After Paris riots, Europe keeps vigil

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 10, 2005

PARIS: After a bleak fortnight of watching the fires consuming parts of suburban Paris and provincial France in the country’s worst wave of racial unrest ever, a bleary-eyed but transfixed Europe is reporting sleepless nights.

Politicians fear a potential burning rage of millions of disaffected immigrant youths in major countries across the continent.

Such fears of a Europe-wide conflagration a la France – with copycat violence, urban unrest, hit-and run arson attacks, rioting by alienated angry young second and third-generation, mainly Muslim immigrants – are no hallucination. Europe’s problem is thought to be undeniably urgent and uncompromisingly big.

Some say it is nearly as big as the numerical strength of the large, poor, culturally marginalised, mainly Muslim immigrant communities massed across the continent in a wide arc from Spain to the Netherlands; Germany through to Italy.

Just across the English Channel from France, away from the mainland but knit into the European Union, are Britain’s three million Muslims of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin. These foreign sons of Britain, warn the prophets of doom, spawned 7/7, while the foreign sons of France have propelled the country to international infamy.

But is it? Are right-wing politicians in France, Austria, Germany and Italy, even half-right in warning that the continent’s troubles potentially equal a 10-million strong European population of Muslim minorities of disparate origin?

Anti-racism campaigners dismiss this as inflammatory doomsday prophecies by the usual suspects. In an echo of Monday’s unwilling admission by senior French politicians, they say that the continent is not at risk from immigrant Muslims because no European country other than France has been quite as blind to minority needs.

They say that Beur rage at the French system of non-multicultural multi-culturalism was displayed for all the world to see in the last fortnight but in neighbouring Germany, home to Europe’s second-largest Muslim minority after France, the Turkish immigrant is not consumed by the fires of hate. And nor is he itching to set Germany alight.

It is only in France, say European leaders, that immigrants are dumped in high-rise ghettos far removed from the national mainstream in the mistaken belief that the official policy of ‘ laicity’ or secularism and strict colour-blindness is enough to ensure the clichéd “propaganda line” – liberte, egalite, fraternite .

There is little dispute that the unlovely suburbs around Paris, including Grigny, Aubervilliers, Saracelles, La Courneve, La Bourget, Clichy sous-Bois, Aulnay sous-Bois are a far cry from immigrant-dominated areas in other European countries, such as, say, the vibrant thriving Kreuzberg district of Berlin, home to much of Germany’s huge Turkish minority.

Frustrated Asian immigrants to France, just as much as the beur, the feared and loathed North African immigrant, admit the French ghetto is less like a welcoming refuge than a concentration camp.

Says Pondicherry Indian, Mohammed, who is well-educated, speaks fluent French, has always held French nationality and now lives near one of the notorious housing estates facing unrest: “The ghetto is the public face of France’s policy towards immigrants. Here they dump coloured people, different people and dirt-poor or disabled whites. No one who lives on one can ever hope to do anything in life”.

Mohammed’s view chimes with the very public biting sarcasm of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a France-bred member of the European Parliament elected from Germany, who recently insisted Berlin’s Kreuzberg was “an island of happiness compared with the situation in France”.

Kreuzberg, said Cohn-Bendit, was no Clichy Sous-Bois, the Paris suburb that triggered France’s nation-wide violence after the accidental deaths of two North African adolescents fleeing France’s notoriously racist police.

Instead, Kreuzberg is advertised as a fabulous, many-layered mix of housing, restaurants, cafes and populations, plugging it into the 21 st century’s globally “switched-on” multicultural planet. German Turk community leaders say that unlike France, their adopted country has made sustained and deliberate efforts to build bridges with minority Muslim communities and identify interfaces between police and civilian immigrants.

But despite the Teutonic pat-on-the-back, the spectacle of France afire has sounded the red alert across Europe. Spain, which suffered al-Qaeda’s first European assault back in March 2004 and which has recently been attracting increasing numbers of North African Muslim immigrants, has already been warned by a local councillor in the migrant-attractive Valencia region.

In public comments that attracted considerable attention during the French unrest, Jose Luis Abalos publicly urged Spain to “observe what is happening in our neighbouring country (France)”.

He said “it could be a warning for what could happen here in the years ahead if serious, not marginal, integration policies are not developed”. Within hours of Abalos’s comments, in what many described as a dismal foretaste of apocalypse now, cars were set on fire in two German cities – Bremen and the capital Berlin, home to one of the largest concentrations of Turks anywhere in Europe.

Meanwhile, in Brussels, hit-and-run arson attacks on vehicles were reported. But there is still no consensus that these were ill omens of a conflagration of biblical proportions.

Rashmee Roshan Lall