What began as a protest against the deaths of two youths in the dilapidated North African and Arab-dominated Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois has escalated into near urban warfare, opening up old wounds of racial, social, and economic discontent. Discrimination, rampant unemployment, poor education and a perpetual "second class" feeling have beleaguered the decaying French suburbs of Paris where Arab and North African French Muslims have lived for years.
But why haven't years of social programs helped to elevate the social and economic status of France's Muslim minorities? And why, in the United States, have Muslims and other minority groups fared so much better?
The answers may lie in a fundamentally different approach to immigrant inclusion and how nationality is defined. And while the U.S. also has faced its own share of minority unrest and protests, its basic historical identity as a nation of immigrants may be the reason such levels of violence and upheaval have not been a feature of the Muslim immigrant experience here.
Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow and director of European studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says, "There isn't the same feeling of unrest. People coming to this shore are welcomed as Americans regardless of their skin color or creed. They feel a sense of belonging." The problems motivating the French rioters, he notes, are more than just a case of being poor or unemployed. "I think it is primarily a result of disaffection rather than deprivation. This is more about alienation, about the perceived sense that entering the mainstream is not a possibility."
Even France's Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin in a recent statement reluctantly admitted that discrimination is a "daily and repeated" reality in the poor suburbs, nourishing feelings of being a second-class citizen.
Kupchan says the underlying reasons for rioting stem from "subtle forms of ethnic discrimination. Even though [the North African and Arab minorities] are technically citizens, they are treated as second-class citizens who aren't French."
In France, the emphasis is on a national French identity where cultural deviation is not welcome. By contrast, in the U.S. over the past 30 years, there has been a greater acceptance for a hyphenated America, rather than a melting pot. The U.S. has seen a surge in ethnic pride where being, say, African-American, Arab-American or Mexican-American is generally accepted, even encouraged.
Of course racism also exists in the U.S. But Kupchan maintains that minority citizens are seldom accused of not being American. "You may hear people say `They're taking my job,' but not that they aren't American."
Even for immigrants with education and experience, doors remain closed. In a BBC.com article, various French pressure groups, like SOS Racisme, highlighted numerous cases of employers discarding applicants with a foreign name. According to a SOS Racisme report, "Some companies believe that to be responsible for marketing [for example], you must have roots in mainland France over several generations to understand the French consumer attitudes."
How "religious" are the roots of the unrest? Some French officials, including the controversial Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, whose harsh words are accused of setting off the riots, have hinted that Islamist extremists may be egging teenagers on to continue the violence.
Kupchan says for the vast majority of the French rioters, being Muslim is just a part of their identity, like being Arab, or North African, he explains, and not the prime catalyst for their overwhelming sense of frustration. "The Muslim community, if anything, is trying to stop the violence. There doesn't seem to be any ideological overlay."
The Union of French Islamic Organizations (UFIO) has tried to offset this perception, quickly issuing a fatwa (religious edict) condemning the violence. "It is formally forbidden to any Muslim seeking divine grace . to participate in any action that blindly hits private or public property or could constitute an attack on someone's life," according to the fatwa.
And though many conservative pundits continue to warn that an extremist movement to turn France into a strict Islamic nation is spurring on the rioters, most world leaders and Muslim groups say that's simply not the case.