Column: French toast

By Eric Naing

Two teenagers were accidentally electrocuted Oct. 27 as they hid from police in a French Suburb. Following the incident, French youths took to the street in a violent display of civil unrest. Since then, the riots have grown in size and even spread to other countries. Why this happened and what should be done have become topics of heated debate.

The two teenagers who were killed were Muslim and had a North-African background, as are most of the rioting youths. The violence mostly has been located in the poor outskirts of France’s urban areas, home to large immigrant, Muslim and African populations.

Many hard-line right-wingers have expressed what can be best described as smug self-satisfaction over the events in France. Some say the riots are proof of a “clash of civilizations,” that Islam breeds violence and violent people. This sentiment is best shown by a Joel Mowbray editorial on the right-wing Townhall.com entitled “Media ignore one key fact about Paris rioters: they’re mostly Muslims.”

Others cite the riots as proof that the misguided and vague notion of the Socialist/Leftist European form of government is a failure. These theories, aside from being overtly racist and ignorant of any facts, do not come close to acknowledging the complex situations that have led to the unrest in France.

The seeds of the French riot were planted decades ago. For the past 30 years, the French government has purposefully abandoned and alienated its significant Muslim and black populations. During the reconstruction years of post-World War II France, an economic boom created a high demand for labor. A low birthrate and the high number of Frenchmen killed in the war led immigrants to fill this labor gap. The immigrants, mostly Muslims from North Africa, took up low-skill and low-paying jobs in France’s urban areas.

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    The immigrant workers and their families were housed in large, low-income housing ghettos that were placed outside, and out of the way, of the white, French cities. These ghettos grew to become run-down and dangerous areas with minimal policing, overcrowded schools and living areas, little or no outlets for entertainment, and extremely high unemployment – a marked difference from the opulent and mostly white French cities.

    It is no surprise then that these riots happened. An alienated group forced to deal with high unemployment, poor living conditions and a brutal oppression from the government would rebel in any country.

    Unfortunately, France is only making things worse. National social programs that promote sports, education and job training for these poorer areas have been cut for the past three years. Local police have been replaced by brutal and culturally ignorant national police causing greater antagonism and nothing is being done to address France’s high and unstable unemployment rates.

    Those on the right were quick to label the unrest in France as an “intifada,” a term referring to any kind of Muslim uprising. This is ignorance bordering on racism. The riots in France have less to do with Islam, and far more to do with poor living conditions. This is not an issue of the French government needing to do something about its Muslim population; it is an issue of the French government failing its own people.

    This is not a uniquely French problem though. The idea of a minority population facing a hostile government and dealing with poor living conditions and high unemployment could easily be applied to the United States. Areas such as the shantytowns on the Texas/Mexico border, the ghettos in our own major cities, and even New Orleans all eerily resemble the French ghettos.

    The highest priority for a government should be ensuring the welfare of all people. France unfortunately failed to heed this lesson, and the U.S. government too is ignoring the needs of the less fortunate here.

    Our own government is slashing budgets for desperately needed social programs while at the same time spending billions on war. Considering this, it is not outrageous to think that the same unrest France experienced could not happen here.

    Eric Naing is a senior in LAS. His column appears every Monday. He can be reached at opinions@ dailyillini.com.