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Roots of Paris Riots Should Be Addressed

The spreading violence in France has brought the twin topics of immigration and integration into the open.

The unrest has lifted the lid on a boiling stew of poverty, discrimination and desperation among families descended from immigrants.

The riots are displaying discrimination and ethnic tensions.

Two teenagers of North African descent were accidentally electrocuted in a power substation where they took refuge as they were chased by police in Clichy-sous-Bois, an underprivileged suburb east of Paris. The news drove many onto the streets.

The police responded by firing tear-gas grenades and, on occasion, blank rounds into the air.

The battlefield of Paris has been repeated in other parts of the country, such as Toulouse and Rennes.

The unrest was concentrated in areas that are home to Paris's most neglected minorities - citizens of black and North African heritage.

The government's dispatch of more armed riot police into affected regions has done little to calm tensions.

Bullets cannot identify the real cause of the anger and frustration of young Arabs and Africans.

French observers and sociologists are not surprised by the unrest.

The resentment over government neglect, high unemployment and relegation to shabby suburbs provided dry tinder for the flare-up of violence in the African immigrant community.

France's assimilation policy has failed to absorb the North African immigrants that arrived to work in the 1950s. Some 5 or 6 million French citizens are immigrants from North Africa, most of them Muslims.

Many of the immigrants' suburbs are cut off from the rest of French society by barriers of poverty and cultural alienation. In the suburbs for immigrants and their offspring, there are mostly substandard houses. Unemployment stands at 19.6 per cent - double the national average - and at more than 30 per cent among 21 to 29-year-olds, according to official figures. Incomes are 75 per cent below the average.

The French Government labels these places "sensitive urban zones," mocking France's official policies of assimilation and equality.

No country tolerates riots. But in the long term, it will take equal opportunities in education, housing and employment to keep the riot police off the meanest streets.

The rioting by immigrant youths has revealed a profound cleavage in French society. It should serve as a wake-up call to the rest of the world when they are confronted with a large influx of immigrants from other countries or labor mobility within their countries.

In his public address on Sunday, Chirac sent two messages. His country must restore security and public order, with speedy trials for the rioters. France is also determined to promote respect, justice and equal opportunities for all.

Law-and-order policies are not a cure-all. A solution requires a much more constructive approach getting to the root of the problem.

(China Daily November 8, 2005)


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