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Thursday, 6 June, 2002, 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK
France's invisible minority

It is a striking fact that in a country - France - which contains around five million people of Arab origin, not one of them is a member of parliament.

One could go further. Not a single "beur" - as the French of North African origin are known - is in the upper house, the Senate. Nor are there any beur mayors - out of a total of 36,000.

For many in France, the figures are not just striking, but highly embarrassing and symptomatic of perhaps the country's most glaring failure of modern times.


When I tell people that such a huge minority has no political representatives they are dumbstruck

Zair Kedadouche
Author
If criminality and unemployment in the rundown "banlieus" are now such a pressing problem, if crowds of young men feel emboldened to whistle the Marseillaise at the Stade de France, then much can arguably be laid at the door of this total lack of political representation.

"It is shameful for France," said Zair Kedadouche - a former adviser to ex-prime minister Alain Juppe and author of a new book, "France and the Beurs".

"I am ashamed every time I go to Britain or the US. When I tell people that such a huge minority has no political representatives they are dumbstruck. And France is a country that presumes to give lessons to the world!"

Unfortunately things are unlikely to change at the general elections on 9 and 16 June.

A rough tally shows there are abour 150 beur candidates among the 8,400 who are contesting the election, but the vast majority are for minor parties and practically none has a chance of being elected.


There are many brillant young people from immigrant families but they are consistently overlooked

Bariza Khiari
Socialist candidate
Of the two major parties, the Socialists are fielding only two and the Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP) - which supports President Jacques Chirac - one.

"There are many brillant young people from immigrant families but they are consistently overlooked," said Socialist candidate Bariza Khiari.

"Sometimes it is at the grassroots level that their paths are blocked, but it is also the national leadership that is failing to take them on."

The net result of this political marginalisation is clear.

Chirac gesticulates angrily at fans' booing
Chirac was furious when the Marseillaise was jeered
Already living for the most part in run-down out-of-town estates, young North Africans feel excluded from mainstream life. Rejected - as they see it - by France, they develop a separate sense of identity, linked to local power-groups, to Islam or to their mother country.

"It pushes everyone to extremism. The beurs say why bother? and start breaking the law, and that just reinforces the position of the National Front," said Kedadouche.

Few people in France are in favour of what has, in Britain and the United States for example, been part of the solution for encouraging participation in national life: positive discrimination.


Promoting on the basis of skin colour will never be acceptable

Michel Wieviorka
Sociologist
The idea of promoting people simply because they belong to a particular community is regarded in France as an affront to the country's "republican" values, in which individuals are equal before the law.

"The French have a deep-rooted abhorrence of communities," said sociologist Michel Wieviorka. "So promoting on the basis of skin colour will never be acceptable."

Burned out car after 1998 Strasbourg unrest
Many crimes are committed by disaffected youths
However there is a growing recognition that while the French model of integration may have worked for many communities in the past, it is failing the country's biggest immigrant population today.

Many believe in a less rigid application of the republican tradition, a recognition that in a complex modern society people may have complex sets of identity, and in the importance of symbols to promote cross-racial harmony.

One such symbol has in fact just been appointed, in the shape of Tokia Saifi, France's first ever minister of North African origin. For many beurs her nomination in the new centre-right government is an extremely positive - if belated - first step.


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11 May 02 | Europe
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