Chirac addresses 'malaise' in France

Posted in Europe | 15-Nov-05 | Author: Katrin Bennhold| Source: International Herald Tribune

French President Jacques Chirac addresses the nation from the Elysee Palace, on French channel 'France 2' during the evening news Monday, Nov. 14, 2005.
PARIS President Jacques Chirac acknowledged Monday that almost three weeks of rioting in France had revealed a "profound malaise" in the country, and he pledged to combat discrimination and work for greater ethnic diversity in all spheres of society.

In his first formal address to the nation since the violence erupted Oct. 27, Chirac stressed that fully restoring security remained his first priority and said he would ask the National Assembly to extend the current state of emergency for three months.

"We will respond by being firm, by being fair and by being faithful to the values of France," Chirac said, adding that the "first necessity" was to "re-establish public order."

"Violence never solves anything," he said.

But his 15-minute televised address focused on spelling out the long-standing problem of discrimination and mass unemployment that afflict many of those living in the poor suburbs that have been the scene of rioting.

Chirac stopped short of proposing American-style affirmative action programs to aid minorities, which are anathema in the French tradition of integration.

But he said he would lobby companies, the media and political parties to increase representation of France's urban ethnic minorities, many of them from North and West Africa.

"These events bear witness of a profound malaise, a crisis of meaning, reference points and of identity," Chirac said of the unrest, speaking from the presidential palace with the French flag perched behind him.

He added: "It is the duty of the republic to give everybody the same opportunities. Discrimination saps the very foundation of our republic."

In an attempt to curb the high rates of unemployment, which disproportionately affect the children of immigrants, Chirac, who abolished compulsory military service in 1996, said he would establish a voluntary task force to train about 50,000 youths by 2007 in jobs with the military, the police, and in health and culture, among other areas.

He also said he would arrange meetings with representatives of labor unions and television companies to tell them "to better reflect today's reality of French society."

But at a time when some French politicians - prominent among them Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy - have called for affirmative action, Chirac launched into a vigorous defense of France's color-blind model of integration.

"There is no question to enter into the logic of quotas," Chirac said. "What's at stake is not only the respect of the law but also the success of our integration policy."

Early reactions to his speech from Chirac's own center-right camp were favorable, with lawmakers welcoming the speech as exhibiting both firmness and understanding of the root causes of the unrest. But the opposition Socialists, who have also sharply criticized the extension of the emergency measures, accused the president of making no concrete new proposals.

"We expected a different speech by the head of state, who merely repeated the measures announced by his prime minister last week," the spokeswoman for the Socialist Party, Annick Lepetit, told Reuters.

Chirac has been sharply criticized for keeping a low profile throughout the country's worst social turmoil since the student-worker protests in 1968. According to the latest opinion poll, published by IFOP, only 29 percent of respondents said they believed he could solve the problems in the suburbs.

The president's comments came only hours after the cabinet approved a draft law extending the 12-day state of emergency for three months - even as the violence of the past 19 days appeared to be dying down.

The bill, which is widely expected to be adopted Tuesday by the center-right-dominated Parliament, would allow regional police authorities to retain enhanced policing tools - like the right to impose curfews and search homes without a warrant - until late February.

The government first implemented the state of emergency by decree last week. It is based on a 50-year-old law that dates from the time when France was embroiled in a colonial war with Algeria.

The measures have sparked both praise and criticism, with supporters arguing that they were the key factor in bringing the violence under control in recent days, and opponents saying that they were an unnecessary provocation and served only to endear the government to conservative voters.

About 40 French towns, including Lyon, the only place where the violence spilled into the city center, have so far used curfews on minors, coinciding with the steady decline in the violence.

On Sunday night, a primary school was set ablaze on the outskirts of Toulouse in southern France, while in two suburbs in the north of the country a sports center and another school went up in flames. But only 284 cars were set on fire, compared with 374 the night before and about 1,400 a week ago, when the riots were at their peak.

The riots began on Oct. 27 after the accidental death of two teenagers and intensified when a tear-gas grenade landed in a mosque three days later. But localized clashes outside of Paris quickly spread into a nationwide rebellion led by disaffected youth of North and West African origin living in many of the impoverished suburbs with little hope of a job or an escape.

The sudden outburst of violence caught the country's political class by surprise, with the government struggling to contain the riots and the opposition slow to step in with proposals of how to improve the situation.

Concerned about scathing - and sometimes sensationalist - news reports about the unrest, the government has also started a campaign to tone down coverage of the riots abroad. Several ministers, including Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, Finance Minister Thierry Breton and the government's spokesman, Jean-François Copé, invited foreign journalists to a briefing on how the situation was improving.

During his press luncheon on Monday, Breton said the riots were an opportunity to push ahead with changes to France's rigid labor market.

"We are trying to use them to change the country," Breton said.

He said Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin would soon announce a package of measures targeting the suburban areas that have been the scene of recent rioting.

Rather than focusing on legislation to curb the discrimination experienced by many people with Arabic or Arabic-sounding names, Breton said France needed to create jobs and economic growth.

"I know only one formula: Create more growth," Breton said. "It's true that we have a problem in the suburbs and that there isn't enough economic activity."

He said the incentive for France to integrate its ethnic minorities into the labor market had never been more urgent because of the aging work force.

"Next year will be the first year when the number of workers in France will decline," Breton said. "We really need them."