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Panel Probes Deeper Causes of France's Recent Riots

In the lingering aftermath of the two weeks-long French riots that began in the suburbs of Paris and escalated across the country, leaving several dead and setting thousands of cars ablaze, Columbia's School for International and Public Affairs' Alliance Program convened a panel entitled "Understanding the Riots in France."

The Nov. 11 discussion included Bernard Salanie, professor of economics at Columbia and École Polytechnique, and Sudhir Venkatesh, associate professor of sociology and director of research at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies.

In France, Venkatesh said, immigrants are asked to accept the institutions of French life -- like the job market and the education system -- while suppressing their religious and ethnic identities. Public school children, for instance, may not wear anything religious to class. And in the job market, France has no affirmative action system, meaning, Venkatesh said, that historical inequalities due to race are not addressed.

There are between 4 and 5 million immigrants in France. About 13 percent of those are second- and third-generation Algerians, but lately France has seen an influx from Morocco and Turkey as well as sub-Saharan Africa. Many are geographically isolated in suburban housing projects.

Salanie contended that French healthcare, housing and unemployment benefits are relatively successful at fending off extreme material deprivation. But in looking to improve their lives and give their children more choices, Salanie said, French Arabs feel stymied by a culture that does not respect them.

Venkatesh told of a young North African man living in a Parisian suburb who had been on 24 job interviews without success. Although the man possessed the necessary skills for the jobs in question, he felt he did not "know how to be French" -- shorthand for mainstream white culture.

"There is a feeling in these housing projects," said Venkatesh, "that there is one -- and only one -- way of participating in French society."

The Alliance Program is a joint venture among Columbia University, the École Polytechnique, Sciences Po and the Université Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne.

 

Published: Dec 05, 2005
Last modified: Dec 02, 2005

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