Behzad Yaghmaian is an Iranian born citizen of the United State and currently teaches economics at Ramapo College in New Jersey. He is a frequent Counterpunch contributor and the author of Embracing the Infidel: The Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West (Delacorte, November 29, 2005), a collection of stories about migrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia to Europe. The book details the tragedies and the joys of individuals and families as they make their way to Europe in the hope of finding some kind of happiness. Yaghmaian spent two years in migrant communities in Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, France and elsewhere in Europe living with and helping out the people he met. In my search to understand the insurrectional wave of rioting by youths in France I recently interviewed Behzad regarding these events.
Ron: Hi, Behzad. To begin, from news reports it appears that most of those involved in the rioting in France are either immigrants or children of immigrants. Furthermore, it appears that most of them are what we in the United States call “people of color.” In other words, their skin tone is not caucasian. From your experience and understanding, how does this inform the insurrectionists’ lives and perceptions of those lives in France?
Behzad: Most of those participating in the riots so far have been the children of North African migrants in France. What produced the riots is an explosive situation that has very strong class, racial/ethnic, and cultural/religious components. The rioters are primarily Arab/African, unemployed, young, and Muslim. They are French citizens that are not regarded as French by the authorities (especially the police) and many White French. It is quite possible that with the continuation and geographic expansion of the current crisis–the turbulence has already spread to a number of cities across the country–more disenfranchised groups including other non-Muslim African migrants and their children, and all those who feel betrayed by France join the riots.
The riots are a recent response to France’s attitude towards the immigrants from the ex-colonies, the attitudes that have only worsened in recent years. Locked up outside Paris in neglected and isolated ghettos with other Africans and poor white French working class, most North African migrants and their children have been marginalized, and stigmatized for their ethnic origin and lack of economic mobility. The riots are a sign of France’s failed migration policy, and its failure to deliver the great promises of the French Revolution–liberty, equality-fraternity–to all its citizens. The turbulence is a loud cry by the children of North African migrants for equality. They now have a chance to be heard.
Ron: There are those in the European and US mainstream media that blame this on the fact that most of these young people are Muslims. Personally, I think this is hatemongering nonsense, especially when various Islamic clerics have come out strongly against the destruction. What is your take on this characterization? Is it useful or just another example of anti-Muslim sentiment?
Behzad: The Paris riots are not religious riots. But they are typical race riots by a group of non-whites that are at the same time Muslim. The role of Islam in the riots is indirect. In some way, the riots reflect the increasing frustration by Muslims for being discriminated against because of their religion particularly in the past decade. What brought the youth to the streets were not Islam, but rather the disenfranchisement and stigmatization of a population for its race and religion. The riots are not guided by religious principles, but the rioters demand respect for being a Muslim. They are demanding an end to discrimination for having a Muslim name.
Ron: As someone who uses Marxist analysis to understand the role that economics plays in the world we live in, I believe strongly that the actions of the youth in France are directly related to the forms of employment that most of these young people have, if they have any at all. In other words, it seems from my reading that they end up with jobs in the low-paying service sector, just like young people do in the US. Or perhaps, like many of the young men portrayed in your book, they work illegally or “under the table,” as we like to say in the States. Does this concur with your perspective and understanding? Would a more hopeful employment outlook and programs to provide such an outlook change things for these young people?
Behzad: The riots have a very strong class dimension. They have occurred in France’s ghettos by some of the most marginalized French citizens: the unemployed and the poor. For example, while the national unemployment rate is around 10%, nearly 30% of the French of North African descents are out of work.
The French economy’s ability to create jobs has declined in recent years. Unemployment has progressively increased from an average of less than 2% in the 1960s, to 4.3% in the first half of the 1970s, 8.9% in the 1980s, and nearly 12% in the second half of the 1990s.
Given the increasing globalization of the economy, many large corporations have been outsourcing or moving abroad to cut their cost of production and escape France’s remaining progressive labor laws. For most young people, especially those from the suburbs, finding a job in small businesses in the service industry is the only chance of gainful employment. But, small businesses, the primary engine of job creation, have also been falling behind in recent years.
The situation has been worsened by neglected schools, and the decline in public funding for education and social services in recent years. Mandated by the Maastricht Treaty, France and other euro-zone countries have cut back on social expenditures. Rundown school buildings and shortages of services are common. Most basic services are lacking. Teachers in some schools are authorized to make only one photocopy a day per student, and in other places, one photocopy every three days. Naturally, students graduating from such schools lack the necessary skills for finding fruitful employment.
Even those succeeding to finish universities face inescapable discrimination because of their Arabic names, and their address. Research shows that, with equal qualifications, the chance of getting an interview for an applicant with dark skin is five times less than the average. Leaving the ghetto seems an insurmountable task even for many educated children of the migrants.
Ron: How bad is the police repression in the communities that the insurrectionists live? I know that in many communities in the US–especially those populated by African-Americans or immigrants, police are viewed as an occupying army, much like the US military in Baghdad or the Israeli forces in the West Bank and Gaza. Is this a fair characterization of the relationship between police and residents of those French cities and towns experiencing the unrest?
Behzad: The riots have clearly demonstrated the hatred and distrust in authorities, a widespread sentiment in the suburbs long before this recent turbulence. Unemployment and idleness, and hopelessness among the youth were fertile ground for petty crime, gang violence, and drugs. Dispatched to maintain law and order, the police have been known for using excessive force, further alienating the youth, pushing them to the edge.
The situation was compounded with the rise of Muslim phobia in the past decade. Now every young North African male is seen as a potential terrorist.
Long before September 11 and the rising suspicion of the Muslims in the U.S. and other parts of the West, the Algerians and other North Africans in France were under close scrutiny by the police. A subway bombing in Paris on July 25, 1995 resulted in the random arrest of men of North African origin across the city. As a visitor in Paris in the last days of July, I saw young men handcuffed and carried away by the police in train stations and metro stops. All eyes were on men with Arab and North African profile. A witch-hunt was underway. Following the bombing, more than 100,000 mostly Muslim-looking residents were randomly stopped by the police and asked for documentation each week. I visited Paris many times after the 1995 bombing. The tension persisted. September 11 and the–war on terror–further aggravated the situation.
Ron: I read in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel this morning (November 7, 2005) that several cars had been torched in Berlin and Bremerhaven last night. The concern expressed in the report was that the troubles in France might be spreading across borders. Do you think this is a genuine possibility? Why or why not?
Behzad: The riots in France seem to be spreading to other countries in Europe. There are reports of car burning and violence in Berlin and Brussels.
Though not identical, similar situations to those in France are experienced by migrants communities in different parts of Europe. Most European societies have a restive and frustrated migrant population. Across Europe migrants, especially Muslims, have been subject to rising xenophobia and social discrimination.
Throughout the 1980s and beyond, a dual border policy emerged in Europe. While the European states aggressively pushed for the opening of borders to the movement of goods and capital into the continent, they closed their borders to labor from the Third World. In the meantime, governments retreated from the long-established state commitments to the public and the provision of social safety net. They pushed for cutbacks in the state support for public education and healthcare, unemployment insurance, and all that made European social democracy a reality in the past.
Helplessly observing the erosion of their standard of living and their future, the pensioners, the unemployed, and those with no hope of a better future focused their anger on an easier target–immigrants from the Third World. Attacks on foreigners increased; anti-immigrant parties gained momentum. Those promising an end to the–abuse of the system by the migrants? gained political support across the continent. Migrants and refugees from poor countries became new scapegoats for the demise of the old European social contract.
To win votes, even liberal parties moved towards supporting the control of immigration. A seemingly perfect formula emerged. Conceding to the demands of the citizens negatively affected by cutbacks, states sought to create social peace by targeting immigration. While continuing with their advocacy of free trade and investment, deregulated borders, and cutback in social services, politicians of different parties sought new alliances with supporters of immigration control. Migrants from the Third World were targeted to carry the brunt of the burden caused by the European social and economic policies of the past two decades: the death of the old social contract.
The anti-immigrant sentiments were rising in Europe even before September 11.
The attack on the World Trade Center brought the existing xenophobia to a new height. September 11 changed the world of migration. Combating terrorism and halting illegal migration coincided. It gave the Western states a new reason for further tightening their borders. In some sense, September 11 helped the West reinforce policies that began long before 2001.
For all these reasons, the flames of Clichy-sous-Bois and other suburbs of Paris are likely to spread across Europe unless a shift of policy and social attitudes occur.
Ron: I personally fear a wave of racist backlash from many Europeans–a backlash that will be fanned by politicians like Le Pen in France and by right-wing groups like the nazis in Germany. This in turn will allow less reactionary politicians like French Premier Chirac and the German CDU politician Merkel to approve tougher laws against asylum and other programs beneficial to immigrants. Do you fear that repression will increase and border controls will tighten for those migrating from Africa, the Middle East and central Asia as a result of this insurrection? If it does what will it mean for those migrants who are already established in Europe?
Behzad: It is very likely that, at least in the near future, the European states? response will be one of more strict control of the migrants communities. We will witness a further tightening the noose, and reducing access to Europe. Inside the European Union, the surveillance and control of the Muslim communities is likely to increase. More asylum applications will be rejected, and many fleeing economic and political violence in their places of birth will be denied the possibility of seeking refuge in Europe.
Behzad Yaghmaian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: email@example.com