Saturday, April 24, 2010

Debunking the Myth of a Colorblind France

By Sounia Johnson

In the early 1930’s many African American artists fled to Paris in order to escape racial inequalities and the constant oppression and dehumanization they experienced in the United States. “ Liberty, Fraternity and Equality,” a motto celebrating freedom that traces its roots in the French Revolution, attracted many African American expatriates such as James Baldwin and Josephine Baker, who found acceptance in what they perceived as a generous France -- liberal, receptive and a champion of social equality and civil rights.

Unexpectedly, a different reality was observed by world renowned American essayist James Baldwin. Baldwin witnessed the deep hatred toward and unequal treatment of French North Africans. Baldwin pledged his support of Algerians (referring to them as Paris’s niggers) while vehemently opposing the way the white French would treat minorities, thereby debunking the notion of colorblind liberal France.

It is thus not surprising that the widely held belief of a romanticized France does not hold any credibility for the many disenfranchised North Africans whose voices are consistently marginalized. The recent 2005 riots in France’s most underprivileged cities have been the result of ongoing racial and ethnic tensions. These tensions have highlighted the profound disconnect between the French Republic and overwhelmingly disenfranchised French Muslim youth, who are frustrated with being constantly marginalized as radical Muslim thugs, and not being given equal treatment as their white French counterparts.

Circumscribed access to education for the French-Magrehbi youth who mostly reside in insalubrious conditions housed in HLMs (Habitations De Loyer Modéré), commonly referred to as subsidized low-rent housing located in heavily Pan-African suburbs, is reflective of an unprecedented ghettoization not found anywhere else in Europe. These developments mirror housing projects found in American’s most underserved urban areas. The high unemployment rate— which in turns leads to juvenile delinquency amongst a frustrated urban youth— has led many young Muslims to fall prey to religious radicalism, with all the negative political implications this entails for France and the war against terrorism.

The problems are endless but are rooted in the fact that the French-Maghrebi youth cannot find sustainable employment due to lack of formal education and immeasurable social ills that have plagued and paralyzed young French North Africans into a dark abyss with no hope in sight.

Applying for a job with Arab-sounding names such as Mustafa, Mohammed, Nadia or Fatima remains a challenge for most French North Africans who feel that they are being discriminated against due to their dual French North African heritage. Because of this there is pressure to get French sounding names such Nadine instead of Nadia, Maurice instead of Mustafa. Many feel that their chances of finding employment are slim. Thus it becomes apparent that France’s emblematic motto of “Liberty, Fraternity and Equality” is an utopist venture which holds no credibility to those that find themselves being discriminated against by an alleged government that professes to be a champion of human rights and equality.

The lack of equal employment opportunities is a reality experienced amongst many French North Africans who feel that no matter how much they try, they will never be provided with the same opportunities accorded to their French white counterparts. This reality is reflected on the organization charts of many French Corporations, revealing a systematic white corporate ceiling culture. Racism is indeed well and alive in France.

With an increasingly diverse population, France must realize that it cannot keep burying its head in the sand nor turn its back on its youth. Race relations and inequalities have reached an unprecedented plateau, and ignoring rising tensions will create a further wedge between young French North Africans.

In order to regain its credibility as a champion of human rights, it is in France’s interest to aggressively incorporate equality laws that celebrate cultural and religious differences while investing in the crumbling educational system and rejuvenating urban planning in the inner cities. France must find a way to attract minorities to pursue fields that have historically been denied to them rather than inspiring kids to pursue vocational trades. France’s government must enforce stiff penalties against companies that practice discriminatory hiring practices in favor of an all white French work force.

What is needed in France is a highly educated work force that includes French Algerian lawyers, judges, doctors, politicians, journalists, corporate executives, scientists, but above all, an honest national discourse that celebrates cross -cultural differences while acknowledging France’s role in slavery and colonialism something France has yet to do.

Sounia Johnson is a French Algerian Los Angeles based correspondent for the North African Journal. Her perspectives on racism in France, as well as issues related to French-North African relations in Europe and French-Algerian life stand peerless. Follow this clever, adroit young writer.

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