At the beginning of the year, Our Weekly looked into the conflicted history of race relations within the French republic. The massacre at the satirical newspaper “Charlie Hebdo,” prompted an examination (see “Race relations in France,” dated 1-15-15) of the dynamics of diversity in what most people think is a paragon of culture and enlightenment. Over the past week, of course, the flare-up of Islamic radicalism and the subsequent blood bath of last Friday (Nov. 13) dwarfed the earlier tragedy, and has once again put the spotlight on this country, whose ideals of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” have been severely tested by the dissent within its population.
France was as complicit as any of its neighbors during the European colonial period from the 16th well into the 20th century. Countries labeled as its “protectorates” stretched across both hemispheres, and down to the Antarctic continent. Like all expansionist nations of that era, France used the moral justification of its responsibility “to uplift” the rest of the uncivilized world, or as the eminent French statesman and proponent of the imperialist birthrate, Jules Ferry, said his fellow countrymen had “… the duty to civilize the inferior races.”
Hypocrisy is part and parcel of every country, but is particularly noted in France, because of the country’s commitment to healthy debate, as well as its alleged openness to liberalism and radical ideas. This stems from the French Revolution (1789-99). During that time, the newly birthed republic’s abolition of its traditional monarchy sent shockwaves throughout its colonies, along with the rationale that equality in the parent nation should possibly extend throughout the empire.
Perhaps as an extension of its pledge for creating a “level playing field,” it has long been illegal for the French bureaucracy to record statistics about race, religion and ethnicity. This in turn, has inhibited the cultivation of Black organizations (and other ethnic groups) dedicated to the pursuit of Afro-centric issues.
This, of course, is in direct opposition to protocol within the United States, where statistics are a pursuit bordering on an obsession. As a result, data may be accessed on virtually any identifiable group imaginable. Consequently, an apparatus of advocacy collectives exists, ready to mobilize to throw funding and other resources behind nearly every social movement or pursuit imaginable.
All of this suggests two dissimilar situations evolving over an identical, perplexing issue—ethnic disenfranchisement.
There is a wide disparity of opinion in terms of Black people who have had personal experiences living in France. An acquaintance, a fellow journalist, remembers his time abroad as an exchange student with fond memories, 40 years after the fact. In sharp contrast to others who found the natives snotty and “stuck up,” he recalls most Parisians as being on a mission, engrossed in making their way to work or school. However, to the uninitiated, this might come across as rudeness.
Four decades, of course, brings with it myriad changes. Metropolitan expansion since the 1970s has seen the proliferation of the “banlieue,” a term used to describe a suburb of a large city. The word itself has a neutral connotation, but many of these suburbs have become havens for the marginalized. These are often immigrant populations. These suburbs may be either wealthy (banlieue aisée), or impoverished (banlieue défavorisée). Those relegated to the disadvantaged area, of course, receive the most media attention.
These particular environs dominated headlines in 2005, when a pair of teenagers on the run from the police hid in an electrical sub-station in the Parisian “banlieue défavorisée” of Clichy-sous-Bois, and were summarily electrocuted. The boys were minorities, of African and Arab descent respectively, and their demise ignited already volatile tensions between authorities and immigrants in urban areas.
Their deaths set off a series of riots throughout France. They were among the worst ever in a country with a time-honored tradition of demonstrations and uprisings. The policemen involved were acquitted, ensuring an aura of resentment that continues to this day.
The terrorist attacks of Friday, Nov. 13 executed by perpetrators with Syrian passports none-the-less are linked to African or Sub-Saharan neighborhoods including the Paris suburbs of Montreuil and Saint-Denis, areas with significant immigrant populations. These environs are a fermenting powder keg of political discord, nurtured by the now-time-honored formula of economic and social inequality, inflamed by the indifference and/or abusive response of law enforcement buttressed by governmental apathy.
Even the most indifferent observer might find an unmistakable pattern, one that may be seen in other geographically separated locales. But this is only a superficial assessment, given that the interplay of forces on the geopolitical level also cast their shadow on the events that are in play. These events, in turn, deserve an explanation for another day.