Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

French City Reaches Out to Immigrants

A HANDFUL of kids from the "Dancing in the Streets" dance troupe are gathered around a big table, talking about what the multiethnic organization means to them.But the young dancers are rather quiet, so their director, an enthusiastic Frenchman who started the group in 1985, says he hopes they're a part of the group to learn about dance, have fun, and learn about themselves. That causes one of the boys to shake his head and give his sense of the troupe's purpose. Says "Moustique," a diminutive 18-year-old of Algerian descent, "The most important thing for me is to show an audience that I'm Arab, and that that doesn't mean I don't know how to do anything." Moustique wants to be an ambassador. So does Louisa, another French-Algerian member of the troupe. "Sometimes we can feel very strongly that we're out in front of people who don't necessarily like who we are," she says, "but we represent a kind of communication and people are forced to respond to us." "Dance in the Streets" operates out of Roubaix, an old textile city near Lille in the far north of France. Nearly half of the city's population of 100,000 are either immigrants or their French-born children. Ambassadors like Moustique and Louisa seem to be needed across France today, because relations between the French and the country's 4 million immigrants, at least half of whom are North African and Muslim, are not good. By many indications they are getting worse. Over the past year, mounting delinquency and sporadic rioting have made regular front-page fare of immigration and the banlieues, a word that means simply "suburbs," but which is now shorthand for the grim high-rise public housing projects, outside France's often chic central cities, where North Africans are concentrated. Emotions over the immigration question overflowed this spring after various incidents in which two young North Africans and a French policewoman were killed. Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac caused a furor when he referred in a speech to the "noise and smells" of immigrants, but his use of the word "overdose" to describe the immigrant presence in France was just a cruder form of the term"threshold of tolerance" President Francois Mitterrand had already employed. Other, mostly right-wing leaders, have begun rivaling far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in their rhetoric, calling for massive repatriation of foreigners, an end to family reunification policies, a new French identity code limiting access to French citizenship, even creation of a review board that would determine which French-born children of immigrants, once they turned 18, were fit for French nationality. Yet as the public debate rages, many French cities are working to promote integration - and in a manner well beyond national emergency measures, such as increased police patrols and a massive camping program, designed to head off the "hot summer" some predicted. "We see it as a problem of citizenship, not of foreigners," says Slimane Lakrouf, an assistant to Roubaix's mayor on integration issues. "As long as you have people who feel they are being kept separate without the same advantages and opportunities as everyone else, you'll have problems." One of the key sectors in the integration effort is employment, says Mr. Lakrouf, which, he adds, explains the number of job-training programs in the city. But he would like to see a "more muscled" emphasis, he adds, with a minority employment target for the city and the contractors it works with. Although he refuses the idea of establishing quotas, he says no one should be surprised by alienation when very few of the city employees have contact with or are of immigrant background. Despite a contrast between old-money neighborhoods and often crumbling immigrant quarters that has earned it the nickname "Harlem-Fifth Avenue," Roubaix has had no serious flare-ups among its immigrant youths. "We're not safe from the storm," says Pauline Schaeffer, an elected city representative charged with education and integration. "But we work from the basis that people chose France for a reason, and that we can help them feel they are part of this city," she says. "We feel we've made progress." Roubaix has one advantage, she says, in that it doesn't have any of the huge high-rise complexes that are such a problem in other cities. Some cities, like nearby Lille, have started demolishing some of their most densely populated and problem-infested projects. Mrs. Schaeffer also cites the city's extensive network of neighborhood centers, which emphasize after-school tutoring, and Roubaix's dozens of immigrant organizations, with which the city maintains close contact. But Lakrouf says France is going to have to go further in making its immigrants part of the mainstream, and that means access to all jobs, better housing that isn't isolated, and a sense of equal opportunity, including in political life. Some advocates of integration worry, however, that the leverage the National Front now has, especially in local elections, is impeding the kind of serious measures needed. Officials like Lakrouf say that with a relatively constant 15 percent national average of support, and even a representative in the National Assembly, the National Front discourages politicians from going out on a limb to back integration measures. Yet one small city in the north of France actually saw support for the National Front fall - from 14.5 percent in 1988 to 12.5 percent in 1989 - as it has taken dramatic steps to encourage integration within its population. With about 8 percent of its 28,000 population made up of immigrants, Mons-en-Baroeul made a priority of making sure that minority "is part of the whole," says Mayor Francoise Jullien.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.