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French Muslims Struggle to Achieve Success

April 30, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: For over 100 years, the French elite has been educated at Sciences Po in Paris. It’s one of the top institutes of learning in the country, in a league with the Grandes Ecoles, or “great schools,” that have been turning out French leaders for generations.

Today, students here are eagerly debating who will be chosen as France’s new leader in next Sunday’s runoff presidential election between two Sciences Po graduates. The conservative candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy and the Socialist Party’s Segolene Royal both once wandered these storied corridors.

Sciences Po has graduated no fewer than 12 French prime ministers, three French presidents, and countless members of the administrative, business and professional elites that run France. With that kind of track record, it’s no wonder that students in its five-year undergraduate program express great confidence about their future.

LEWNIS BOUDAOUI, Student: Yes, I would like to work in finance. I would like to work in private equity for emerging markets. Yes, I would like to have an international career, really.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you expect to be successful?

LEWNIS BOUDAOUI: Yes, I do.

MARGARET WARNER: What is surprising is that Lewnis Boudaoui even attends Sciences Po. Born of Algerian immigrant parents, he was raised in one of France’s largest poor ethnic suburbs. His high school was the third lowest ranked in his region. Those factors alone would have made him ineligible for entry to Sciences Po until just six years ago.

RICHARD DESCOINGS, President, Sciences Po: We are changing profoundly, fundamentally the student body at Sciences Po.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s when Richard Descoings, the university’s director, instituted what amounts to a French Revolution on this campus. Like the Grandes Ecoles, it used to recruit from just 20 top high schools in the country, seeking the sons and daughters of established French families. Descoings decided it was time to broaden that French elite by opening Sciences Po’s doors to recruits from the country’s most disadvantaged areas.

RICHARD DESCOINGS: The problem of our society is to understand and discover that merit, talent, hard-working is not connected to a social background, not connected to a religious faith, not connected to a special territory.

You can be black; you can belong to a family who came from North Africa two or three decades ago; you can be Muslim or Protestant or Jewish. At Sciences Po, there will be no difference. If you are good, if you work, you will succeed.

MARGARET WARNER: That approach caused consternation among some of Sciences Po’s more traditionalist alumni. But Lewnis Boudaoui hopes it ultimately will reshape not only his life, but French society itself.

LEWNIS BOUDAOUI: I definitely feel that the French culture is very cliquey, and the elite have a very strong tendency to reproduce themselves. And if you don’t do anything against that, it’s just going to keep on and on and on. And I’m not sure that the deciders at Sciences Po did it only out of altruism and generosity; they knew that something was up, too, and that they had better take this into consideration.

A disenfranchised population

Mac-West Hot
For a young person today, it's very difficult, because there is no way out. He has the feeling that he's been locked up in a ghetto and, whatever he does, even if he goes to school or gets a job, he will never get out.

MARGARET WARNER: Boudaoui was referring to France's need to compete in a new multiethnic global economy by tapping the estimated 5 million here of Muslim and North African descent. But there was something else up in France when Sciences Po decided to crack open its doors to all communities: rising tensions in some of the country's most impoverished urban and suburban neighborhoods, the so-called cites, or banlieues.

They erupted in violence in November 2005. For 10 days and nights, cars were burned and buildings attacked in projects across the country. The government imposed a state of emergency to bring the rioting under control.

Today, the suburbs seem quiet, but the riots shook France and transformed the integration of immigrants and their descendents into a front-burner political issue. The government did establish a few new programs to help Muslim and North African French, but there's no government-enforced affirmative action.

Indeed, the authorities don't even collect statistics on the race and ethnicity of France's citizens, believing that conflicts with the country's egalitarian ideals. Many of the young say that leaves them facing daily discrimination, especially in hiring.

That's particularly true for young minorities of French and North African parentage who were born here, like Mac-West Hot, a 35-year-old college graduate with a post-grad technical degree and no serious job. He feels cheated and alienated.

Do you feel French?

MAC-WEST HOT, French Citizen: No. My I.D., a little paper, that's all. I feel nothing for France.

MARGARET WARNER: The son of immigrant parents from Cameroon, he lives in Villeneuve-Saint-Georges on the outskirts of Paris, which has seen its character dramatically altered by an enormous influx of residents from France's former African colonies. Traditional French bakers and butchers used to occupy this corner, recalls Conservative Party city councilman Robert Dore.

ROBERT DORE, City Councilman (through translator): This whole neighborhood has been deserted by French merchants, and they've been replaced by Turks and North Africans, which has led to the fact that the Villeneuvois don't come back here anymore. So we've got the sense of no longer being in France.

MARGARET WARNER: But things are far more desperate in the town's housing projects, where joblessness runs at over 50 percent. Here, suburban youth have few prospects, no hopes, and plenty of anger.

MAC-WEST HOT (through translator): For a young person today, it's very difficult, because there is no way out. He has the feeling that he's been locked up in a ghetto and, whatever he does, even if he goes to school or gets a job, he will never get out. And that's difficult.

Today, there is a lot of immigrant children, and they think that becoming French is a big deal and they will be able to prove their love of France. But then they realize that doesn't make a difference in the view of French society.

Adapting to demographic change

Mayor Gerard Hamel
Dreux, France
There exists in private and public organizations discrimination that we must fight. It's not easy, because we cannot just decree an end to discrimination.

MARGARET WARNER: There's a more successful attempt at integration in wealthier places, like Dreux, a picture-postcard French town about an hour's drive west of Paris.

The town square has been the center of local activity since Dreux was established in the Middle Ages. Yet today, the town is home to a large population of immigrants and their French-born children.

Life's not been easy for some, like 29-year-old Lailia Laouti. Her Algerian parents came here in the '70s to work in local factories. They raised their children in a banlieue and made sure they got a French education. Leila did well and won admission to the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris, but that proved to be a painful experience.

LAILIA LAOUTI, Sorbonne Graduate (through translator): One teacher on the first day of class asked all the students in the class where they came from by nationality. So he asked everyone who was Algerian to raise their hands, so I did. And he pointed to all of us and he told us that we wouldn't get our diploma if we were of Algerian descent. He fought in the Algerian war, and he couldn't stand the idea of Algerians being able to progress, because he said Algerians were animals.

MARGARET WARNER: She did graduate and get an advanced degree, as well. But since then, she says, she's been repeatedly rejected for good jobs she sought. Today, working as a teacher's aide, her disappointment runs deep.

LAILIA LAOUTI (through translator): It's difficult to say I'm not bitter. It would be a lie, because I am bitter.

MARGARET WARNER: Dreux, like many cities and towns across France, faces a dilemma: how to preserve its quintessentially French lifestyle and culture, while accepting the huge changes in this country's demographics.

Here, town authorities are urging local businesses to end discriminatory hiring practices and to recognize that a France that is changing is not necessarily losing its French identity.

Tensions between old and new residents here were so high 20 years ago that Dreux became the first French municipality to elect a city council majority and deputy mayor from the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front.

But today, Gerard Hamel of France's mainstream Conservative Party is mayor. He's trying to reposition the city with research-driven jobs and upscale retirees after several local factories closed. He says it's hard to match minority residents to the jobs that now exist in the town, but says employers in all sectors need to change their hiring practices.

MAYOR GERARD HAMEL, Dreux, France (through translator): There exists in private and public organizations discrimination that we must fight. It's not easy, because we cannot just decree an end to discrimination.

We need in-depth training so that the heads of companies don't look at skin color or ethnic origins, but they look at each individual's capacity to do the work that's needed.

MARGARET WARNER: So how do the companies react when you say this to them?

MAYOR GERARD HAMEL (through translator): It's difficult, because we don't have any real power over these companies. The only power we have is of persuasion or conviction.

Pushing for cultural integration

Naima Faddel-Ntidam
Social Worker
I think society is in the process of changing and French people are changing. But the people in power haven't changed their mentality. The government needs to take measures to stop enterprises from discriminating.

MARGARET WARNER: Some families of immigrant origin have established themselves here. Hafid Ntidam and his wife, Naima, both originally from Morocco, are living the French dream in Dreux. They recently bought an 1892 mansion in the heart of town.

He moved to France in his late 20s and today is a successful orthopedic surgeon. She came to France with her parents at the age of six and today runs the social services program in a banlieue between Dreux and Paris. The Ntidams believe they succeeded because neither grew up isolated in ethnic enclaves the way so many of today's second- and third-generation minorities do.

NAIMA FADDEL-NTIDAM, Social Worker (through translator): I felt very comfortable with my French friends, my Italian friends, my Spanish friends. I never felt ghettoized as a Moroccan.

The new social policy that has now developed, we put poor people and people of the same background together, and so there is ghettoization. And that is a mistake. There is no longer cultural integration, so people can't become part of the French model.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet she believes there is a change in attitude toward minorities in France, despite resistance from the country's entrenched elites.

NAIMA FADDEL-NTIDAM (through translator): I think society is in the process of changing and French people are changing. But the people in power haven't changed their mentality. The government needs to take measures to stop enterprises from discriminating.

It's hard to understand that you can live in this country and be 100 percent French and still be the beggars of a society that is constantly denying us.

MARGARET WARNER: Her husband believes the riots of 2005 and the government crackdown that followed is what has energized and politicized the minority community, driving them to register and vote in unprecedented numbers in the first presidential election round on April 22nd.

DR. HAFID NTIDAM, Orthopedic Surgeon (through translator): In the suburbs, there has been an awakening of consciousness that will, over the next 10 years, result in an awakening of consciousness in the government. They will have to listen to these people so that we don't fall back into these problems, because if we don't listen to them, there will be more riots.

Election could bring new rioting

Azouz Begag
Former Government Minister
I am very afraid, that he went so far towards using this population immigration as scapegoats in this political strategy that he cannot go back now.

MARGARET WARNER: The post-riot crackdown was engineered by the man who could win the French presidency six days from now. As interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy described the protestors as "scum," then sent riot police into the burning suburbs to subdue them.

On the campaign trail this year, he has disparaged Muslim customs, and he called for a new Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, a move condemned for implying that citizens of recent immigrant stock are somehow less French than others.

Immigrants and their descendants voted heavily against Sarkozy in the first round. They now vow to turn out in large numbers next Sunday for his remaining rival, Segolene Royal. Right now, Royal is trailing in the opinion polls, and that has some braced for a possible urban explosion if Sarkozy triumphs.

AZOUZ BEGAG, Former Government Minister: This man is a liar. He's a liar.

MARGARET WARNER: Azouz Begag, the son of Algerian immigrants, recently quit as the French government's minister for equal opportunity after what he says were racial insults from his fellow minister, Sarkozy. He says Sarkozy is playing with fire.

AZOUZ BEGAG: I'm afraid, if he is elected in the 6th of May, in the evening of the 6th of May, there will be a lot of problems in the neighborhoods where the people have been insulted by this guy two years ago.

MARGARET WARNER: So you think riots will break out?

AZOUZ BEGAG: I'm afraid. I'm afraid. I'm not telling that I'm wishing that. I am very afraid, that he went so far towards using this population immigration as scapegoats in this political strategy that he cannot go back now.

MARGARET WARNER: Sarkozy now makes a point of insisting he wants the support of all French, but he's also playing for the support of anti-immigrant voters who went further right in the first round. On a tour of a mixed neighborhood in northeast Paris, the co-author of a new book about Islam in France, historian Justin Vaisse, said even another uprising in the banlieues shouldn't obscure the fact that French of immigrant descent, when surveyed, seem far better integrated than Muslims in other countries of Europe.

JUSTIN VAISSE, Author: Huge majorities, they affirm their French-ness, their belonging to the French society, and their love of France, and actually their optimism. One of the striking things in the polls was the fact that they were more optimistic about the future of French society and French democracy than other groups, especially other religious groups or other social groups.

So if you see some violence in the light of the second round, which could happen -- it's not bound to happen, but it could happen -- you know, you have to take it with a sort of grain of salt, because the situation is really complex.

MARGARET WARNER: This complexity leaves some young French of immigrant origin excited about the opportunities ahead, like Sciences Po student Lewnis Boudaoui, who expects his studies there to launch him into the ranks of France's movers and shakers.

LEWNIS BOUDAOUI: Not only is it the experience for me to have a good course of study, but it's also the ability for me to actually integrate into this elite, so it's just the start of endless opportunities for me.

MARGARET WARNER: But others are giving up on France. Mac-West Hot says he wants to get training here as a master French pastry chef and then take that skill to the United States.

MAC-WEST HOT (through translator): I cannot evolve. I don't see any way forward. The people here in France are not open. They are very negative. I don't understand the French mentality. I prefer the Anglo-Saxon mentality, so that's why I'm doing everything I can right now to get to America, because I think it will be a lot easier over there.

MARGARET WARNER: Some of those who continue to try to make it in France can be found working every day in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. They offer tourists brass models of the country's best-known landmark, promoting an iconic symbol of France, of liberte, egalite and fraternite, even as the country struggles to apply those values to all the people of France.