The French connection: GW students with ties to France say country has a culture of racism

Both students studying abroad in Paris and French international students at GW said they were not surprised to hear about the rioting of Arabs and African immigrants in Paris suburbs because of what they called the rampant racism in French society.

Since Oct. 27, members of the Arab and African communities have been setting cars and trashcans on fire and throwing stones at police after two African teenagers were electrocuted at a power substation. President Jacques Chirac declared a state of emergency last Tuesday and implemented curfews in riot-hit cities by invoking a law dating back to France’s war in Algeria, The Associated Press reported.

Guive Savoji, a senior at GW who was raised in the suburbs of Paris, said he has experienced racism in the city first-hand. His parents are from Iran, and he comes from a Muslim family.

“You always feel excluded (as an immigrant),” he said. “The French want you to become French. They want you to be French before anything. France is not like the United States. You can come to the U.S. and find people with the same background and fit in, but in France it’s not like that.”

Savoji said he also is not shocked that the riots are taking place, and that even second- and third-generation immigrants have trouble integrating into French society.

Rioting first broke out Oct. 27, when hundreds of youths set fire to cars and shops in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, and has continued intermittently since then. The rioting has died down in the past few days.

Lauren Rurak, a GW junior who lived in Paris from 1999 to 2004, said she was surprised to hear of the rioting, adding that she doesn’t think what she called rampant racism in French society will ever change.

“You just don’t find equality in France,” she said. “I think things will go back to the way it was before. There is a lot of racism within the government. I think it will open people’s eyes, but I don’t think it’ll change anything.”

The University has been in contact with students, directors of study abroad programs and employees in both the United States and France regarding the ongoing riots in Paris and other French cities.

Donna Scarboro, assistant vice president for Special and International Programs, said last week that there are about two dozen GW students studying abroad in Paris this semester through about four different programs.

“Obviously we try to make sure students are aware and ask them to take precautions,” Scarboro said.

Junior Brian Fernandez, who is studying abroad in Paris this semester, said he has been pleased with the way his program and GW has handled the situation.

“Our GW resident director has been monitoring the situation and kept us informed,” he said, adding that it has not affected his experience abroad. “I still use the metro, go to class and of course go out every night.”

“I will say that during my two months here in France, I have realized that French people are indeed very racist and have a rigid class structure in place, making it very difficult for poor immigrants to move up the social ladder and out of the ghettos,” Fernandez said.

Junior Lydia Terrill, who is studying abroad in Paris through the Council on International Educational Exchange program, said she thinks the riots were inevitable and that the accidental electrocution that triggered them was “just the spark that lit the fire,” though she believes the media is overstating the situation in France.

Despite the violence in Paris, students who plan on studying abroad in Paris in the springtime said they are not discouraged. Both Frank Mikus and Elizabeth Boudris, GW juniors, said they are still planning to study abroad in Paris next semester.

“My decision to go abroad has not been affected whatsoever,” Mikus said. “I suspect the riots will be over by then.”

“Hearing about the riots in France has just made me pay more attention to the news,” Boudris said. “I am definitely still going to go though.”

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