Montana State University

French labor protests tied to immigration

April 4, 2006 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service


Recent unrest that has nearly paralyzed France is related to the country's treatment of its immigrant communities, according to Ada Giusti, an associate professor of French at Montana State University. Photo by Jay Thane.   High-Res Available

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Bozeman - An attempt by France's prime minister to deal with sky-high unemployment among the country's youth may end his political career, according to a professor of French and critically acclaimed author on immigration at Montana State University.

Since late March, more than a million French citizens have taken to the streets in cities around the country calling for the repeal of a new labor law that would allow employers to fire anyone under the age of 26 without cause during the first two years of work.

Though most media coverage has been about the economics of the new law, the situation is also connected to how France treats its immigrant population, said Ada Giusti, an MSU French instructor and author.

Current French law makes firing so difficult that employment essentially equals lifetime job security. As a result, French companies hesitate to hire young workers and are moving jobs out-of-country. Twenty-three percent of those 25 and younger are unemployed.

The new law is meant to spur hiring by giving French companies more flexibility in finding good workers. Despite that, most French want the country's labor law to remain unchanged because of the security it provides.

But for those in France's immigrant communities unemployment is even worse, exceeding 30 percent, said Giusti, author of "But Why Don't They Just Go Home?" a critically acclaimed book on France's immigrants.

"My sense is that the new law is not seen in such a negative light by youth living in the immigrant ghettos," she said. "They are desperate for jobs and argue that this law could provide them the opportunity to enter the work force."

Of France's 60.6 million inhabitants, 7.35 percent are immigrants. Millions of them live in suburban ghettos where there are few opportunities to learn the French language. Their children, who are often French citizens, have access to poor schools and suffer from discrimination and a sense of isolation from mainstream French society, Giusti said.

In the fall of 2005, protests and riots engulfed France after two teenagers of African descent were accidentally electrocuted while hiding from police in an electrical sub-station. The police denied chasing the boys, but no official word calmed rioters well acquainted with stories of police harassment.

More than 200 public buildings were damaged and 10,000 cars burned in 300 cities during three weeks of rioting. Many of the rioters were French citizens of North and West African descent tired of being discriminated against, Giusti said.

"The message of the rioters was: 'We're tired of not being treated as French,'" she said. "They were holding up their identity cards and saying 'We're French! We're French!'"

In response to the riots, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin pushed through the controversial new employment law. The country is once again wracked by riots and protests, but this time those taking to the streets are mostly from mainstream society and trying to protect their access to life-time job security. Villepin's hope to become France's next president is most likely in ruins because of the protests, Giusti said.

The protests of last fall and those of March are a sign of how little dialogue there is between mainstream France and its immigrant communities, Giusti said.

Giusti spent 16 months working for various humanitarian organizations in France to understand the gulf between immigrants and the rest of France. Her book collects stories of immigrants from Algeria, Armenia, Burundi, Chechnya, Dagestan, Georgia, Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Nigeria, Turkey, Tunisia and Ukraine.

"Most wanted to integrate, but found it difficult to do so," Giusti said. "And even though the government wants integration, it is not providing adequate means for immigrants to even learn the language."

Giusti also interviewed several French nationals, including a police officer. She found that they viewed immigrants with a mix of sympathy, fear, sometimes hostility and ignorance.

The title of her book, "But Why Don't They Just Go Home?" is taken from a mainstream French view of immigrants' complaints about poor schools, unemployment and discrimination, according to Giusti.

"People have very little idea of the extreme poverty, violence and persecution many immigrants are trying to escape," she said.

Giusti and her family were once immigrants in France themselves. In 1956, Giusti's parents left Italy and settled in Paris. For 10 years, they lived in a tiny hotel room heated with a coal-burning stove. The only source of water was a sink in the hallway shared by seven families. Fourteen families shared one toilet.

"We were destitute," said Giusti, who now holds a doctorate in French literature from Stanford and who speaks French, English, Spanish and Italian.

When Giusti revisited the old hotel in the 1990s, nothing had changed. The experience motivated her to write a book illustrating the work France still has to undertake to provide its immigrant population the opportunity to integrate and live with dignity.

"I could not believe it," she said. "This decrepit hotel was still a home for immigrants. Families still shared one sink in the hall."

Ada Giusti, associate professor of French, (406) 994-6442, or adagiusti@yahoo.com.