By Sarah Alaoui

France is heralded by many as the land of pungent fromage, thin women, and trendsetting haute couture. Francophiles swoon for its rainbow macaroons and eccentric films. While I admit to my weakness for flakey croissants and admiration for the French’s chic, effortless wardrobe, it is worth putting aside the frivolity to seriously question and address the elephant in the room. With an estimated five million Muslims—most of North African origin—in the French Republic grappling with dual identities and a government determined to preserve its country’s homogenous, secular character, the formula is a volcanic disaster waiting to erupt. Sincere and effective steps to ease tensions and alleviate grievances need to be taken now or else France will be well on its way to replicating our own country’s darkest piece of history—economic and social subjugation of an entire people based on racist and xenophobic inclinations.


As is the case with many imperious whims, France changed its mind about the immigrant workers it opened its arms to decades ago at its own convenience. Following the economic boom of World War II, France needed manpower to support its proliferating factories and industries. What better source of cheap labor did it have than its former North African colonies? Doors were opened and immigration restrictions were eased to encourage the entry of thousands of individuals from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Many of them had zero chance of employment in their home countries and any alternative to the dire poverty and lack of opportunities they experienced there seemed appealing at the time. They did not prepare themselves for the further marginalization they would encounter at the hands of the French government. At least Americans were forthright with the Africans about the role they were to play in society.

Immigration in France became a real problem when the economy began to decline in the 1970s and the immigrants that came in the aftermath of World War II extended their work stays into permanent residence. Expatriates who had originally arrived to work grew accustomed to the better living conditions in Europe and began sending for their families to join them. In fact, immigration surged during that period and the French government was forced to face the question of what to do with the foreign-born people living within their borders—something that was never deliberated because of the assumption that the immigrants were only temporary workers. It never crossed their minds that the workers they’d brought in would ever want to settle down and create families—they believed that these people would continue to toil away in menial jobs until fingers were snapped as the signal to go back to where they came from. If only it were that simple. That kind of wishful thinking is what leads to large groups of ghettoized and unaccounted for people.

The Problem

Not convinced? Take the metro away from the scenic Eiffel Tower and away from the shops of the Champs-Élysées directly into the slums of Paris where North African immigrants and their French-born children are, “…segregated in communities around major cities…and exist in…depressed neighborhoods, reinforcing their alienation from the larger society.” The houses in these areas, called the “HLM” or “habitation à loyer modéré” (rent-controlled housing), are often dilapidated with many people squeezing into single units. Unsurprisingly, these neighborhoods have been the breeding grounds for acts of vandalism, delinquency and other crimes that have stemmed from the residents’ grievances with a system not taking any significant steps to integrate them into French society.

These young men and women born to immigrants are overrepresented in poverty and crime and their unemployment levels are twice as much as their non-Maghrebin (North African) counterparts. The children of the original immigrants are the ones bearing the brunt of the deal because no matter what, they will never be regarded as French—despite having been born in the country. Even though,

“…they speak French fluently and readily absorb French culture does not make them welcome in France…Even those Algerians who are relatively well integrated into French society, and who think of themselves as French or Westernized, sometimes find themselves treated differently from the indigenous French people. Most North Africans feel they are trapped in a hopeless downward spiral of joblessness, racial discrimination, and clashes with the police.”

Embarrassingly, this scenario sounds all too familiar—change the location, and the rebellious cries of North Africans in France start to sound identical to those of African-Americans in 20th century United States. African-American studies professor, Manning Marable illustrates the state of the black ghetto as a pitfall of capitalism:

“The economic relations of the ghetto to white America closely parallel those between third-world nations and the industrially advanced countries. The ghetto also has a relatively low per-capita income and a high birth rate. Its residences are for the most part unskilled.”

The conditions of the black American ghetto unquestionably mirror those of the North African inner city enclaves of France. When examining the two conflicts, it is also worth noting the striking similarities in group uprisings, violence, and government responses that resulted from the creation of both the American and French ghettoes.

Lashing Out

Paris’s 2005 riots were sparked by the death of two teenagers of Tunisian and Malian descent who were electrocuted as they fled the police. The event marked the beginning of three weeks of rioting caused by “…mostly unemployed teenagers from destitute suburban housing projects…” and caused €200 million worth of damage. The rioters burned about 9000 cars and many buildings and schools throughout France were torched and defaced. Though the death of the young men initially ignited the riots, it became a collective outcry denouncing the French government’s failure to integrate its large number of Maghrebin citizens. Then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy’s labeling of the young troublemakers as “scum” only served to further inflame tensions.

On November 18, 2009, cities across France erupted into celebration, then riots following the Algerian national soccer team’s victory against the Egyptians that qualified them for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. More than 12,000 young people of Algerian descent poured into the streets of Paris with cries of “Vive l’Algerie” and police soon tried to break them up. The youth met them with taunts, stones and fireworks to which the police responded with teargas and beatings with batons. Cars were burned, cops were injured and young North Africans were arrested. How did a simple soccer victory turn into a full-fledged riot reminiscent of the ones that took place in 2005? Looking beneath the surface shows that, “…the anger on show was not just about football…it was [about being] treated as a second-class citizen…to be an Algerian is to be a bicot or melon—racist terms for Muslims [used by French people].”

Once again, change the language and location, and we are transported back to the 1992 riots in South Central Los Angeles following the acquittal of police officers who had brutally beaten African-American Rodney King. 53 individuals were killed, 10,000 were arrested, $1,000,000,000 in damages were incurred and the National Guard, the 7th Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Division were all called in to tame the riots. Though the outset of the violence was attributed to what many deemed as a biased trial of white officers, the rioting that followed prolonged into protests over the lack of jobs and economic opportunities for blacks in the area. How can anyone be surprised that the people in either of the two cases rioted? Of course, the ideal situation would be to have thousands of Tom characters living in the ghettos—a name referring to the caricature that “portrays Black men as faithful, happily submissive servants.” Passive, subservient people that keep their discontent to themselves would be characteristic of the utopia the French government is attempting to create as part of their “integrationist” agenda. Even French interior minister Monsieur Brice Hortefeux would agree with me. The man was rebuked this past fall for certain questionable comments he made at a political event in southwestern France. When he agreed to pose for a photo with a young man of North African descent, a bystander joked about the latter being, “Our little Arab.” Hortefeux responded, “There always has to be one. When there’s one, it’s O.K. It’s when there are a lot of them – thats when there are problems.” One small step for man, one huge leap backwards for France.

The Bigger Picture

It’s been oft-said that “Muslim is the new black”. With the current political backdrop, the terms “Arab” (which is also a term that encompasses North Africans), “Muslim” and “extremist” all seem to be used interchangeably. After September 11th, the global community’s senses heightened to Islam and Muslims. In Europe, a continent that once referred to its North African immigrants as simply “Arabs”, the norm now seems to be grouping them all as “Muslims”. The ironic thing is that most Maghrebins in Europe are not particularly religious in the traditional sense of the word. Only 26 percent pray regularly and less than 23 percent attend prayers at local mosques. Generalizing them all with the sweeping label of “Muslim” serves to further separate the already marginalized minority from European society because of the negative connotations that have been attached to the term. In fact, many Europeans—especially those in government—are taking advantage of the current, pervasive anti-Muslim sentiment to discriminate against North Africans.

Read about women’s sartorial commentator, Nicholas Sarkozy lately? French president Sarkozy thinks he can achieve ranking of renaissance man by dipping his toes into the world of fashion. His frequent comments questioning the intentions of Muslim women wearing the hijab denigrate its purpose. His recent comments that encouraged a ban of the burka on French soil have been taken by many as something that will only further strain relations between North African populations and the “native” French. Eric Besson, the French Immigration Minister, said himself that a ban of the burka would only “create tensions.” Sarkozy champions a secular country, but with so much talk and emphasis placed on whether a woman should wear a headscarf, a niqab, or a burka, how can such a state be achieved amidst such issues at the forefront of politics?I doubt first lady, Carla Bruni, ever gets questioned about her clothing preferences—should she wear a little black dress or a maxi dress, no one really cares. Trying to pass laws about how people should dress with specifications that obviously target followers of a particular religion will undoubtedly wreak havoc—especially in a country like France with a history of persistent xenophobia. Furthermore, attempting to neutralize these laws under the cover of “integrating the immigrants” is not going to work because integration does not equate shedding parts of one’s identity. When feminists wanted equal rights to males in the work force, no one told them they had to seek operations and become male. When African-Americans demanded to be treated the same as whites, no one demanded they shed their dark skin in return (though I’m sure this would’ve satisfied many). Why should the case be any different in France? Is it impossible for one to be French, Arab, and Muslim? Quelle horreur! President Barack Obama put it best, “I will tell you that in the US, our basic attitude is that we’re not going to tell people what to wear.”


While I focus on France in this piece, because it houses the largest population of Maghrebin immigrants in Western Europe, the problem of integration is one that plagues the entire continent. As a result of the Muslim communities’ high fertility rates and increasing immigration, the National Intelligence Council projects that Europe’s Muslim population will double by 2025. The Maghrebin of Europe are not going anywhere and therefore need to be accommodated for as French citizens and not second class citizens. As Americans, we learned our lesson that African-Americans were not going anywhere and that we needed to do something to make them feel welcome (to say the least), or all hell would break loose. We brought them here, we learned our lesson, and cleaned up our mess by taking steps to care of them and their offspring. In a similar fashion, the workers that were brought over from North Africa to perform France’s dirty work all those long decades ago and their posterity need to be taken care of socially, economically and most importantly, humanely. Liberté, égalité, fraternité for all. Civil Rights Movement part deux, anyone? Quelle horreur!



  1. Interesting piece. The parallels between the two societies is striking and unfortunately a result of legal social constructions. Does the author have any suggestions as to which policies should be implemented in France to address these issues? Oftentimes, policies in one country do not have the same effect in the other. So then, my question is, what type of policies should be introduced and how?


  2. “Trying to pass laws about how people should dress with specifications that obviously target followers of a particular religion will undoubtedly wreak havoc…”

    Although this is logically makes sense, there are deeper reasons for the actions that Sarkozy took. In my understanding, it is to separate the church and the state. I also believe though that there are stereotypes of oppression that are associated with wearing the burqa. I only wish though that the result of Sarkozy’s legislation had the effect of breaking stereotypes instead of causing uproar.


  3. Fitting piece with the newest buzz from France!


  4. This is a nice effort to bring attention to conditions immigrants face in Europe. However, saying the French have much to learn from the US seems like an overstatement of the gains we have made here. For one, we have a nearly identical situation with Hispanic immigrants (Perhaps French politicians did learn something from us – race politics are unfortunately still a winning game.); and for two, we have in no way come close to “learning our lesson and cleaning up our mess” when it comes to racism against African Americans. For an example, see this report from Human Rights Watch:


    Another obvious example is the ugliness we had here at UCSD in the Winter quarter.


  5. “As Americans, we learned our lesson that African-Americans were not going anywhere and that we needed to do something to make them feel welcome (to say the least), or all hell would break loose. We brought them here, we learned our lesson, and cleaned up our mess by taking steps to care of them and their offspring.”

    Oh…Please. If this is what France have to learn from the US, I wonder what exactly the US are teaching.


  6. Aaron–
    Though race conditions in the United States are clearly not perfect, or anywhere near perfect, depending on how you view the contents of your glass, at least we’re taking steps to shed light on the issue and create awareness that we’re still not a post-racial society. Comparatively, however, France is much worse off in this respect where much of the racism is overt rather than covert and not enough measures are being taken to ease tensions between minority populations and the rest of “French society”. When I was there this past winter, I noticed the living conditions and treatments of many of these immigrants (AND their children, who though they are French-born, are NOT considered French by the general society) and it made me happy to get off the plane and declare “God Bless America”.

    As the American-born daughter of immigrants, I am considered American. If I was the daughter of immigrants in France, for example, my Moroccan background would take precedence over any French nationality card or papers I may possess. I would not be considered a citizen in my own country of birth.

    Comparatively, from a standpoint of having spent some time in both countries, the United States fares much better than France in integrating minorities and despite any racism or tensions we may still harbor, at least we’re not spending our time carping about “issues” such as outlawing the garments our people may choose to wear and other such frivolity.


  7. I enjoyed this – it’s a tightly written piece of journalism. I believe the parallels you’ve drawn between Maghrebians and urban African-Americans are correct, as both countries enjoy(ed?) illustrious careers as imperialists par excellence. Though race relations are nowhere near perfect in the United States, we’ve been grappling with the issue for centuries and have some progress to show: elected black officials (long before obama-think Reconstruction), broad acceptance of black pop culture, severe recriminations for overt racism (especially by public officials), etc. What fascinates me is that France’s problem seems to have been festering for decades, and yet didn’t receive any press here until the very recent burqa episode. It’s an issue with apparent widespread support across Europe-Switzerland recently banned the construction of minarets and are looking at burqas as well.


  8. Tomas,

    Sarkozy banned the scarf in French public schools as a statement of separation of church and state, though I still don’t see how individuals students dressing a certain way is infringing on separation rights.

    To ban such vetements in public has no bearing on said policy.


  9. I feel your comparison of American blacks and French Muslims shows the same righteous American folly that has gotten us into the problems we have with the rest of the world. I am not supporting any negative treatment of human beings. But we do not set the rules.
    The Black people here were brought over on boats and chained to their jobs. Horrible. And we need to do what we need to do. We are not.
    The people going to France knew what they wanted, took the boat and went after the rewards. They knew the score and did what they did. The French never promised them anything. They are the neighbors who came to dinner never left and now won’t leave. Why are the French responsible? If you are not an American there is not problem.
    But what we do as Americans is try to compare apples and oranges and somehow come up with a way to justify that what someone else did thousands of miles away and turn it into the government is wrong.
    Wake up America. Other countries throw non-citizens out of the country. They realize they can’t take care of the rest of the World. Unlike us they think all people should be accountable for their actions. What an idea! People know what they are doing. They did when they got there belongings, bought the ticket,landed in the port, took the jobs, spent their money.
    Again, I think the people should have food, shelter and life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But why should they, the French, have to do what we think is right. Maybe it is not. Maybe we don’t have the right idea.
    In our country today, people are starving when others in countries are getting free food, medical care and much more –provided by us. Why? Because even non-citizen illegal people receive benefits our own population does not get. You are right, they only get a small portion compared to the rest of us. But how many times do you go over to your neighbor and decide to takem on down to the store for groceries or to the dentist to fix their teeth on you? What kind of a person are you? You mean you can only take care of your own family? That is just not the American way.
    I think every US citizen should have a right to any dollar before any is given to a foreign person, country, entity, or anything not American. That should be the American way.
    We could do terrible things like make it possible to every American person, no matter their income, to have free food, free housing and more.
    We give money and help to ‘others who can’t take care of themselves’ when your grandmother on medicaid has the choice of either her tooth pulled or left in. That is right, medicare doesn’t pay for a root canal. But that’s OK because we give Bombers to countries that hate our guts, support loans to countries that would nuke us till we glow, and would rather support Iran then us.
    And yes we write about the poor people in France who aren’t citizens but want to stay.
    Most of the rest of the world laughs and shake their heads at our stupidity and don’t support our Wars and policies and most of what else we do. But we know what is best. Right up until we all go bankrupt, just like now.
    We will still try to tell others what is right. Have ya noticed as our money runs out no one is listening anymore. Maybe the only reason they have listened is because we did have money; not the right idea or stuff or just about anything else.
    I’ll see you later, I have to take my grandmother for a root canal because she can’t pay for it. But yeah, those French are wrong.


  10. I think the angle taken by the author on this issue is skewed to a rather Bible-thumping, megaphone-blaring effect. While estranging the Maghrebian community is a likely and problematic consequence of the ban and should be debated, it is hardly a “volcanic disaster waiting to erupt”. Also, I’d like to point out that the debate is being stretched somewhat disproportionately to immigration policy and fails to really explore what it means as a domestic issue. The bigger issues, in my opinion, are: whether this ban is in any way compatible with the French Constitution (which guarantees religious freedom and freedom of expression), whether it actually serves the official reason of public security and gender equality, and whether the practice is even Islamic in the first place (there are several interpretations where Muslim scholars believe not).

    However, leaving all that aside so as to tango with what the author is saying, I think she needs to address the other likely consequence of the policy: integrating the Maghrebian women into French society as opposed to estranging them. The concealment of women’s faces is not familiar to French society, making it difficult for friendly and unintimidated interaction to foster. Furthermore, the attitude accompanying a woman’s willingness to follow the practice may in fact indicate an unwillingness to try and “fit in”. Enforcing the ban seems unfriendly and uncompromising, but it may actually serve to bridge the gap than to widen it.

    I’m compelled to side with Tomas in that the policy may actually have more to do with French secularism than the targeted attack on Maghrebians the author assumes. The wearing of ostentatious religious symbols have been banned in French public schools since 2004 under Chirac, a blanket law that applied to to all religious groups and not just the Muslims. This latest ban is specific to the point of singling out one particular community, yes, but it is still in line with the general policy stance taken by the French with regards to secularism and can be interpreted as less xenophobic than many like to make it seem. Why so quick to assume the worst of other countries, and so quick to applaud oneself? America has done no better in its history of slavery and discrimination, and certainly has its own happy prejudices vis-a-vis chuch and politics today.

    Lastly, I like the points brought up by Randall, but again, do not think the focus of the issue is on immigration policy, which is what the author compounded on rather relentlessly. The law applies to the French people and those residing in the country, not people currently streaming in or the people they are trying to cast out.


  11. Awesome information,hope the french have learnt a thing from this article and best to go about with their work.I think all religions must be considered and respected so as to keep peace and harmony .Great site


  12. Useful post. I look forward to viewing more. Cheers!


  13. Although the attacks happened in the United States, they were an attack on freedom everywhere. It is not an anniversary we want to remember, it’s an anniversary we never want to forget. That is the spirit on which the redevelopment of the World Trade Center is built.


  14. If France’s Maghrebis want to be treated as equals, maybe they should stop brutalizing their women and girls. If they wish to be treated like humans, then they should act like humans. If they insist on behaving like animals, then they deserve to be treated like animals.

    Seriously, read up on tournantes and tell me if you still think they don’t fully deserve every bit of hatred and racism they face.


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