to a black or a beur with the right qualifications.
Abdelwahed Ben Hamida, a Tunisian-born professor of engineering at the University of Paris, is philosophical about such bias.
"I am French on paper. I try to be in my daily life too," he said. "But I can't feel exclusively French. . . . And I know the regard of many French people will be that I am Tunisian whatever I accomplish."
Ben Hamida, like many people from North Africa here, is not a practicing Muslim, but Islam is at least the nominal religion of most of the beurs in France. Islam is now
the second-largest religion in traditionally Catholic France, and its growth has posed an acute challenge to the French profession of religious tolerance.
Terrorist bombings in France linked to Algerian Muslim extremists traumatized France in the mid-1990s, and in the discourse on prejudice, the attacks often are equated with the practice of Islam itself.
The vast majority of France's Muslims have their roots in Algeria, which became part of France in 1830 and then home to white French settlers. From 1954 to 1962, France fought a bitter, costly war against pro-independence Algerian guerrillas that cost more than 15,000 French lives--and as many as a million Algerian ones.
France lost the war and was forced out of the country. A million long-established white settlers had to return to France, bringing with them a sense of betrayal and recrimination that continues to infect attitudes today. "The old ghosts are still around," said Michel Ponsard-Chareyne, a police school official.
The reception of black immigrants from other parts of Africa or the West Indies, where France had colonial empires, has been less chilly. Because France separated from its
black colonies peaceably, and in some economic and strategic respects has never let go, the baggage of history is somewhat lighter for these blacks.
But only somewhat. Dominique Tchimbakala, 23, who grew up in the Congo Republic, a former French colony, is studying in Nantes for a career in the media. Once, she
called a hotel manager about a front-desk position that needed to be filled quickly. He sounded thrilled by her personal qualities over the telephone, as well as her
qualifications and her availability to start immediately.
When she arrived for the interview an hour later, she said, she could tell right away the deal was off. "He looked embarrassed," Tchimbakala said. "He said he'd keep my
resume on file, that it wasn't his decision, et cetera, et cetera."
Lots of upwardly mobile young people, like Tchimbakala, reject the syndrome of victimization they see in some of their friends.
"They go for interviews. They get the door slammed in their face. They say, 'It's because I'm Arab.' I tell them, 'You know, a job doesn't fall from the sky. You have to
show what you're worth,' " Gourar said.
One of his fellow trainees, Nora Boussaidi, said she was determined to prove to her friends that "it's not because I'm called Boussaidi that I won't make it."
The government, however, is beginning to show an interest in promoting diversity, and the police academies are one example.
Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement is spearheading an initiative that seeks to diversify France's national police force by working with certain schools to identify
promising candidates, give them some pre-training and then steer them toward the strictly meritocratic police entrance examinations. Chevenement proudly cites the fact
that the top-ranked police academy graduate last year was of North African extraction.
Recruiting by ethnicity "is against the law of the Republic," said Georges Guillermou, a police training official in Marseille. "What we're doing is not exactly positive
discrimination. . . . We're just trying to offer conditions to those who wouldn't succeed without them."
This is not an ethnically or racially based program, police officials repeated in interviews, but an effort to attract trainees from "sensitive neighborhoods," "disadvantaged
neighborhoods" or "hot neighborhoods"--French euphemisms for the bleak housing projects that ring Paris and other major cities and whose residents are
disproportionately nonwhite, disproportionately unemployed and increasingly hostile toward the state.
The police academy in northern Marseille is located in such a neighborhood. One of the duties of the trainees here is to patrol the street outside the academy where they park
their cars. Without a policeman every 30 paces, one trainee said, the vehicles would be broken into and trashed in no time.
Such criminality, experts on ethnicity and immigration in France say, is not racially grounded but rather a manifestation of the rage that has grown over the years in the
housing projects--"quasi-insurrections, gratuitous destruction of property--not for money, not for fun, just to strike out against the state," police school official
Ponsard-Chareyne said. The hardships of life in the projects, the experts said, erase distinctions of color and build a class solidarity that transcends origins and has resulted in a racial integration of a sort, though not the kind idealized by the French.
For every generation of immigrants in France, as elsewhere, time is supposed to heal--time measured not in years but in decades or generations. "If I didn't have hope for my children," said Ben Hamida, "I'd pack up and take them somewhere else."
And after that, Goldsnow's gonna bore the pants off us with... soccer star Zidane! Give us a break!!