In France, US advocacy for Muslim rights raises more than a few hackles

Posted February 17, 2011 By Anita Elash


After two years of trying, human rights activist Abdelaziz Dahhassi realized his dream late last year of setting up a think tank to find new ways to fight ethnic and religious discrimination in France. But it was the US State Department, and not the French government, that helped Mr. Dahhassi’s Lyon-based Association for the Convergence of Respect and Diversity finally get off the ground.

“I’m not saying we couldn’t have done it without them, but their support is very important,” he says. “The Americans have a very interesting vision which can be very enriching for France.”

Dahhasi sees that vision as a pragmatic one that has done much to promote minorities and erase barriers between ethnic groups. He says he especially admires American affirmative-action programs and wants to study whether they would work in France.

But the project has also ignited controversy on French editorial pages and on political websites. Critics say that US diplomats are interfering in French domestic policy and trying to impose views on minorities and integration that are at odds with the French Constitution.

"They are criticizing us because we are not the United States, or more precisely, because we do not resemble them,” blogger Christine Tasin wrote on a website for The Republican Resistance, a nonpartisan group established last year to defend what it sees as French values. “[It] is a strategic plan to get France to do whatever the US wants.”

US seeks support among Europe's Muslims

American support for Dahhasi’s association is part of a broader program of public diplomacy created across Europe after the 9/11 attacks on the US to diffuse the threat of terrorism. A US embassy official in Paris says it was designed to “create mutual understanding” and to “show people there’s no good reason to fly airplanes into skyscrapers."

It has focused on seeking out and building relationships with potential leaders in Muslim and other minority groups. A key component has been the International Visitor Leadership Program, which for decades has sent members of the French elite on educational visits to the US. Its pre-2001 French alumni are nearly exclusively white. Last year, about a third of French participants belonged to minority groups, mostly Muslims.

Wafa Dahman, a French journalist of Tunisian background and founder of the French and Arabic broadcaster Radio Salam, spent three weeks with the program traveling across the US in 2008. She says she saw “America as it was, with all its strengths and faults,” learning about such things as high infant mortality rates in some poor US neighborhoods and affirmative-action programs implemented by police in Seattle trying to deal with tensions between Muslims and Sikhs.

"I discovered a very open society, one that is very different from France. At the same time, I saw there are many difficulties, but that the Americans are trying to find a solution,” she says.

'Moderate voices of tolerance'

A series of diplomatic cables revealed by the antisecrecy website WikiLeaks show that the current US ambassador in France, Charles Rivkin, has adopted an even more ambitious agenda meant to “amplify France's efforts to realize its own egalitarian ideals, thereby advancing US national interests.”

"While France is justifiably proud of its leading role in conceiving democratic ideals and championing human rights and the rule of law, French institutions have not proven themselves flexible enough to adjust to an increasingly heterodox demography,” Mr. Rivkin wrote in January 2010. “We believe that if France, over the long run, does not successfully increase opportunity and provide genuine political representation for its minority populations, France could become a weaker, more divided country, perhaps more crisis-prone and inward-looking, and consequently a less capable ally.”

In the cable, Rivkin says the embassy’s “Minority Engagement Strategy” should expand its youth outreach, encourage “moderate voices of tolerance” by training and supporting media and political activists who share US values, and work to reform the history curriculum taught in French schools to include the perspectives of minorities in French history.

Under Rivkin’s watch, US diplomats have made regular forays into troubled immigrant suburbs and invite immigrant youths to US embassy events. In 2009, embassy funding helped pay for a mural project in the Paris suburb of Villiers-le-Bel, the scene of violent riots by immigrant youth two years earlier. Last year, Rivkin arranged for Hollywood superstar Samuel L. Jackson to visit impoverished teenagers in Bondy, an immigrant suburb just north of Paris.

Vincent Geisser, a sociologist who specializes in Islamist extremism and who participated in the International Visitor Leadership Program in 2009, says that by implementing such a strategy, the US is betting the French power structure will change profoundly over the next 20 years and that more and more of its leaders will come from minority groups.

“It won’t transform these people into an American army in France, but what the US can do is give confidence to certain elites,” he says. “It can also create good relations so in that sense this is a very forward-looking policy. They’re saying that if, in 20 years we have a new elite, we must have an elite that recognizes us and that is ready to work together.”

Is the US going too far in France?

But critics say Rivkin’s cable and US embassy support for initiatives such as Dahhassi’s Association for the Convergence of Respect and Diversity takes US outreach program in a new and unwelcome direction.

Over the next several months, US embassy staff will work with Dahhassi to secure funds and expertise from public and private US sources to help establish the think tank’s program. Dahhassi says the focus will be to “find another approach” to addressing racism directed at all minority groups in France, and that it will likely include a debate over the divisive issue of whether France could benefit from an affirmative-action program.

The question is widely considered taboo in France, because the Constitution enshrines equality by stating that race and ethnicity do not exist. By extension, affirmation action programs cannot exist without violating the Constitution.

Ivan Rioufol, a member of the editorial board of the conservative daily newspaper Le Figaro, says he believes the US program is both hypocritical and based on a poor understanding of how the French system works. He says the US has enough trouble with racial tensions at home without telling other countries how to handle their minorities.

"The American analysis, which seems to say that the France of the future will be the France of the immigrant suburbs, is very disparaging to native French people," he says. "They don’t seem to understand that foreigners are very comfortable here if they accept that our culture is one of assimilation."

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