France must fight the "poison of discrimination" by hiring more minorities and integrating them into French society, President Jacques Chirac said Monday in his first address to the nation since rioting erupted in immigrant neighborhoods 21/2 weeks ago.
Chirac turned aside calls for affirmative action programs to boost opportunities for minorities, saying the solution was "not a question of applying quotas." He urged the country's businesses and trade unions to do more to "deal with the problem of employment in difficult areas" and encouraged political parties and the news media to add more minorities to their ranks.
Until his 12-minute address Monday night, Chirac had remained largely invisible as the crisis raged through the low-income neighborhoods of nearly every major French town and city. His speech departed in tone from previous statements by him and his government, which have tended to depict the problem as a breakdown of law and order rather than a sign of deep-rooted social ills.
Chirac spoke after days of debate among politicians, social activists and news media over whether to dramatically reform an antiquated social system that espouses equality but fails to recognize the increasing diversity of French society.
The riots "bear witness to a deep malaise," Chirac said. "It is a crisis of meaning, a crisis of reference points and an identity crisis."
The French president cited only one specific initiative planned by his government: an employment program for 50,000 low-income youth that will begin in 2007.
"He's saying, 'It's not me, it's other people,' " said Patrick Lozes, a political activist and president of the Circle for the Promotion of Diversity in France. "I think he should have started with his government. What we all need to do now is clearly look at the roots of the issue and why those people are shouting."
During his speech, Chirac also came down hard on the rioters, saying: "Many French people have difficulties, but violence never solves anything. If one belongs to our national community, one must respect the rules." He told youths carrying out the rioting that "it is a great privilege to belong to French society."
He also advocated tougher steps to bar illegal immigrants from the country.
The violence is slowly ebbing from its peak a week ago, when gangs of young men set fire to cars, schools and businesses in at least 300 towns and communities in a single night. But police remain unable to stanch the unrest in many of the affected neighborhoods, which are populated largely by immigrants and their French-born children.
On Sunday night and early Monday morning, 284 vehicles were set ablaze, police reported. Since the attacks began on Oct. 27, 8,400 cars, trucks and buses have been burned across the country, along with scores of schools, sports facilities, government offices and private businesses. Police have arrested 2,767 people.
The violence broke out after two teenagers who entered a power substation in an effort to evade a police checkpoint were accidentally electrocuted. Since then, one person -- a man who was beaten as he tried to extinguish a fire -- has died as a result of the violence and dozens of police and firefighters have been injured.
The French cabinet voted Monday to ask Parliament to extend for three months the state-of-emergency declaration used in the past week to impose curfews in troubled neighborhoods. The declaration law gives communities broad authority for such measures as police raids on private residences. It had not been used since its enactment in 1955 during Algeria's war of independence from France.
The French Federation of Insurance Companies on Monday estimated the cost of the damage resulting from the unrest at $234 million, including about $23 million for burned vehicles.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has proposed that the European Union donate $58 million to France for violence-related assistance. He said up to $1.17 billion could be offered to France for long-term jobs and social programs.
Boys and young men involved in the violence have said they are setting fires to draw attention to discrimination they face daily in French society. Muslim youths of Arab and African descent have been hit particularly hard by France's continuing economic slump.
Government statistics show that the unemployment rate among French-born children of immigrants is more than double the national average. Algerian men ages 18 to 40 have the highest rate of unemployment, about 23 percent, while the rates for Asians, Turks, Moroccans, Tunisians and Africans in this age group are only fractions of a point lower.
Civic associations and nongovernmental agencies working in the low-income communities question these figures and say the actual rates may range around 40 percent or higher.
"We are all aware of discrimination," Chirac said in his address Monday. "How many CVs [resumes] are thrown in the wastepaper basket just because of the name or the address of the applicant?"