Wed, Nov 09, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Riots in Parisian suburbs highlights a burning global issue

Race relations have become a huge, government-toppling issue. The world must now take notice

By Trevor Phillips  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

In the Caribbean, the phrase `nine nights' usually betokens a period of mourning. France's nine nights of rioting started in the Parisian suburbs and spread to other cities, including Marseille, Dijon and Rouen. They were triggered by the deaths of two French teenagers of North African extraction, who were fleeing the police, no doubt fearing the routine harassment meted out to black and Arab youths in France's ghettoized banlieue.

The hundreds of cars that have now been burnt in French streets are pyres that mark the passing of a French delusion that the incantation of liberte, egalite, fraternite would somehow mask the reality of life for non-white French men and women -- repression, discrimination, segregation.

The French establishment, which a generation ago exiled immigrant workers to the doughnut of miserable new towns around Paris, is in full panic mode. French Prime Minister Dominique Villepin called emergency Cabinet meetings, met the bereaved parents and urged a moderate response. His rival for the presidency, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, having denounced the rioting youths as `scum,' ordered a police lockdown. Whoever wins this power struggle will instantly become the frontrunner for the top job.

France is not alone.

The Netherlands, which most of the world had marked down as the ultimate in relaxed, progressive cosmopolitanism, is gripped by a vicious anti-Muslim backlash. Both reactionary Christian conservatives and anxious liberal secularists talk openly and sometimes approvingly of the virtues of `black' and `white' schools which inoculate the Dutch from the `toxin' of Islam.

Across the Atlantic, the issue of race, ghettoization and neglect has also penetrated mainstream politics. The sight of thousands of poor, elderly African-Americans left to fester in a sports stadium, sheltering from Hurricane Katrina, ripped away the mask created by celebration of black success in entertainment, sports and politics, to reveal a nation that remains deeply divided by ethnicity. The government's faltering response marked the moment that US President George W Bush's presidency started its slide into disrepute.

Everywhere, smugness about the state of race relations is being punctured. This is no longer the patronizing `be kind to blacks' territory with which politicians of the past and minority leaders may have felt safe. It is big politics on which governments will stand or fall.

In the 1970s and 1980s, industrial relations marked a tense dividing line in Western societies. Disputes periodically erupted into dangerous and violent confrontation that menaced and sometimes brought down governments. Race relations threaten to become a similarly potent battlefront in the first part of the 21st century.

In the UK, we passed, 40 years ago this week, the first serious anti-discrimination laws in Europe. A generation ago, we set up what has become a network of local race equality councils, involving several hundred full-time workers and tens of thousands of unpaid volunteers. Their patient work at the local level has often prevented tensions flaring into open conflict, but the face-off in Birmingham two weekends ago shows we still have to be smarter and work harder.

We cannot afford to hope that everything will come right with time and goodwill.

There are two big mistakes we could make. The first is to imagine that racial conflict is caused only by the sort of foul white supremacists convicted in the UK last week, or by the sick bigots (who may have been white or black) who desecrated a Muslim cemetery in Birmingham. The million or so who voted for British National Party councilors last year aren't all knuckle-dragging racist apes. Many are ordinary folk frightened by the pace of change in their communities who can be persuaded that somehow this must be the fault of people who do not look like them.

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