The Other France, Separate and Unhappy
More than a year ago, when I was assembling a Web site about my experiences as a foreign correspondent, I posted the following entry: "Europe still has not come to grips with the fact that its societies are changing," I wrote. "Europe is becoming more multiracial and multicultural. But black and Asian faces are still underrepresented, on television, in corporate board rooms, and in the halls of national assemblies. It is a contradiction European countries will soon have to address, to avoid the kind of social upheaval America experienced in the 1960s."
These past two weeks, as I watched the teeming Paris suburbs, the banlieues, in flames -- and France's neighbors began to fear that the riots could spread to African and Arab communities elsewhere in Europe -- those words have sounded surprisingly prescient. But you didn't need clairvoyance to tell that the Paris banlieues were ripe for that kind of social explosion. All you really had to do was open your eyes.
True, you might not notice the lack of diversity if all you visited in Paris were the gracious monuments and grand museums. Enjoying some of the world's best meals in trendy bistros in the Marais or on the fashionable Left Bank, you might not be able to tell that you were in one of the world's most multiracial cities. If you turned on the television, you'd find that black, brown and yellow faces were largely invisible, unless you happened to catch a soccer match or a music video.
The one place you might see it is if you rode the Metro, the subway system, where the population's true color range is on full display, or if you took the train in from the airport, and looked out at the dilapidated housing projects on the edge of the city. If you happened to visit the National Assembly, the few nonwhite faces you'd see would be from France's overseas territories. And you might notice that the police officerswalking their beats are slightly more mixed in hue, but just slightly; small wonder that to many young people in the banlieue, subjected to constant stops and identity card checks, the police force feels like an occupying army.
Perhaps I noticed it more than many -- this unnatural state of affairs -- because I was seeing Paris, and France, through my own prism as a black American reporter covering a country that has always prided itself on being the world's birthplace of human rights and the home of libert and galit . And I noticed because many French friends and acquaintances would use the presence of a black American to bemoan the residual racism in the United States, while extolling the virtues of their own model of integration through assimilation -- the so-called "republican model." It is a model unique in Europe, and when racial problems did flare, in the Netherlands or in Spain, the French would take comfort in the conviction that they allowed no such diversions: Integration, they maintained, was a success.
If it was obvious to me that France was ripe for a social explosion -- it may be because I'd seen it before. I grew up in 1960s Detroit, where the growing black underclass remained similarly invisible, and the police force in black neighborhoods was similarly viewed as an occupying army.
The emphasis then, as in France now, was on maintaining law and order, not on such underlying problems as a lack of political representation and economic empowerment. Special police units assigned to control Detroit's black neighborhoods used to ride four to an unmarked car -- thus their name, "The Big Four" -- and kids knew that when the black sedan veered onto the street, you turned and ran. The Big Four had stop-and-frisk powers, and they carried blackjacks -- short, bone-breaking clubs. The deputy police commissioner, who later ran for mayor on a law-and-order platform, earned the nickname John "Blackjack" Nichols.
It took a violent insurrection, the July 1967 riot, to shake up the system. That riot started when the police raided a "blind pig," one of the ubiquitous after-hours drinking joints popular among blacks. The one they raided was on 12th Street, just a few blocks from the house where I grew up. Bottles started flying, and before long, years of pent-up frustration exploded into America's worst-ever riot, which left 43 people dead and more than a thousand injured before the National Guard and Army paratroopers restored order.
The rioting in the ghettos outside Paris also began with a police operation, an identity inspection in Clichy-sous-Bois. Three boys, aged between 15 and 17, ran to evade the inspection and two were electrocuted when they hid in a power substation. But as with the riots in Detroit, the initial spark only lit the fuse; what was ignited were the core frustrations and grievances accumulated over many years of hardship and neglect. As in Detroit, the first victims were the neighborhood residents themselves, whose stores and vehicles were wantonly torched alongside the symbols of government.
The ashes of the riots in my hometown -- the loss of life, the destruction of many businesses -- eventually gave rise to something better. In response to the unrest in Detroit and other cities, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the Kerner Commission, which concluded in 1968 that America was moving toward "two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal."
Six years later, black political power became entrenched in City Hall, when Coleman Young defeated "Blackjack" Nichols to become the city's first black mayor. The police force started to change, too, to one that represented the citizenry. And the Kerner Report had strong words for the media, which it said had failed to adequately report on the '67 disturbances. "The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro's burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed," the report said. "Slights and indignities are part of the Negro's daily life, and many of them come from what he now calls 'the white press' -- a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America." That report led to a dramatic increase in the number of black reporters in newsrooms.
French society could use a similar period of self-reflection, and some badly needed corrections. The average life of the banlieusards , the Arab and black children of mostly Muslim immigrants, bears little resemblance to the average life of the white French citizens in the cities. People of Arab and black African descent make up more than 10 percent of the population, by most estimates. Despite their numbers, most French -- politicians, journalists and average citizens -- have never acknowledged that there is a problem. Until now, that is.