November 6, 2005 | New York Daily News

A War of the Worlds

By: Richard Z. Chesnoff.

It's a French cauchemar, a national nightmare with global overtones. For more than a week, gangs of mostly Muslim youngsters have been raging through the poverty-ridden housing projects of the Paris suburbs, battling police with Molotov cocktails and torching cars, shops, warehouses, even schools.

Ostensibly, the riots were triggered by the deaths of two teens, electrocuted when they climbed a power station fence to escape police. Not true, say authorities.

Fact is, this mini-civil war is a long-festering sore that's finally turning gangrenous: the anger of France's increasingly large minority of Muslim immigrants and their children, inflamed and frustrated by what they see as exclusion from the mainstream.

The problem originated in the 1950s and 1960s, when France began importing cheap labor from its former colonies in North Africa. Les Arabes were to do the dirty work and eventually go home. Few did, and today North African immigrants and their families number almost 6 million, more than 10% of the French population.

In a nation that insists immigrants accept the monolithic secular French culture, a great divide has grown. Part of it is the insular nature of Islamic North African culture. But much of it is that “French” France still rejects its North African countrymen.

They don't get good jobs or decent financial opportunities. Their unemployment rate is often as high as 50%. There isn't a single Frenchman or Frenchwoman of North African origin (or black, for that matter) in the cabinet, and only a handful hold any position of rank in the civil and commercial bureaucracy. There are virtually no black or Arab anchors on French TV, or North African cultural presence in the theater or cinema.

This has further angered the Muslim population, driving it deeper into its own ghetto mentality and to communal violence. When I first came to France 50 years ago, North African immigrants spoke Maghreb Arabic, but their French-born children proudly spoke French. Today, the beurs, the young French-born generation of North Africans, talk to each other in Arabic.

The riots aren't helping to reverse the separation. They also, predictably, are frightening and angering large portions of the traditionally xenophobic French mainstream. “I'm no racist,” says my neighbor, “but unless we send them back where they came from, we'll have an Arab majority in 30 years.”

Needless to say, the venomous corps of Muslim extremists that has infiltrated France's mosques over the years is working the nightmare for all it's worth, egging the young on to jihad – holy war. French security forces are working around the clock to round up potential Islamic terrorist gangs intent on carrying out attacks on French soil. And French and American security services recently traced a network of French-born youths volunteering to join Al Qaeda and battle U.S. troops in Iraq.

There's no rapid solution. But the government must act quickly to improve conditions and attitudes on both sides, to make it clear to the Muslims that violence is no recourse, that France is indeed the land of liberty, equality, fraternity – and opportunity. If it doesn't, France's national nightmare will grow worse, and deadlier.



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