In colorblind France, rising diversity tests unity
The streets in one of the Paris region's toughest housing projects, burgeoning with immigrants, bear names like Cezanne, Picasso and Utrillo, as if to stamp the French heritage onto the psyches of its residents.
But neither the names of the great masters nor the idyllic images conjured up by the name of the project, Les Bosquets, or The Groves, capture the daily realities of the French-style ghetto, an enclosed world where many residents don't speak French.
Delinquency soars and the unemployment rate is estimated at some 40 percent, nearly four times the national rate. Montfermeil's town hall could not provide an official figure.
Just 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) from Paris, Les Bosquets is light years from the world of Parisians.
Les Bosquets, like other projects that surround the big cities of France, belies this nation's special brand of integration whereby newcomers from afar assimilate into the French culture, becoming one with it whatever their origins. Despite quiet debate, French authorities, whatever their political colors, have stood by a French model that's colorblind to differences, in total contrast to the U.S. notion of a vibrant melting pot.
The story of France is often viewed as the antithesis to the U.S., one in which race and ethnicity are not counted in the government census and minority rights need not exist, due to residents who share a common identity of "French." Many French shudder at the word "multiculturalism."
But housing projects such as Les Bosquets, often cut off by poor public transport from the cities, raise questions about how much assimilation is really happening in France and whether the French model of integration, long the nation's pride, is wearing thin.
Even Muslim immigrants from France's former North African colonies, many in their third generation, and making up a large portion of residents of Les Bosquets, are far from melding with the mainstream.
For Patrick Simon, a leading demographer, the French model has a basic flaw that is becoming increasingly evident as time goes by.
"It's a model founded on the invisibility of differences," Simon said. The problem is that minorities are increasingly visible, many of them with origins in France's former colonies in Muslim North Africa, and because "we see them, we can't ignore their existence."
Even second- and third-generation citizens of foreign origin are perceived as different and treated thus.
Statisticians are not allowed to count people by their origins, complicating research.
But the postcard vision of France with church steeples perched over a contented populace wearing berets and carrying baguettes has been upended in the Seine-Saint-Denis region northeast of Paris.
French kings are buried in the great cathedral of Saint-Denis, the main town, but traditional minorities have become the majority in the region.
A study by Simon puts immigrants and their descendants through the second generation at 75 percent of the city's population. It includes people from French overseas departments (8 percent), who are French but of color. The jobless rate was 16.5 percent in 2009, according to Insee, the national statistics agency. But the economic leaders are in the white minority, Simon said, putting new stress on the notion that immigrants and their children are being successfully assimilated.
In Les Bosquets, the most widespread complaint remains poor public transport and the isolation that keeps Les Bosquets at a distance from mainstream France. It takes nearly 90 minutes to get to Paris.
"They've done everything to keep us closed among ourselves," said a 34-year-old born in France of Algerian parents. "It is they who don't want us to integrate." Like most residents of the projects, the man, who works with a private fire department, refused to identify himself by name.
Discrimination is a fact of life in France for minorities, and a poll by the Ipsos firm published this year in the daily Le Monde showed no sign that that might lessen. A full 70 percent of those questioned felt there were "too many foreigners in France." The finger was pointed, above all, at those of the Muslim faith.