Facing Race in France

By Daisy Hernandez Apr 07, 2007

Dominique Sopo, President of SOS-Racisme at Facing Race 2007 Last week, violence erupted in Paris when police stopped a Black man who didn’t have a Metro ticket. Black and Arab youth came to the defense of the man and the crowd quickly swelled to more than 300, according to some reports. The presidential candidates (France hits the polls at the end of this month) issued their expected outcries and most people are expecting that racism and immigration will be deciding factors in this election. Below is the transcript (translated from the French) of a speech given at the 2007 Facing Race conference by Dominique Sopo , president of SOS-Racisme, the preeminent racial justice organization in France. Sopo goes to the root of the problem: the structural racism that shapes French public policy on everything from jobs to cops. Facing Race in France By Dominique Sopo I am the president of the organization SOS Racisme, which was created in France in 1984 in a very particular context. At the time, France was experiencing the "revelation" that African and Maghrébin immigrants were going to stay in France and that they were therefore going to contribute to a profound reconfiguration of French identity. In addition, there was a major social economic crisis. This combination provided grist to the mill for those looking for a scapegoat, and this lead to an upsurge of racist crimes, particularly towards North Africans. It was in this context that SOS Racisme was formed: in order to combat racist crimes, of course; in order to isolate the extreme right in France to prevent them from gaining a majority voice in the government; and finally, to start the struggle for recognition of intermarriage as a positive aspect of French society, since at the time for many French people it was not clear that a blending of populations was a positive thing. Today, to jump ahead in time, I am going to start with what has been called the "urban riots of 2005" in France, because it seems to me that these events are a good place to start when thinking about the origins and consequences of urban, political, ethnic and ideological problems facing French society. Normally at SOS Racisme we do not talk about urban "riots" because, in contrast with what could be seen on TV stations like FOX News (with its delicacy and its in-depth analyses!), there were no "riots" in France in the sense of an uprising of the population against established order. What there was in France, aside from in two or three cities where one could speak of riots, was burning cars, which is not at all the same thing as a riot, to the degree that one could walk around reasonably peacefully everywhere on French territory without risking being caught up in a guerilla war. That said, the images were very impressive and revealed violence that should be analyzed, given that this urban violence in France was the longest lived and most widespread geographically that has been seen in Europe since the Second World War. So, why did these riots or this violence take place? First, there are some false explanations, which are interesting to list in that they reveal prejudices that people have towards the riots and towards the populations who were implicated in these events. The first false explanation, which was heard as the violence was happening, is that the riots were the product of manipulations by Islamist networks, "Islamist" meaning Islamic fundamentalists. This is completely wrong. I do not say this out of love for fundamentalists, who we oppose, but simply because it is not true and because the fundamentalist networks in France today certainly don’t have the capacity to push the population into rioting or urban violence. The second false explanation is truly pretty exotic, and it involves attributing the urban violence to polygamy, an explanation put forth by people who perhaps have fantasies about what polygamy is all about, but which is obviously, given the circumstances, a false explanation. A third type of explanation, which relates to the previous one, involves interpreting these events from an ethnic/cultural angle where, roughly speaking, the explanation is to say that it was a largely black population that was involved in the violence and that this implies that there is a cultural problem with these populations that have come recently from villages in Africa and are not adapted to a civilization like what exists in France. Obviously, these explanations are all pretty far-fetched. I will now talk about what we consider to be the origins of this violence and the necessary responses to this violence. One of the immediate causes of the violence in 2005 was provocation from the Minister of the Interior, Nicola Sarkozy, who, in the months beforehand said some virulent things about the French suburbs, including saying that he was going to "pressure clean" them and referring to the youth as "scum." This had created an extremely toxic and explosive atmosphere. The second immediate cause of the violence was the death of two children in an electric transformer. They were being chased by the police, who apparently were toying with them because they had not done much if anything wrong, and the kids hid in an electric transformer. They were electrocuted and burned to death in the transformer, which touched off the powder keg. The first official explanations only served to fan the flames. As is frequently the case in this type of situation, the official reaction was that the police had done nothing wrong and that the kids should have known better than to hide in an electric transformer. This is a classic corporatist reaction on the part of the police and typical of interior ministers to say, "No, there is nothing wrong with the police." However, we know that there are problems with the police and I will come back to that. A longer lasting and less immediate origin of the violence is obviously the situation, the reality of ghettoization and discrimination that confronts a large part of the French population and French territory. We are in areas that have been abandoned, areas that are in a sense excluded from the sphere of the French republic, and in which there is enormous frustration and feelings of humiliation. This humiliation is felt particularly strongly today because those who live in this ghetto logic of discrimination are youths who were born on French territory. It is not the same thing to be the victim of discrimination in the country where you are born as it is to be the victim of discrimination in a host country where you have chosen this discrimination over life in your country of origin. Often politicians do not understand this reality because they tend to treat these youths in relation to an exterior reality as though they were only guests in France. I was born in the north of France; I am not going to compare my situation to what I might have experienced in Togo because that is not my country. France is my country. So, the discrimination that I experience in France is extremely humiliating because I find myself excluded from my own country in which I was born. What are the appropriate responses to these events? What we can see is that in spite of this violence, which did shock France rather deeply, nothing, absolutely nothing has happened and nothing has changed in the past year and a half. First, as always, the start of the urban violence resulted from a problem between the youth and the police. Not that I necessarily mean to lay the blame on the police, but two problems present themselves. First, police with the least experience are always sent into the most difficult areas, and since they do not have much experience, they tend to want to flaunt their authority in ways that frustrate the youth, particularly repeated check points that often provoke anger. So, a first demand that we have made is that the state make it a policy to have the most experienced and trained personnel in the toughest areas. The second demand is to institute diversity training for new officers to counteract the exoticism through which many police see a large part of the population, a well known phenomenon that has not been addressed in France. The second part of the response regards the discrimination in employment that confronts people from immigrant origins, but which also affects those who live in ghettoized suburbs even if they are white because their address is a stigma. Obviously, if one is in a suburb and also black, then the stigma is double. One is really out of luck and this is the case for many people. To fight this, we ask that the state abolish jobs prohibited to foreigners, of which there are many today in France. This is not because that would give jobs to the youth in France. No job is technically forbidden for them, but because it would show that the state is taking the bull by the horns and that when it speaks of fighting discrimination that it first shows the example by eliminating the discriminatory practices at the level of the state itself. On the question of housing, we have observed that the agencies that control low-income housing, which are often partly run by locally elected officials, practice segregation. The courts, to which we have submitted 32 complaints, have never responded to our demands for investigations and yet the segregation along ethnic lines practiced by some low-income housing agencies is a key element in understanding the logic of ghettoization taking place in French society for several years now. We ask, for example, that applications for low-income public housing be anonymous. It is supposed to be based on objective criteria so it should be treated that way: leave out the names of the applicants, which often are used as indicators in the system of segregation. I would like to say that in the debates taking place in France today there is a double caricature: a caricature of the right as thinking that hitting people is the way to make them stay in line and that deviants must be subjected to a sort of disembodied moral force to get them in line, which produces the results that we have seen because that is one cause of the violence in 2005; and there is a caricature of the left, unfortunately because I am on the left, as having a very generous discourse on the issues of the suburbs, integration, racism, etc., without ever gaining the capacity to live up to the goals that are expressed and that carries the risk of putting the republic and its values into question and also the risk that the violence that we experienced in 2005 returns and that this time it really takes the form of riots in the true sense of the term. Dominique Sopo has been the President of SOS Racisme since 2003. SOS-Racisme is the preeminent racial justice organization in France founded in 1984 as a result of the race riots that engulfed the country in 1983. SOS-Racisme recently-released Manifesto for Equality: 60 Propositions for Change, policy proposals to address the root causes of racial strife that erupted again in 2005 in the heavily-immigrant suburbs where people of color are concentrated in France. Previously, Dominique was the leader of France’s best-known student movement. www.sos-racisme.org