'WE'RE FRENCH,' BUT NOT 'REAL' FRENCH

'WE'RE FRENCH,' BUT NOT 'REAL' FRENCH

4/11/2005- Walid was born in France and went to a French high school. He will show you his French driving license and even his French identity card. But ask him what his identity is and he will say '93.' 'Nine Three' - the two first two digits of the postal code spanning the roughest suburbs on Paris's northeastern fringe - stands for unemployment and endless rows of housing projects. It stands for chronically high crime rates, teenage gang wars and a large immigrant community. Since Oct. 27, when the accidental death of two teenagers set off nightly riots across the region, '93' also stands for angry youths burning hundreds of cars, setting fire to shops and attacking the police with anything from rocks to real bullets. Theirs is a defensive identity, an identity by default that has sprouted in a vacuum of any real sense of belonging. These youths may not be representative of the suburbs their nightly rage has catapulted into the headlines: Many fellow residents condemn the violence and yearn for a return to normality. But their anger at a system that has excluded them from jobs, opportunity and a sense of identity is widely shared. 'The question of being French is irrelevant - what's in a piece of paper?' said Walid, 19, who is of Algerian descent, dismissively putting his identification card back into his jeans pocket. 'I'm from the ghetto, I'm from 93, end of story.'

In the northern housing projects of La Courneuve, a menacing place littered with burned-out cars and small groups of youths lingering in entrances, the frustration is palpable. Like Walid, whose parents came to France from southern Algeria in the 1960s and still have Algerian nationality, many young second- and third-generation immigrants here feel neither North African nor French. They have spent their whole life in France, but for their whole life they have felt trapped in a cultural no man's land: their experience in 21st-century France clashes with the traditions and history of their parents' countries - mostly former French colonies in Africa. Formal citizenship in France aside, they feel their North African names and their skin color still firmly set them apart. According to Mamadou, 24, who like most youths here declined to give his last name for fear, he said, of being pursued by the police, everyday reality in the suburbs belies the noble idea of equality before the law. 'We are French, but we also feel like foreigners compared to the real French,' said Mamadou, whose father came to France from Mali decades ago and married his mother, a French woman. Who, according to him, are the 'real' French? The answer comes without hesitation and to vigorous nodding by a groups of his friends: 'Those with white skin and blue eyes.'

Tales of being treated as 'second-class' citizens abound. Many youths feel targeted by a predominantly white police force that conducts regular checks in their neighborhood. As Walid put it bitterly: 'If you are black or Arab, chances are you have something to hide.' Leaving the afternoon prayer at a makeshift outdoor mosque, Hocine, 23, a soft-spoken young man of Algerian descent in religious attire, said he was resigned to never having his culture and his religion truly accepted in France. 'How many times have I gone into Paris and have been shouted at 'Go home!' he said. 'Home is here,' he added. 'But it doesn't really feel like home.' Beyond racism and daily routines of hostility with the police, one complaint frequently repeated in interviews in several of the smoldering suburbs north of Paris is that none of the youths in question feel they are given a real chance to leave the ghetto. After quitting school early, Mamadou recently found a job in a supermarket in La Courneuve, one of the suburbs at the heart of the recent rioting, stacking boxes. But it took two years, scores of applications and several humiliating moments of being sent away after interviewers caught a glimpse of his African features. Near a tall wall of graffiti in La Courneuve, telling the government and police to stay away, a group of young men pass their Friday afternoon talking, laughing and occasionally shouting at passers-by. They all of Arab or African origin and they are all either unemployed or working in low-skilled maintenance jobs. 'We are all janitors here,' said one young man, who appeared to be the leader of the group. 'It's our destiny.'

The man, who would only identify himself as Awax, said looking Arab in France was more than just having darker skin: It was also a ticket to a societal pigeon hole from which there was no escape. 'Looking Arab means you either spend all day at the mosque or you are criminal scum,' he said. 'People generalize all the time, but you can't. Nobody talks about white French people as Christian.' In few places is the separation of religion and state as strict as it is in France, where all conspicuous religious garb like the Muslim head scarf is banned from schools. The law has intermittently prompted some Muslim groups to complain, and last year many cases of Muslim girls refusing to take their scarves off made headlines. While sociologists and immigration specialists say that the religiousness of immigrants is often exaggerated, they say it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 'Many of these guys are no more Muslim than other French people are practicing Christian,' said Christophe Bertossi at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. 'But if they are given no other identity the Muslim label risks becoming the thing they fall back on.'

International Herald Tribune http://www.iht.com/