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Originally published Sunday, November 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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The other France

More than a year ago, when I was assembling a Web site about my experiences as a foreign correspondent, I posted the following entry: "Europe...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — More than a year ago, when I was assembling a Web site about my experiences as a foreign correspondent, I posted the following entry: "Europe still has not come to grips with the fact that its societies are changing," I wrote. "Europe is becoming more multiracial and multicultural. But black and Asian faces are still underrepresented, on television, in corporate board rooms, and in the halls of national assemblies. It is a contradiction European countries will soon have to address, to avoid the kind of social upheaval America experienced in the 1960s."

As I watched the teeming Paris suburbs, the banlieues, in flames — and France's neighbors began to fear that the riots could spread to African and Arab communities elsewhere in Europe — those words have sounded surprisingly prescient. But you didn't need clairvoyance to tell that the Paris banlieues were ripe for that kind of social explosion. All you really had to do was open your eyes.

True, you might not notice the lack of diversity if all you visited in Paris were the gracious monuments and grand museums. Enjoying some of the world's best meals in trendy bistros in the Marais or on the fashionable Left Bank, you might not be able to tell that you were in one of the world's most multiracial cities. If you turned on the television, you'd find that black, brown and yellow faces were largely invisible, unless you happened to catch a soccer match or a music video.

The one place you might see them is if you rode the Metro, the subway system, where the population's true color range is on full display, or if you took the train in from the airport, and looked out at the dilapidated housing projects on the edge of the city. If you happened to visit the National Assembly, the few nonwhite faces you'd see would be from France's overseas territories. And you might notice that the police officers walking their beats are slightly more mixed in hue, but just slightly; small wonder that to many young people in the banlieue, subjected to constant stops and identity-card checks, the police force feels like an occupying army.

Perhaps I noticed it more than many — this unnatural state of affairs — because I was seeing Paris, and France, through my own prism as a black American reporter covering a country that has always prided itself on being the world's birthplace of human rights and the home of liberté and égalité. And I noticed because many French friends and acquaintances would use the presence of a black American to bemoan the residual racism in the United States, while extolling the virtues of their own model of integration through assimilation — the so-called "republican model." It is a model unique in Europe, and when racial problems did flare, in the Netherlands or in Spain, the French would take comfort in the conviction that they allowed no such diversions: Integration, they maintained, was a success.

If it was obvious to me that France was ripe for a social explosion — it may be because I'd seen it before. I grew up in 1960s Detroit, where the growing black underclass remained similarly invisible, and the police force in black neighborhoods was similarly viewed as an occupying army.

The emphasis then, as in France now, was on maintaining law and order, not on such underlying problems as a lack of political representation and economic empowerment. Special police units assigned to control Detroit's black neighborhoods used to ride four to an unmarked car — thus their name, "The Big Four" — and kids knew that when the black sedan veered onto the street, you turned and ran. The Big Four had stop-and-frisk powers, and they carried blackjacks — short, bone-breaking clubs. The deputy police commissioner, who later ran for mayor on a law-and-order platform, earned the nickname John "Blackjack" Nichols.

It took a violent insurrection, the July 1967 riot, to shake up the system. That riot started when the police raided a "blind pig," one of the ubiquitous after-hours drinking joints popular among blacks. The one they raided was on 12th Street, just a few blocks from the house where I grew up. Bottles started flying, and before long, years of pent-up frustration exploded into America's worst-ever riot, which left 43 people dead and more than a thousand injured before the National Guard and Army paratroopers restored order.

The rioting in the ghettos outside Paris also began with a police operation, an identity inspection in Clichy-sous-Bois. Three boys, between 15 and 17 years old, ran to evade the inspection and two were electrocuted when they hid in a power substation. But as with the riots in Detroit, the initial spark only lit the fuse; what was ignited were the core frustrations and grievances accumulated over many years of hardship and neglect. As in Detroit, the first victims were the neighborhood residents themselves, whose stores and vehicles were wantonly torched alongside the symbols of government.

The ashes of the riots in my hometown — the loss of life, the destruction of many businesses — eventually gave rise to something better. In response to the unrest in Detroit and other cities, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the Kerner Commission, which concluded in 1968 that America was moving toward "two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal."

Six years later, black political power became entrenched in City Hall, when Coleman Young defeated "Blackjack" Nichols to become the city's first black mayor. The police force started to change, too, to one that represented the citizenry. And the Kerner Report had strong words for the media, which it said had failed to adequately report on the '67 disturbances. "The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro's burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed," the report said. "Slights and indignities are part of the Negro's daily life, and many of them come from what he now calls 'the white press' — a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America." That report led to a dramatic increase in the number of black reporters in newsrooms.

French society could use a similar period of self-reflection, and some badly needed corrections. The average life of the banlieusards, the Arab and black children of mostly Muslim immigrants, bears little resemblance to the average life of the white French citizens in the cities. People of Arab and black African descent make up more than 10 percent of the population, by most estimates. Despite their numbers, most French — politicians, journalists and average citizens — have never acknowledged that there is a problem. Until now, that is.

The problem is not recognized partly because of France's unique approach to absorbing immigrants. The republican model stresses the individual over his community or group, and directs that all individuals be accorded equal treatment. Under this model of mandatory assimilation, there is no room for the identity politics so common in the United States or for separate cultural and ethnic enclaves; newcomers are expected to learn French values and customs, and essentially to become French. And one of the pillars of republicanism is a strict separation between church and state, which explains, for example, why a law prohibiting Muslim girls from wearing head scarves in public schools was overwhelmingly endorsed by the French population; the head scarf was a direct affront to the notion that no student should be different or stand out.

For believers in this model, its validity comes from France's success over the decades in absorbing wave after wave of new immigrants — and they insist it will work, too, for the rioting French Africans and French Arabs. "It will take time, because in France, it always takes time," Guillaume Parmentier, the director of the French Center on the United States, told me over drinks recently. "We need them to speak French like the French. If they go through the French school system, they'll be fine."

"We have ghettos," Parmentier said. "But we can integrate them. Look at the Armenians. Look at the Italians. Look at the Jews. I'm convinced that most Muslims want to integrate."

But the young French Arabs and French Africans are different in many ways from the Armenians and Italians, or the Portuguese and Spanish who came to France in the past century, or the Poles and Romanians and other Eastern Europeans arriving now. Their religion — most are Muslim — sets them apart from earlier, Christian immigrants. Their very appearance is different. They are in France at a time of high unemployment and economic stagnation. And France's elite-based system — where the top positions in government and business are reserved for graduates of a handful of top schools — is tough for even France's native underclass to crack.

Moreover, there is the ugly truth of racial discrimination. "The French have made a fetish out of the notion of an egalitarian society, but in these poor neighborhoods, these kids don't feel their chances are the same," said Nancy Green, an American professor who has done comparative studies of immigration in France and the United States. "As wonderful as the ideology is, there has to be a recognition that discrimination exists, and has existed, and is not going away by repeating a mantra of equality."

The French can take a lesson from what we learned in this country after the 1960s riots. They can start by correcting the national phobia against anything that smacks of an American-style affirmative-action program, and embrace some method of bringing their minority populations into the mainstream. Some — like Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy — have advocated "positive discrimination." Others, like Parmentier, have suggested a system of "preferential promotion."

Whatever it is called, the outcome should be clear. The police department is a place to start, by assembling a force that looks like France. The media must strive for diversity, so that reporters are not reporting about the banlieues as if they are dangerous foreign countries. France's political parties should actively recruit minorities and give French Arab and French African candidates prominent places on their candidate lists. The elite schools, the Grandes Écoles, need to open their doors to more minority students.

France also needs to drop the taboo on the sensitive subjects of race, integration, discrimination, immigration and, yes, crime. Talk about any of those topics has been largely missing from the national discourse, except from the far right's perennial candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The violence in France is a tragedy. The French will now decide whether it will become an opportunity. The first step is recognizing that there is a problem, that the republican model of integration has not been as successful as once believed. The kind of discrimination the French readily decry abroad also exists at home — two societies, separate and unequal.

Keith Richburg, The Washington Post's foreign editor, was the newspaper's Paris correspondent from August 2000 until May 2005.

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