In front of a primary school outside Paris, where two children of Algerian illegal immigrants had been detained, September 2005, Pantin, France
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

 2013 does not only mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. It is also the 30th anniversary of the March on Paris.

Thirty years ago, thousands of young French of Arab descent marched from the major cities of the country to the nation’s capital to protest racism and discrimination. The movement was called “March for Equality and Against Racism,” but it became widely referred to as the “Marche des Beurs” (beur being slang for “Young Arab”). Police brutality against the impoverished ghetto dwellers of Venissieux (the suburb of the posh city of Lyon) during the summer 1983 was to snowball into an episode of social uprising reminiscent of the riots that had enflamed the same projects two years before, catching the Socialist government off guard.

In 1981 President François Mitterrand had been elected on one of the most progressive platforms of contemporary history. Liberals and North African immigrants held great expectations, which turned out to be short-lived. In January 1983, the economic agenda was already shifting toward neoliberal initiatives. When the factory workers of public-owned automaker Renault, most of them of Algerian descent, mobilized, they were discounted by Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy as being “manipulated by Islamic radicals.” 

Times were ripe for either a surge of violence by a whole generation of young people whose formal French citizenship did not translate into real social integration (housing, employment, education) or the peaceful voicing of their alienation. With the help of a Catholic priest and a network of grassroots organizations, a march was launched on Oct. 15, 1983, modeled after the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Marchers called for a 10-year carte de séjour (green card) and the right to vote at the local level for foreign residents, yet their core demand was the full recognition of their citizenship through equal opportunities. The troubled memory of the Algerian war and its untold legacy had plagued their parents’ life paths, and the young people found themselves under a double penalty: Paying “the price of the ticket” to integration entailed a sense of estrangement from their forefathers, who were still bound to their native land across the Mediterranean Sea, yet such costly fare did not provide them with the minimal rights they were entitled to as French-born citizens.

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Departing from Marseille, where a child had just been killed in a disenfranchised housing project, the march was nevertheless joyful and filled with a sense of civic pride. On their way to Paris, marchers were joined by thousands of people, children of immigrants but also sympathizers of French descent appalled by the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far-right-wing populist whose racist rhetoric was beginning to get traction.

A sense of indignation swept the country when an Algerian was brutally assaulted and killed on a train without any passenger intervention. By the time marchers reached the capital on Dec. 3, a handful of “Beurs” had become 100,000 strong. Mitterrand met them in the Élysée Palace and promised to address their claims. The protesters were hopeful that racism would now be fought against at the highest level.

But a year later, a young activist named Farida Belghoul organized another march on Paris, aimed at the same goals with the explicit concern that the dissenting movement was being appropriated by the Socialist government, which was playing games with “identity politics.” Mitterrand was indeed strategically maneuvering the Front National, Le Pen’s party, giving it a political space likely to divide and cripple right-wing coalitions.

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Belghoul’s insight was vindicated when, in the wake of the second Marche des Beurs, a government-funded and sponsored group named “SOS Racisme” was launched. Interestingly, its president, Harlem Desir, was neither of Arab descent nor Muslim but closely tied to the governmental majority. The pioneering association immediately captured public attention with its catchy slogan, Touche pas à mon pote! (“Don’t touch my buddy!”), and hand-shaped pins that supporters could proudly wear.

Most people who embraced this explicit anti-racist statement were sincerely committed to eradicating discrimination against French people of color. Behind the scenes, though, the grassroots initiative was being hijacked by conventional politics, and many original marchers, unable to prevent internal disputes and divisions, were left resentful.

What is more, the memory of their democratic impulse was not bequeathed to their children, who have been facing an ever-worsening situation in the three decades since the march. According to recent data, if immigrants are twice as likely to be unemployed as native French, children of immigrants born in France are even more exposed to unemployment than their parents. Out of delusion for Republican ideals, some have found solace in radical Islam.

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Thirty years after the Marche des Beurs, France’s picture is grim. There is another Socialist president in office, François Hollande, and his austerity policy has been fueling a dramatic increase in unemployment and, although other elements factor in, an unprecedented level of popular support for the Front National and its ideas. According to recent polls, 70 percent of the population thinks that “there are too many immigrants in France”; as the welfare-state safety net shrinks, its benefits should only be provided to those “entitled” to it, they say.

France used to have “problems” with immigration; now it has a “cultural crisis” with its inherent diversity. The stigmatizing rhetoric of the FN, at an all-time high, has permeated the entire political spectrum, and in the footsteps of former law-and-order President Nicolas Sarkozy, the current minister of the interior, Manuel Valls, demonizes the Roma (migrants from Romania) and fills his speech with nativist tropes and references to “those who do not want to assimilate.” Last month Christiane Taubira, the minister of justice, who happens to be a black woman, was the victim of gross racist depictions, an embarrassment for the entire nation.

More than ever, France needs a civil rights movement, rooted in the 1983 march. It is urgent—because of the fierce urgency of now.

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Sylvie Laurent is a French cultural historian and assistant professor of American studies at Sciences-Po in Paris. She is also a fellow at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. She specializes in African-American history and culture, race and class issues and representations of poverty.

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