Posted February 16, 2011
After two years, human rights activist Abdelaziz Dahhassi finally realized his dream of setting up a think tank to find new ways of fighting ethnic and religious discrimination in France. But backing for the venture came from an unlikely and controversial corner: the U.S. State Department.
“I’m not saying we couldn’t have done it without them but their support is very important,” he said. “The Americans have a very interesting vision which can be very enriching for France.”
By supporting Mr. Dahhassi’s project, the U.S. embassy has inflamed tensions over how to deal with France’s growing immigrant population. Critics say the United States, which many French see as arrogant and heavy-handed, is undermining cherished French values by trying to impose its own, often unsuccessful, policies on dealing with minorities and racial conflict.
“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 non-partisan group established last year to defend what it sees as French values. “[It] is a strategic plan to get France to do whatever the U.S. wants.”
The decision in December to support Mr. Dahhassi’s think tank is part of the “Minority Engagement Strategy” organized by current U.S. ambassador to France Charles Rivkin. Its roots date back to the Sept. 11 attacks, after which the U.S. State Department set up a Europe-wide public-diplomacy program to try to diffuse the threat of terrorism.
A U.S. embassy official in Paris said the program focused on building relationships with potential leaders in Muslim groups and other minorities, mainly by inviting young up-and-comers to participate in the U.S.-sponsored International Visitor Leadership Program. The program has traditionally sent members of the white French elite on educational visits to the United States. Last year, about a third of French participants belonged to minority groups, mostly Muslims.
U.S. diplomats also make regular forays into troubled immigrant suburbs and invite immigrant youth to U.S. embassy events. In 2009, embassy funding helped pay for a mural project in the Paris suburb of Villiers-le-Bel, which was the scene of violent riots two years earlier. Mr. Rivkin recently arranged for Hollywood superstar Samuel L. Jackson to visit impoverished teenagers in Bondy, an immigrant suburb just north of Paris.
But a series of diplomatic cables revealed by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks show that Mr. Rivkin has adopted an even more ambitious agenda meant to “amplify France’s efforts to realize its own egalitarian ideals, thereby advancing U.S. 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, Mr. Rivkin says the embassy should expand its youth outreach, encourage “moderate voices of tolerance” by training and supporting media and political activists who share U.S. values, and work to reform the history curriculum taught in French schools to include the perspectives of minorities in French history.
Vincent Geisser, a sociologist who specializes in Islamist extremism and who participated in the International Visitor Leadership Program in 2009, says the U.S. is taking a pragmatic view and betting that over the next 20 years, more and more of the French elite will come from minority groups.
“It won’t transform these people into an American army in France, but what the U.S. can do is give confidence to certain elites,” he said. “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.”
But conservative commentators, such as Ivan Rioufol, a member of the editorial board of the daily newspaper Le Figaro, say the U.S. policy is hypocritical and based on a poor understanding of how the French system works.
“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 said. “They don’t understand that foreigners are very comfortable here if they accept that our culture is one of assimilation.”
Mr. Dahhassi says his goal is not to promote American values but to see if France can benefit from the U.S. experience in dealing with minorities. The U.S. embassy is contributing logistical support, but no money, to his think tank. Over the next several months, U.S. embassy staff will work with Mr. Dahhassi to secure funds and expertise from public and private U.S. sources to help establish the think tank’s program.
Mr. Dahhassi says the focus will be to “find another approach” to addressing racism and ethnic discrimination and that it will likely include a debate over the divisive issue of whether France could benefit from an affirmative action program to ensure members of ethnic and racial minorities are promoted.
The question is widely considered taboo in France, because the French constitution enshrines equality by stating that race and ethnicity do not legally exist.
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