[VIEWPOINT]France’s ‘immigrant problem’

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[VIEWPOINT]France’s ‘immigrant problem’

Were they really rioters? The disturbances that started on Oct. 27 among second-generation immigrants in a slum district near Paris spread all over France and fast became a catastrophe.
What is the reason that the accidental deaths of two second-generation immigrants by electrocution as they hid from the police has escalated to nationwide arson and riots? Who are these angry youths and what are they angry at and rebelling against?
The prelude to this situation goes back to 1983. At the time, an assault on a second-generation Magreb (North African Arab) immigrant near Lyons led to a large demonstration of the “Beurs.” They hung out slogans demanding an end to racism and marched from Marseille to Paris, peacefully expressing their desire for a pluralistic society. The “March des Beurs” made the French people see that the children of immigrants are also members of French society and that bringing everyone together was a new assignment for French society. However, the recent incident clearly shows that things have not improved much in the past 20 years. We must pay attention to the fact that in the background lie two problems that cannot be solved easily.
The first has to do with the cultural identity of second-generation immigrants. Their cultural identity is defined as a “double absence,” in that they have failed to take root both in their parents’ country and in France. Most of their parents are low-income immigrant laborers who came to the country during France’s “30 years of glory,” when France was highly developing economically, to relieve the problem of a scarcity of labor. However, they became useless to French society after the oil shock in the 1970s, which led to a worldwide economic slump.
The French government made several attempts to send these people back to their native countries but failed. The reason was, most of all, because of their children. The children were given French citizenship, and, as they speak French and are used to French culture, they did not want to go back to their parents’ native countries.
The tragedy is that they were regarded as “non-adaptable” strangers not only in their parents’ countries but also in the land they were born in. The French society they faced as they grew up was a society full of invisible discrimination everywhere. Rules of republicanism like “equal opportunity” and “success according to one’s ability” were nothing but extravagant rhetoric to these children.
The march of the Beurs was an alarm that informed the people about the presence of such racial barriers, but the warning was buried under another political wave at the time ― the political issue of immigrants. In the mid-1990s, as the ultra-right wing gained power, the view toward second-generation immigrants became rigid.
The National Front, an ultra-rightist political party that presented anti-immigrant policies as a major political platform, made a strong showing in the 1994 European elections by gaining 11 percent of the vote, and it has recorded more than 10 percent of the vote continuously since then. No political party, including the Communist Party, could speak freely about the immigrant problem but the ultra-rightists, and since a large portion of moderate right-wing voters moved to the far right, moderate right-wing politicians found themselves in more of a dilemma.
The situation could have been controlled early on, but Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister, made the situation worse by using an inappropriate expression that he would “clean” the “trash.” This reflects the current situation in French politics that there is no other way but appealing to the traditional supporters of the right wing.
The recent disturbances are the joint work of second-generation immigrants who grew up in frustration and anger, and the French politics that tried so hard to ignore them. Through short statements, French President Jacques Chirac repeatedly appealed to the people to restore public order and security, but it is hard to say that his words will appeal to the minds of angry youths.
Even if the disturbance this time ends up in a policy proposal similar to numerous other urban policies that have been proposed so far, it will only be a temporary remedy. As long as French politics does not change, and as long as second-generation immigrants do not establish a positive identity, a solution to this problem seems remote.

* The writer is a professor of French and French literature at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Kim Jeong-hee
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