In a French village, anger over racism is spoken in Arabic - International Herald Tribune, France
- In a French village, anger over racism is spoken in
Craig S. Smith NYT
Saturday, December 27, 2003
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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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