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In a French village, anger over racism is spoken in Arabic - International Herald Tribune, France

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  • Zafar Khan
    In a French village, anger over racism is spoken in Arabic Craig S. Smith NYT Saturday, December 27, 2003 http://www.iht.com/articles/122902.htm ST.-FLORENTIN,
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 29 12:31 PM
      In a French village, anger over racism is spoken in
      Arabic
      Craig S. Smith NYT
      Saturday, December 27, 2003

      http://www.iht.com/articles/122902.htm

      ST.-FLORENTIN, France From most angles, this village
      looks like the quaint medieval parish that tourists
      expect to find deep in the French countryside:
      Half-timbered houses crowd around a stone church that
      overlooks rolling fields and ancient Burgundian
      forests.

      But tucked between the old buildings and the bucolic
      landscape, there lies another world filled with spoken
      Arabic, steaming couscous and the simmering
      frustration of idle young men born to Muslim
      immigrants in a deeply conservative Christian land.

      "Racists surround us," said Brahim Bouanani, a
      26-year-old St.-Florentin native, when asked what lies
      down the tree-lined, two-lane highways that stretch
      out of town.

      For Bouanani and his peers, born to North African
      laborers who arrived decades ago, St.-Florentin is
      less a centuries-old accumulation of France's cultural
      heritage than a series of cheap and charmless public
      housing blocks on the west side of town. About a third
      of the town's 5,800 residents are "foreigners" like
      him, he said.

      Their isolation is extreme, their alienation profound
      and their future uncertain. But their situation is not
      unique.

      Beyond the Arab ghettos of Paris or Marseille or Lyon,
      the immigration of the 1960's and 1970's seeded
      hundreds of smaller communities across France with
      Muslims whose numbers have since grown.

      France's Muslim population - Europe's largest - is now
      five million.

      They are the avant-garde of a trend that is already
      redefining European societies from Sweden to Spain.
      With European populations aging and shrinking,
      reopening the borders to immigration is becoming an
      economic necessity.

      Demographic pressures mean Muslims will probably be at
      the forefront of the next immigrant wave: By many
      estimates the majority of the 300 million Muslims
      already living along the Mediterranean's southern rim
      are under age 20, and the population there is
      expanding fast.

      As a result, the growing estrangement of France's
      second- and third-generation Muslims and the
      increasing discrimination directed against them have
      become pressing concerns for the French government.

      The political establishment remains rattled by the
      resurgence of virulent racist-tinged nationalism
      during the last national elections.

      "I'm worried about a certain Islamophobia that is
      developing in our country," Prime Minister Jean-Pierre
      Raffarin said during a recent visit to the capital's
      largest mosque.

      With their imperfectly spoken Arabic and their French
      ideals, young Muslims say they are as alienated from
      their parents as they are from the provincials in the
      surrounding countryside.

      Bouanani took a visitor for a stroll along the
      hillsides below the housing projects and along the
      still waters of the Burgundy Canal.

      Makeshift fences of chicken wire and rough boards
      divide the land into small, overgrown gardens filled
      with mint and red peppers.

      Women in black chadors and abayas make the place feel
      more like Barbary than Burgundy.

      Few of the younger generation work in the gardens,
      Bouanani says, and though many of the immigrants'
      children visit North Africa each summer, their ties
      are growing weaker as their parents age.

      St.-Florentin, named for a ninth-century monastery
      built in honor of a fifth-century Christian martyr,
      changed little over the centuries until the 1960's,
      when an enterprising mayor built a small industrial
      zone.

      During the brief labor-hungry economic boom that
      followed, workers were brought here from the Islamic
      crescent across the Mediterranean.

      The borders have since closed, but family members,
      asylum seekers and illegal immigrants have added to
      the immigrants' numbers.

      The original immigrants expected little from their
      adopted homeland. But their children, born French and
      now coming of age, want to be treated like everyone
      else.

      Crumbling Moroccan hashish into a cigarette paper in
      front of a mostly abandoned apartment block here,
      Gharib Roubiaux complained bitterly about living in
      the "rabbit cages" of public housing while the French
      children with whom he grew up are moving on to better
      lives.

      "The future is a boat, but it is a boat that is
      sinking," he said. He had only worked for two months
      out of the past two years, he said.

      "No one will give you a job," he said. "How long can
      we stand here, leaning against the wall, before we
      blow a fuse."

      That frustration is widespread as Europe's
      long-established societies try to absorb their mainly
      Muslim postwar immigrants.

      Bouanani said he remembered feeling the racism rise as
      he grew up.

      In 1992, a restaurant owner across from the housing
      projects opened fire on some young Muslims following a
      dispute, killing one and paralyzing another. When the
      restaurant owner was sentenced to just six years in
      prison, there was a riot, and images of burning cars
      in St.-Florentin put the town on the national map.

      Gerard Magne, the St.-Florentin mayor, said the
      incident was a turning point and that the town had
      reached out to its young Arabs since then. The
      restaurant's space was given to the community for a
      mosque. The prefecture has also established a
      discrimination hot line and works actively to settle
      disputes, the young Arabs say.

      "It's no longer explicit racism, but implicit racism,"
      said Karim Sahmaoui, 20, a lean, sad-eyed man with
      white sneakers. He and others complain of job
      discrimination.

      The factories typically employ the men for three-week
      stints of staggered shifts but rarely offer full-time
      contracts. They work for minimum wage without
      benefits. Full-time employment is reserved for ethnic
      Europeans, the men say.

      Many people become so discouraged they rarely leave
      the square kilometer of buildings where most of the
      town's Arabs live. Depression and drug use are common.

      In Sahmaoui's sixth-floor apartment, one of the last
      inhabited in a building slated for demolition, his
      father chopped carrots and tomatoes for the couscous
      he was making for dinner. For all his frustration,
      Sahmaoui says that when he visits Morocco, he thanks
      his father for having moved to France.

      "If I didn't have hope," he said when asked about he
      future, " I'd be in prison."

      The New York Times


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