Muslim Youths in France

Immigration for the Elite Only

Following last year's riots, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin promised better opportunities for disadvantaged Muslim youths. But the latest proposals would actually make it more difficult for them to integrate into society. By Florian Wagner

photo: AP
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, seen here speaking with immigrants in Bobigny, France, has called for restrictive and selective immigration policies

​​France has a rocky relationship with its Muslim immigrants. At least that is the impression given by the media. Recent headlines highlighted a highly controversial headscarf ban in schools, attacks on synagogues and, last but not least, riots by North African youths in the banlieues.

Sadly, it seems the current government in Paris has all but given up on integrating Muslim youth. The proposal by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy "to clean the suburbs of scum and riffraff with a high-pressure hose" is obviously not a viable strategy for solving the problems of a desperate generation.

Not to be outdone by his colleague, Employment Minister Gérard Larcher showed an equal general lack of understanding when he blamed "Muslim polygamy" for the unrest throughout the country.

Pretext for neo-liberal reforms

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin used last year's riots as a pretext to introduce neo-liberal reforms that allegedly combat unemployment.

This included measures that would have allowed employers to lay off youths under the age of 26 on the spot without any justification and would have allowed night-shift work for 15-year-olds. Millions of French took to the streets to protest the proposed job laws, and the wave of generally peaceful demonstrations sparked yet more riots by youths in the banlieues.

In response to the widespread protests, the government has finally withdrawn its youth employment laws, but other proposals are likely to keep immigration in the news.

A misguided approach to integration and immigration

Instead of pursuing a comprehensive approach to immigration issues, Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to score points for his upcoming presidential candidacy in 2007 by introducing a new set of highly restrictive immigration laws. His concept of "selective immigration" heralds a policy turnaround in Europe's third leading destination country for immigrants, after Germany and the UK.

After passing immigration laws for foreign labor in the early 20th century, a huge influx of workers came to France from Tunisia and Morocco in the 1950s and 1960s to help build France's booming economy.

The French government officially halted this labor immigration in 1974, but many foreign workers remained in the country and were joined by their relatives from abroad, causing the number of Moroccans living in France to soar by 70 percent between 1975 and 1982.

In 1990, the country began the process of naturalizing these families, which often included children born in France who had automatically acquired French citizenship. Today an estimated 5 million Muslims live in France, or roughly 8.4 percent of the total population.

There are no exact statistics, however. In keeping with the basic concept of the separation of church and state, French government censuses are not allowed to collect data on religious affiliations. This uncertainty surrounding the actual number of Muslims living in France has opened the door to right-wing demagogues like Jean-Marie Le Pen, who have used exaggerated figures to stir up fears of an Islamization of France.

The concept of selective immigration

Sarkozy maintains that all previous phases of immigration are over and it is time to return to the roots, so to speak, and recruit workers from abroad. However, he advocates a selective approach. Only in areas where the country needs highly qualified workers should France allow foreign students with above-average academic records to enter the country.

According to the interior minister, the needs of France should determine whether students may remain in the country or be forced to return home after they complete their studies. This is how they can help "drive the French economy".

A closer look at the demographics of foreign students in France shows who would be most affected by these laws. More than half of the foreign student body comes from former colonies in North and West Africa, where France remains a popular destination among young people seeking to pursue a higher education.

Brain drain on former colonies

Most African students have just the right education for working in France. They were raised speaking French as a second language and, if they come from countries like Algeria or Morocco, they often have the equivalent of a French baccalaureate. By contrast, European or Asian students are more interested in the Anglo-Saxon educational system, and less likely to complete their studies in France.

Such a policy would benefit top students from Africa, yet erase all opportunities for average students. Many students would face enormous bureaucratic hurdles, as the proposed legislation would make it easy to refuse student visa applications.

When it comes to developing countries, there is nothing new about the drastic consequences of "selective immigration", commonly called the brain drain. The elite of these countries are siphoned off to Europe, where they study and settle down to live and work, resulting in a permanent loss for their countries of origin. The head of the African Union Commission, Alpha Oumar Konaré, condemns this type of immigration policy as "robbing Africa of the right to develop."

Stigmatized by their origins

To make matters worse, students from North and West Africa, most of whom are Muslims, do not enjoy particularly attractive living conditions in France. Along with the French Muslims from the earlier phase of labor immigration and family reunification, they are subject to wide range of discriminating practices, starting with the search for a place to live. Their applications are often rejected by French landlords, forcing them to rely on connections within the parallel social network created by Muslim immigrants.

From the day they arrive, many Muslim foreigners find themselves cut off from the rest of society, segregated in an immigrant milieu. This "formation of groups" is one of the most common reasons cited by French employers for not hiring Muslims. By the same token, Muslim students who have searched in vain for a job are often told that the customers of prospective employers would have reservations concerning them, which is why they were not employed.

In an increasing number of cases, the drastic solution has been for Muslims to change their names to something that sounds more French, so that they at least can talk with customers on the phone. After all, their French is as good as, if not better than, the language skills of most non-Muslim French citizens.

Re-writing the history books

Highly qualified students from former colonies who are granted the coveted privilege of studying in France will also learn a thing or two about history at French institutions of higher learning. According to a new law, university lecturers, and teachers in normal schools, have been ordered to teach about "the positive role of the French presence in the former colonies, especially in North Africa".

In response to the public outcry over this official doctrine, especially among university professors, President Jacques Chirac has introduced a day in remembrance of slavery. There was no mention, however, of the crimes against humanity committed by the French army in Algeria during the war of independence.

Florian Wagner

© 2006

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