Video Duration 47 minutes 06 seconds
From: Al Jazeera World

Young French Arabs: Identity, Equality, Fraternity

Young Parisians of Arab descent reflect on cultural identity, activism, the Arab Spring and the Palestinian cause.

Filmmaker: Mohamed Zaoui

Parisians, many of Arab descent, have been marching in the streets of the French capital in protest at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, in blockaded Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

Paris is a cosmopolitan city and certain areas of France are extremely ethnically diverse. Some cities like Marseille have large Muslim, immigrant populations and while the figures are much lower for the capital, the question of identity is now a burning issue for many young people whose parents emigrated from the MENA region in the 1960s and 70s.

France today is arguably still quite monocultural. Nationalism is on the rise across Europe and Marine Le Pen of the far right National Front is a leading contender in the upcoming presidential elections. The hijab is banned in high schools and government offices, as is the burkini on some beaches.

This film is about the combined effect of growing Islamophobia, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the plight of the Palestinians and the 2011 Arab revolutions on the young middle and working class from immigrant backgrounds.

Political activist Houria Bouteldja says supporting the Palestinians is a way for them to make their own voices heard.

“We’re not like the others because they make us feel we’ll never be French. In other words, white skin and Christian belief constitute the identity of the national body. Some claim we’re not a legitimate part of this body, so we’re excluded from it,” explains the Indigenes de la Republique party member.

Few have ever been to the Middle East but they organise pro-Palestinian demonstrations, support the BDS movement and oppose Israeli settlements, regardless of accusations of being anti-Jewish by the Jewish Defense League (JDL).

“When the Jewish Defense League heard about a big pro-Palestinian demonstration, they announced they’d come and beat us,” recalls Aya Ramadan, a French activist of Egyptian-Algerian descent. “The police themselves knew the JDL were coming and told us to be careful.”

JDL’s taunts and provocations soon turned into physical violence.

“They abused me physically in the street,” says Bouteldja. She and other pro-Palestinian demonstrators were also attacked by the JDL. She hopes they’ll be tried in court soon, adding, “It’s worth mentioning the JDL is protected. If people from working-class areas acted like the JDL, they’d have been stopped long ago.”

Citing “security concerns”, the French government banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Paris, contrary, in Bouteldja’s view, to the country’s “democratic principles.”

The respected Syrian writer and Paris University academic Burhan Ghalioun says espousing the Palestinian cause is a way for French Arabs to reinvent themselves today and is now a key part of their identity in a mainstream society they feel rejects them.

Parisians for Palestine

“They [French protestors] wanted to use stones like Palestinians to assert their existence in France. They identify with a common, just cause as they’re marginalised and not recognised in their own European countries.”

Alima Boumedienne-Thiery, an independent judiciary professional, further explains, “The majority of youth, mainly from working-class neighbourhoods, somehow identified themselves with these people because they’re victims of injustice.”

Overall, Houria, a daughter of Algerian immigrants, says she and others like her support Palestinians because “we’ve suffered from a colonial history.”

Others argue that support for the Palestinian cause transcends race, religion and ethnicity.

“The human nation comes before the Muslim nation. What’s happening in Palestine calls on my humanism,” says Fethi Chouder, a member of the council in the northern Paris suburban municipality of Aubervilliers.

As Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians becomes an increasingly global political issue, more non-Arabs are now taking notice.

“It is a cause with a global human dimension. Apartheid in South Africa became a global cause involving everyone not just black South Africans,” says Professor Ghalioun. “The Palestinian cause is like this.”

Edwy Plenel of Mediapart thinks that France needs to come to terms with its perceived identity crisis: “We have to be aware. Today, a new discourse is quietly taking root in the media and in books. Behind the words ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’, a whole population is portrayed as dangerous. This portrayal sows the seeds of a deadly ideology. Some have even started to demand the expulsion of Muslims from France.”