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November 11, 2005

France's North Africans' Revolt

Roy Meachum

For years, France luxuriated in the notion that it was a color-blind society. That luxury has been obliterated over the past weeks. Still, knowing and loving the French, I am sure they will recover their sense of superiority as it was before the current rioting.

When first I went to Europe, Parisians, in particular, delighted in damning Americans for our bigotry against African-Americans. They delighted in pointing out how they had made a big star out of Josephine Baker, for example.

If Ms. Baker's glory has been dimmed by time, it still resonates along the banks of the Seine, summoning up images of the daughter of slaves treated as an empress for her star turns at the Folies Bergere. Her most famous number had her wearing nothing but a few bananas, artfully placed to conceal her crotch.

Ms. Baker was not the first American black to seek refuge from segregation's cruel savagery, but she certainly was the most famous.

Ralph Ellison reportedly wrote in Paris much of what became "The Invisible Man," perhaps the 20th Century's most influential argument against Jim Crow devastation of human beings.

While he was living in Paris, I met and worked with Rex Stewart whose masterful trumpet can still be heard on classical recordings made by Duke Ellington's orchestra. Rex talked to me about the delight Frenchmen (and women) found in his dark colored skin.

It did literally no good to point out heavyweight champion Joe Louis and dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson as African Americans idolized by large numbers of Americans. Hattie McDaniel breaking Hollywood's color bar with an Oscar for "Gone With the Wind" didn't count either.

There was simply no answer that could justify what has happened to millions of men, women and children solely because of the color of their skin.

Knowing that, my French friends slacked off, figuring their argument was won; their superior attitude towards American racism justified.

But that was before the world's empires started falling apart, driving into exile North African and sub-Saharan colonial subjects whose elite considered themselves more French than the French. Thousands more crossed the Mediterranean seeking economic opportunity that did not exist in countries afflicted with wars of succession.

On a long-ago trip to Paris, I stumbled into a hotel near the Opera and found a home the next two weeks with Algerians and Moroccans who staffed the place. They seemed as delighted by my stuttering Arabic as I was by their gracious hospitality.

On my last venture in France I happened to arrive at a moment when riot police turned out in numbers seeking to quell a spate of public trash bin bombs; the suspected terrorists were Algerians.

A Metro ride to the world's foremost Flea Market passed through the same suburbs that were torched in the first nights of protest that created the present crisis. Into my car flowed a flood of young dark-skin men, obviously of North African descent. Their eyes were sullen and defiant.

That was in 1998. Those same dark-skin men now seven years older could have easily been part of the mob that has burned thousands of cars, hospitals, schools and mosques. They were not alone.

What started outside Paris rapidly spread out across the country, particularly in the south, but also over the border into Germany, according to press reports.

Until the post-World War II demographic shift, Marseilles was famous for its abundance of North African immigrants. So why didn't the riots start there?

That's easy. Generations of immigrants from Morocco, Tunisia and most of all Algiers possess the political clout to protect them. They even elected one of themselves mayor.

Moreover, it is extremely difficult to practice segregation based on color where the Mediterranean sun tans so many. And how could anyone possibly tell the difference between the new arrivals and the "real French" whose ranks included swarthy Corsicans.

To the north, there were fewer problems. From the start, at the end of the nation's empire, the nation opened its door but never its heart and mind to those colonial subjects who chose to come "home" to France. Their "strangeness" was reinforced by their different religion; most are Muslim.

Unlike this country where education and hard work can bring about acceptance, the French, especially Parisians, made it clear there could be no real social or economic advancement. We have learned unemployment runs now approximately 25 percent among the former colonials. Even those with advanced university degrees are relegated to menial positions, when they are available.

Not long ago the government was in a pitched battle over the question of Muslim students covering their heads and hair as their religion taught. Arguments that attempted to equate the proposed ban with the prohibition against crucifixes and stars of David had no impact because of the general knowledge Islam was not equal with the other faiths.

There's no satisfaction in the reality that the French have proven no better than Americans at handling general bigotry. In the days of Josephine Baker and her famous bananas, the land of Napoleon and Voltaire had no minority of any size, other than the Jews who had assimilated long before.

Reasoning that Paris' refusal to join in the Iraq invasion should have brought the country some recognition and relief from the present strife; well, that line of thought reveals a total lack of understanding of the scope of Muslims' grievances against the West.

America's race riots of the 60s were far less complex than the current French crises.

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