SHAFAQNA -Less than 72 hours after Paris suffered Europe’s most deadly terrorist attack in years, the capital region was in lockdown.
With tens of thousands of soldiers and police on high alert, youth in the suburbs still managed to set a car alight. Its smoking carapace was clearly visible from the commuter trains rumbling by.
Every year in France, between 30,000 and 40,000 cars are set on fire. Typically, they’re lit up in the peripheries of major cities, where second- and third-generation immigrantsare concentrated.
It’s a number that has remained relatively constant for more than a decade and the most visible symptom of the alienation felt by France’s estimated 4 million Muslims.
“In some sense it is a cry for a help, but I think it’s more political than that,” said Mayanthi Fernando, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “It’s the one way the suburbs get attention. . . If all of those people demonstrated quietly, no media would show up.”
For decades, France has welcomed newcomers at a similar rate as Canada. But several generations on, immigrants’ descendants remain stuck with worse academic results and higher unemployment, unable to benefit from the advantages their parents and grandparents had sought.
What has France got wrong?
“Muslim citizens in France are constantly being asked, ‘why haven’t you integrated?’ ” said Fernando.
When framed in this way, the onus is on French-born Muslims to explain their own exclusion, she said, when really, “it’s on society and the government to fulfil the rights these people have as citizens.”
While France’s immigrants come predominantly from Muslim countries — Algeria and Morroco top the list — once in France, they tend to get lumped together into a “monolithic” Islamic identity, said Fernando, who has first-hand experience teaching in the Parisian suburb of St-Denis.
“A Malian Muslim and a Moroccan Muslim have very different ways of practicing Islam and may not even identify as Muslim, but rather as Berber or Tuareg. Our understanding of these people as Muslims, and therefore as similar, is part of the problem when they are actually incredibly diverse.”
Critics say the French version of integration is about assimilation, requiring immigrants to dress, talk and think like the majority. Citoyens are supposed to be secular democrats, the thinking goes, not representatives of faraway cultures and religions.
This presents many immigrants (and their children) with an impossible choice: reject their identity or reject their country.
“For the last few years, there’s been a hijacking of secularism,” said Madjid Messaoudène, a city councillor in St-Denis.
What started out more than a century ago as a strict separation of church and state has turned into a tool to stigmatize any public display of religion, he said.
“They’ve hidden their racism behind secularism. But it’s not racism against Christianity or Judaism, it only targets Islam,” said Messaoudène. “You’ll never find someone who says, ‘No kippahs in Paris,’ ” he said, referring to the Jewish skullcap.
With more than 30 per cent foreign-born residents, St-Denis and neighbouring Aubervilliers are the two most heavily immigrant cities in France. In them, the first generation of immigrants tends to hide its origins while the second embraces its heritage.
“Today the new generation doesn’t live like their parents, who thought: ‘don’t make a fuss, fall in line, hide your religion at home.’ Today, we don’t care what others think. Those who practice their religion aren’t afraid to let it be known,” said Messaoudène.
When French-born youth assert their Muslim identity, they further distance themselves from the mainstream, reinforcing the discrimination they already experience.
“According to the advocates of this ‘regressive secularism,’ you have to choose between French and Muslim. For them, a beard is an ostentatious sign of western hatred, repression of women,” said Messaoudène. “The public space must allow all types of expression. . . This doesn’t endanger national cohesion. To the contrary, it enriches it.”
Many French people shuddered at the news that Canada had appointed several ministers who wear turbans. Still, Messaoudène believes excluding religion from public life in France can’t go on forever. During the last municipal elections, he said, several parties even fielded candidates who wore head scarves.
“There is a desire for French Muslims to participate in public life,” he said.
“One day, France’s institutions must reflect its population. That might take several years, but one day I hope to see a veiled minister in France. Veiled, feminist, competent and tolerant.”