Sunday, November 13, 2005


Yazid Sabeg has been a French citizen since the day he was born, but many in his native land consider him a foreigner — someone who will never be a “real” Frenchman.

Mr. Sabeg was born in Algeria in 1950, when the country was part of France. His family moved to European France in 1952. He grew up in Lille and Paris.

He rose from working on the waterfront to becoming chairman of the board of CS, a large communications group, the only person of North African origin to lead a major French company. Sleek and successful, he seems as fully integrated as one possibly could be.

Yet people want to know where he is from.

“I am French,” he declared in an interview. “Everybody asks me, ‘Yazid Sabeg, you are from Algeria?’ I have never been Algerian in my life. They cannot imagine that I am French.”

Two weeks of rioting — largely by French-born youths of North African descent, young men who feel excluded in their native land — has carved a swath of property damage across the country. Thousands of cars have been burned, as well as the occasional school.

But as the riots subside, it is clear that serious damage also has been inflicted on the traditional — some say outdated — sense of French identity.

The old conviction that France is such an egalitarian society that differences need not even be noted is crumbling. The sense that a “real” Frenchman does not have an Arab name or olive skin is undergoing a searching re-examination.

“France cannot avoid a discussion about what is my identity,” Mr. Sabeg said. “You have to explain to the rest of France that France is a multiethnic society.”

The French establishment has clung so tightly to the belief in its egalitarianism, critics say, that it has refused to admit any evidence to the contrary. Census takers do not record people’s ethnicity for fear that to do so would encourage harmful separatism — referred to in France as “communitarianism.”

So there are no disquieting statistics on joblessness or poverty or educational levels among the children of immigrants. Critics say that leaves France with no information about its problems, and no way to target resources to address them.

But separate communities do exist.

In the northern Parisian suburb of La Courneuve, virtually all the customers of the Boucherie Halal speak Arabic. “Halal” is the Muslim equivalent of the Jewish “kosher” — it refers to the proper butchering of meat and cleanliness in its handling. The owner, Egyptian-born Abdelfattah el SeBaei, does brisk business in North African food and Mecca Cola.

“Here, I feel like I’m in an Arab country,” Mr. el SeBaei said.

The denial that separate communities exist has thrown a veil of darkness over them. The gritty realities of life in the ghettos, where jobs are scarce, education is poor, housing is dilapidated, and police routinely stop young men of North African appearance, remain unexamined.

“I think young people rebelled because they could not make themselves heard,” said Reda Allouz, 15, who lives in the eastern Parisian suburb of Val-de-Marne. “And they can’t find jobs.”

He and his friend Madjid Akchiche, also 15, were born in France. They have never lived anywhere else. But they feel that, in the eyes of others, they’re not French. They’re “Algerian kids.”

People in these communities have no doubt that having an Arabic name makes getting a job much more difficult. And they think they’re treated differently, too, because of their appearance. They are routinely “controlled” by police — stopped and searched — even though there is no suspicion of wrongdoing.

“This week, I was only ‘controlled’ three or four times,” shrugged Nouri Guettouche, 16, the French-born son of Algerian parents. “The police should learn to act a lot different — a lot.”

The riots began Oct. 27 when two French youths of North African descent, purportedly fleeing police, hid in a power station and were fatally shocked. Police have denied they were chasing the youths, but transcripts of police radio broadcasts show that they saw the youngsters and knew they were climbing the fence into the station.

Researchers at the Po Political Science Research Center in Paris have tried to start filling the gap left by the absence of statistical information on immigrant families and their children. In April, they performed the first survey to compare the attitudes of immigrants and first-generation residents with those of people who have long roots in France.

What they discovered, said Vincent Tiberj, is that immigrant and first-generation residents think very much like everybody else in the country.

“Our main result is that they are French, just like any others,” Mr. Tiberj said.

Among newer residents, 20 percent claim to have no religion, not much different from the figure of 28 percent for the rest of the population. Sixty-six percent of newer residents say they are Muslim, a number similar to the 60 percent of long-term Frenchmen and women who say they are Roman Catholic. Among both groups, religion is less prevalent among the young.

But only 40 percent of the population as a whole feels positive toward Islam. “There is Islamophobia,” Mr. Tiberj said. “It exists.”

Many Muslims say the French sense of identity — the cultural definition of a real Frenchman — will grow more inclusive only when the country sees more French people of Arab descent in positions of prominence and leadership. There are no French Arabs at the highest levels of government, very few at the highest levels of business and almost none on television news or entertainment programs, except in “Arab” roles.

To deal with this separation, a debate is taking place within France over whether a program of affirmative action — called “positive discrimination” here — is warranted.

Supporters say it is necessary if France’s newer residents are to feel they have a stake in society. But the notion strikes at the heart of the dearly held belief in French egalitarianism, and is opposed by people who consider it divisive.

Yacine Boudia is benefiting from one such program. Mr. Boudia, 18, was born in Algeria and moved to France with his mother four years ago. His father, a teacher, still has not been able to get a visa.

Mr. Boudia is studying politics at Cite University in Paris. He did not have to take the same entrance exam as other students, though he did have to answer questions in front of an audience of judges. Under the program, potential university students from “priority education areas” are identified two years in advance. But the standards, once the youngsters are admitted, are the same as for other students.

Mr. Boudia said such programs are important. “They should have done it a long time ago,” he said. “They are just now realizing it.”

France’s newcomers may be similar in many ways to the sons and daughters of longtime French families, but there are important differences. Some Muslims say that, in the process of adapting to French ways, something of their culture was lost and not replaced.

“What’s happening now, it’s because of France,” fumed a 71-year-old man in the central French city of Saint-Etienne who would give his name only as Tahrar. “We cannot raise the children. We cannot punish them because social services says it is mistreatment. If you don’t teach your children respect, they will not respect you.”

The father used to be the authority figure of the Muslim family, said Aicha Ansar-Rachidi, a lawyer in Paris. They sometimes disciplined their children by slapping them. But state authorities called it child abuse, and some fathers were prosecuted.

“Now, the parents don’t know how to educate their children,” she said. “The children say, ‘I have my rights,’ and the father will say, ‘I don’t want to face charges.’”

Like Mr. Sabeg, Miss Ansar-Rachidi was born in Algeria when it was part of France. She is a French citizen and an established lawyer — but somehow not fully French.

“Some people from time to time will say, ‘Where are you from? What origin are you?’” she said. “I say, ‘I am French since 1830,’” the year Algeria became a French colony.

Mr. Sabeg said that history is the reason that North Africans have trouble succeeding in France today.

“The colony,” he said, “is still in the mind.”

• Distributed by New York Times News Service

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