Social unrest in France : Ambassador Jean-David LEVITTE at the National Press Club
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"Unrest in poor French neighborhoods" - Panel organized by the Council on American-Islamic Relations - Washington, November 21, 2005
I’m delighted to be once again at the National Press Club.
When I was proposed this discussion by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, I accepted immediately, because I thought that it was a golden opportunity to discuss at length about a very complex problem. Now that violence has abated and that we are back to a normal situation in our suburbs, I think it is time to engage in this dialogue to see what it was about. But first, what it was not. And what the government may do.
Let’s start immediately by what it was not.
I think it’s important to start with that. I think the word “riot” is a bit too strong.
If you compare, for instance, with the riots which happened in Los Angeles in 1992, the word is certainly too strong. In Los Angeles you had 54 dead, 2,000 wounded. Here in all these impoverished neighborhoods, you had thee teenagers who died that jumped over the wall of an electricity substation, and one adult who died after being wounded and hurt by teenagers. That’s it. No guns in our streets. The main difference with Los Angeles for instance or other riots is that there were no adults in the streets. In our neighborhoods, they were teenagers, between age 12 and age 20. And I think this is a very important nuance, so I would say it’s less riots than social unrest triggered by the death of these two teenagers, and then it spread from one neighborhood to the other, from one teenager to the other, with a copycat phenomenon with the cell phones and the internet, or simply by seeing on the TV screens what was happening in the neighborhood of the next city. Then it was spreading, and it lasted two weeks. But it was social unrest in my view, than riots in Los Angeles in 1992 to take an example.
The second thing, which is very important to understand, and I’m joining you in your analysis, is that it was not about the role of Islam. It has nothing to do with the clash of religions or civilizations or cultures.
I think it’s very important to understand that. You may say ‘but are you so sure’. Yes, I am.
First, we have absolutely no information that there were organized movements with leaders. On the contrary, they were totally disorganized groups of teenagers without any leader, and it was one of the difficulties, because we had no interlocutors.
Second, religion played no role at all during these two weeks, either positive or negative.
I say positive, because the leaders of the Muslim community in France did their best. The head of the organization within which all the Muslim organizations of France are represented issued a strong statement. The more radical Islamic group issued also the same kind of statement calling for the end of unrest, which was “un-Islamic”. But nobody listened to them in these impoverished neighborhoods. Nobody listened. So religion didn’t play a role, either positive or negative.
Further, as you said, they were not only Muslims. It’s too easy to say, oh, they are Muslims. No, the heaviest sentence which was delivered after this unrest was delivered to a young man, 20-year-old from Northern France. He’s white. He’s not a Muslim. He was sentenced for an arson attack and condemned to four years in prison.
It has nothing to do also with an Islamist threat. Some media made the connection between the terrorist attacks in Amman and the French impoverished neighborhoods.
But we never saw any link, direct or indirect, any sympathizer of Al Qaeda in these neighborhoods. Absolutely no link with Al Qaida, absolutely no link with events in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the Middle East peace process. And by the way, it’s interesting to note also that only one synagogue was attacked. Only one. I say that, because if you compare with the situation in 2000-2001 where there were a number of incidents against Jewish establishments, schools, synagogues, houses and so on, the situation is completely different now, even during these two weeks of unrest.
It doesn’t mean that we don’t fear recruitment of young Jihadists in our suburbs. Of course, we do care but it’s a different story. We know that in some places, some mosques, some houses, there are Jihadists recruiting young kids, young teenagers to be sent to Iraq for Jihad, and then back to France for Jihad in France. But this is a different phenomenon, and it has nothing to do with the social unrest in these impoverished neighborhoods.
Last, it has nothing to do either with the principle of secularism and the law banning all conspicuous signs of religious belief in our public schools, including head scarves.
No teenage girl participated in the demonstrations. If you look at the outfits of these young male teenagers, there were not Muslim outfits, but very Western ones, I should say American kind of outfits. And I don’t resist the temptation of quoting the office of research of the American State Department, which issued recently its yearly analysis covering the whole world. About the Muslim situation in France, I quote, "large majorities of Muslims in France voice confidence in the country’s government, feel at least partly French and support integrating into French society." And this was accompanied by a poll : according to the 2005 survey, 95% of French Muslims have a favorable overall opinion of France. 89% of them express confidence in public school, and 65% in the national government. This is an American survey.
I just said what it is not about.
Now, what is it about?
Well, the first question, where did it happen? It will help us to understand why. It happened in poor neighborhoods. We have more than 100 of them. It means that it’s not all neighborhoods, and it means that it’s not big cities. If you take Marseille, for instance, it’s the second largest city in France, and it is by far the big city where the percentage of Muslims is the highest. No unrest at all there. And no unrest in a number of neighborhoods where you have a Muslim population, because these neighborhoods were in good shape. So it’s only in impoverished neighborhoods.
Second question, what was attacked ? What was attacked, as you’ve seen on your TV screens, was first, cars : 9,000 cars were burned. They were the cars of their parents. These teenagers put on fire the cars of their neighbors, their parents, their friends. Second, they attacked their schools, nurseries, gymnasiums, and of course, police stations. 96 of these buildings were damaged or destroyed. 126 policemen were injured on duty. All in all, the cost of these two weeks of unrest is estimated at $250 million, including $20 million for the 9,000 cars.
Why did these teenagers do that ?
My explanation, and this is a starting point for our discussion, my explanation is that these teenagers feel alienated and discriminated, both socially and economically. They don’t want to affirm any difference, but they want to be considered as 100% French. They are demanding more liberty, equality, fraternity, and not less. They are not fighting to be recognized as a minority, either ethnic or religious, but on the contrary, they want to be accepted as full citizens of the French republic. They want to be part of the French dream.
And let’s admit it, we -the French authorities- over the last decade, made mistakes, and probably the number one mistake was the construction of hundreds of high rise buildings in response to the housing crisis of the 1960s, 1970s, when we had this big wave of immigration, because these hundreds of high rise buildings together transformed certain neighborhoods into ghettos, concentrating all possible problems on unemployment, drugs etc. That’s where certainly we failed.
And as President Jacques Chirac said in his intervention, his speech of November 14, it is a crisis of direction, a lack of points of reference, a crisis of identity.
Some of these teenagers are also living in deconstructed families. Most of the time, we find single mothers or unemployed parents, violence at home... So it is also an authority failure from the parents. The result is often the creation of — I wouldn’t say gangs — but groups of young teenagers, who more or less go to school, have parents working hard or unemployed; so they spend their time in the streets. You have those groups of teenagers, who don’t have any place to play. They organize themselves and invent their own subculture, if I may say so. This is a complex phenomenon that we are facing today in these impoverished neighborhoods.
What can be the response of the French government ?
The first thing to do was, of course, to restore law and order. Police have arrested nearly 3,000 people, including 640 individuals who are in prison.
But more important maybe is the need to restore dialogue. This is being done. This dialog is reorganized, reopened at all levels in these neighborhoods. We have more proximity police to maintain a daily dialog with these teenagers, the mayors are doing their best to reconnect with these groups. We have a number of local community organizations, and they are given additional resources to be in a position to do a better job.
At the same time we needed a global, overreaching, comprehensive policy. It’s been put into place. It’s been decided to spend in the next month in euros a total of $42 billion in aid to these neighborhoods.
Number one will be education.
What will be done in terms of education is very concrete. First, the government has decided to triple merit scholarships for students from these troubled neighborhoods, and second, to also triple boarding school programs for deserving students who then can get out of their impoverished environment. Third, a mentorship program organized by our “grandes écoles”, our best universities if you wish, and we encourage them to open up as the Paris political science school has done to help more and more students from these neighborhoods to attend their programs. Fourth, apprenticeship programs will be available for failing students beginning at age 14, to help them to get a job fast. So that’s number one priority : education.
Number two : housing.
As I said, when and where the housing has been rebuilt in a better way, we had no social unrest. We know the way forward, and it’s not a new development. We have already started, $30 billion have been invested in these housing programs. But we must speed up these programs. The government, the Prime minister has asked that renovation delays be reduced to 18 months, and we will make a special effort to transform these poor neighborhoods into more lively places, with not only better housing, but also gymnasiums, restaurants, coffee shops, cinemas, and so on, to make these neighborhoods lively cities.
Third : jobs.
That’s, of course, the best way to integrate. If you have a job, you have a future. Until the day you have a job, you feel that you are not integrated in the social fabric of France. What the government has decided is quite spectacular. The young people from all these troubled urban areas will all be received by the labor exchange in the coming months for a completely individualized assessment of their qualifications, and within three months they will be offered either a contract or a training program or an internship. So it’s really a bold move. This government’s proactive policy, which has started months ago, is getting results. The level of unemployment for six months in a row has been going down. But as you said, the problem is these neighborhoods, because that’s where the unemployment rate is the highest and that’s why we have to address it head-on. And, of course, the best way to succeed is to have jobs in these impoverished suburbs. That’s why the government has decided the creation of 15 additional opportunity zones, that is, zones where businesses that create jobs will be able to operate tax-free for five years.
And finally, but maybe it’s the most important, the French republic must fight against all forms of discrimination.
We cannot ask young people to integrate on the one hand, and on the other hand, accept the fact that their origins sometimes prevent them from finding work. Fighting discrimination is not just a moral duty, it’s also the best way to put an end to the violence. The French president, the French government have created a High Authority to Fight Discrimination and promote equality, equal opportunity. This high authority has been given the capacity to impose sanctions when discrimination can be proven. So we hope that slowly all those with comparable diploma and experience will be given the same opportunities to get jobs.
All this shows that for the French government, for the French society as a whole, what happened during these two weeks was a kind of wakeup call. We know that the way ahead will be a difficult, long-term process. But we want to remain faithful to the ideals of the French republic, liberty, equality, fraternity, and to make this old French dream a reality for all the French citizens. We are totally determined to succeed.
Thank you very much./.