Fariz Allili looked out at the decaying tower blocks he calls the “ghetto”. Grafitti cakes his entrance hall, there is no heating, the lift has been broken for months and unemployed youths loiter with nothing to do. Even the local mayor calls this place a “vertical shanty town”.
Five years ago these estates in Clichy-sous-Bois on the edge of Paris exploded in riots that spread across France and led to a state of national emergency. The trigger for the violence was the death of two young boys electrocuted in a power substation while hiding from police. But the root cause was the hopelessness of a generation of young French people, ghettoised in dismal suburbs, marginalised and jobless because of their skin colour or their parents’ immigrant origins. Since then discrimination against the third- and fourth-generation children of immigrants has worsened, tension is rife and Nicolas Sarkozy’s rightwing anti-immigrant rhetoric is blamed.
Allili, 21, shared a school desk with one of the boys who died in Clichy. He witnessed the nights of rioting firsthand. The fourth child of an Algerian cafe-owner, he’s one of the few youths on his estate who have managed to carve out a future, training in IT. But he doesn’t feel accepted as French. “Sarkozy’s constant talk of immigration and national identity chips away at you, but worse is the perpetual police stop and searches. Cops insult us, saying ‘Get back to your own country’, ‘you’re not welcome here’. That’s pretty hard to stomach when you’re French.”
More than any other French president, Sarkozy, who himself has immigrant roots, has turned the issue of immigration into electoral politics. He has rounded up Roma, introduced France’s fifth immigration law in seven years, banned Muslim women wearing the niqab in public places and launched a national debate on what it means to be French, led by his new ministry of immigration and national identity. In this week’s ministry reshuffle, he dropped the contentious “national identity” title but shows no sign of softening his hardline immigration policy.
But the president’s anti-immigrant stance, aimed at securing him votes from the extreme-right Front National, is not so much about newcomers. It is about French society’s problems coming to terms with its own diverse make-up.
When Angela Merkel declared that multiculturalism in Germany had “utterly failed”, some saw it as a vindication of the French integrationist approach. Under the republican model, multiculturalism is seen as taboo. In France, once a French citizen you leave cultural and ethnic differences at the border and are theoretically seamlessly assimilated into the republic. Everyone is equal before a state that is blind to colour, race and religion. Ethnic minorities do not officially exist as it is illegal to classify and count people by ethnicity. But the glaring gap between the theory and the reality of discrimination is becoming a problem in France.
Despite an outcry about the urban riots, some racially diverse estates in Clichy-sous-Bois still face over 40% unemployment for the under-25s. A recent study of French citizens with immigrant parents found that they suffered higher unemployment, fared worse at school and faced more discrimination than other French people. Over a third felt society did not accept them as being French. They were stigmatised because of their race, religion and roots.
Another leaked report for the prime minister’s office warned of a “ghetto effect” in some schools where integration had failed and children were identifying more with religion and immigrant roots than being French. Paradoxically these second- and third-generation French children, raised and schooled in the republican tradition, were less integrated than their often semi-literate immigrant grandparents who came from north and sub-Saharan Africa, Asia or southern Europe to work on building sites after the second world war.
The French government has taken grave offence at the booing of the national anthem at football matches and French youths waving Algerian flags. But social workers on estates say nothing has changed in five years since the riots and France is still raising a generation of dispossessed.
“Most of the kids in this neighbourhood are the fourth generation of their family in France,” said Mohamed Mechmeche, 44, a youth worker in Clichy-sous-Bois who after the riots founded the community pressure group Aclefeu. “They’re born here, they’re French, they don’t even know Algeria. To now be harking back to their parents’ roots is proof that French society isn’t working: integration and assimilation have failed.
“Everything has been complicated by constantly referring to people as French ‘of immigrant origin’. It’s still a ghetto here. Apartheid exists here. But that suits politicians of both the left and right. You want a scapegoat for society’s ills, someone to blame? They’ll always point the finger at us. Sarkozy has really let himself loose – now it’s as if anything goes and people can make comments as prejudiced as they like.”
Mechmeche, whose Algerian grandfather fought for France in the second world war, sat with colleagues lamenting a series of recent public racist remarks which he said showed France was going backwards. The interior minister, Brice Hortefeux, Sarkozy’s oldest friend, was fined for racism after saying of a north African party member: “We always need one. It’s when there are lots of them that there are problems.”
An heir to the Guerlain perfume empire said on TV he had worked “like a nigger” to create a new scent. Certain journalists had talked of “blacks and Arabs” being to blame for crime.
“It’s not new immigration that is a problem in France, it is integrating the diversity that is already part of society,” said Patrick Weil, immigration historian and author of How to be French. “People want to be accepted as French, but of course they feel different and not accepted when the president is using the language he’s using. They are being made a target.”
Patrick Lozès, head of Cran, a leading French black association, said the fact that French young people with immigrant parents were demanding their rights to be equal citizens showed that the principle of the republican system worked, but it had been muddied by extreme discrimination. Many youths with Arab or African-sounding names still find their CVs binned when applying for jobs, or are even asked to change them to something “more French”.
Claude Dilain, the Socialist mayor of Clichy, said the problems of marginalisation in diverse French suburbs had not been addressed over the last five years and the tinderbox of more urban rioting could go off at any time.
Khouloud Tombari, 21, who watched the rioting from her tower block window as a sixth-former, had started her own local catering company after she couldn’t find work because of her name and her postcode.
“I sent out 300 letters and CVs for jobs from secretary and receptionist to community work. I got no replies. So many people here have no work or are doing jobs beneath them. We’re French but we’re not considered as real French people. The discourse is getting worse.
“I was born in France but feel totally rejected here, yet when I got back to my parents’ native Tunisia, people say I’m French. I just want to be given a chance to succeed. We feel set apart from the rest of France as if we live on an island.”