Muslims in France feel the sting of discrimination


Be patient. This is just a phase. It will all blow over eventually. That’s what Abdel Basset Zitouni tells the young people who come seeking his advice on getting a job or starting a business.

But Zitouni’s counsel isn’t just in response to questions about finding work in a depressed economy.

Many of the people who knock on his office door are Muslims from the housing projects in this city west of Paris who have felt the sting of discrimination.

They tell of an unwelcoming professional world, with regular bank rejections for business loans, or months without a callback for an interview.

Zitouni, who presides over the nonprofit National Assn. for Young Entrepreneurs here, says it is common to hear of employers asking new hires to change their names to something more “French-sounding” and less Muslim, apparently to appease touchy customers.

Others climb the sparse stairway to Zitouni’s single-room office with fists still clenched, mulling over a snide look after handing in a resume.

Zitouni reassures, and listens to their troubles.

Still, the 49-year-old prefers not to focus on the negative. If clients complain of discrimination, Zitouni stops them short.

“Serious and honest work will always bear fruit at the end,” he tells them.

But not all of France’s roughly 6 million Muslims are in the mood to be patient.

Muslim organizations and some critics of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government have condemned a cocktail of events that have made this a particularly tense time for Muslims in France, with violence against them rising sharply in the last year.

Issues causing “concern and misunderstanding” among Muslims, according to the French Council of the Muslim Faith, include the proposed outlawing of the burka, a full-body covering that also hides the face.

The topic is highly controversial, sparking a fistfight during one public debate. Last week, the lower house of Parliament overwhelmingly approved a ban on face veils.

To the majority of Muslims, the burka is a foreign concept, not mentioned in the Koran, say Islamic leaders.

Yet most of the French “associate the burka with Islam,” said Marc Leyenberger, who led a 2009 study on racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia for the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, whose conclusions were published in May.

So “it doesn’t matter if most of us practice our religion in private or not,” said Faycal Douhane, a left-leaning activist and secular Muslim who promotes diversity in French politics. “People feel trapped because [politicians] project this false identity onto Muslims, and we then have to apologize for that.”

Proponents of a burka ban say they don’t want to stigmatize Islam; they say they want to stop the spread of radicalism harmful to the dignity of women.

“What we are doing is of course not against the Islamic community; it is for the Islamic community,” said Alain Jakubowicz, head of the French-based International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, which voted to support a ban on the full-body veil.

“Even if this phenomenon remains marginal, we don’t want it to spread,” he said. “It’s no secret that there is a strain of Islam that is radical, fundamentalist and proselytizing.... They want to impose their vision of society not just on Muslims, but on non-Muslims.”

Zitouni’s entrepreneurial agency, known by its French abbreviation, ANJE, offers help to underprivileged young people of all faiths, but it is the immigrant Muslim communities with extremely high unemployment rates that have the strongest need.

He does everything from finding niche market solutions aimed at the specific talents of clients to putting entrepreneurs in touch with potential investors.

ANJE, a nonprofit group with offices in several other French cities, is a recently restructured version of an association created in 2002 to stimulate job growth for those in need. It is funded by the French government and private organizations.

In these ghettoized suburbs, where “the threshold of frustration is already very high,” Zitouni says, he tries to be a calming force.

He works in the Val Fourre neighborhood, which has one of the largest concentrations of government-subsidized housing in the Paris region. Riots here attracted national attention in 1991.

“We know racism exists,” Zitouni said. But rather than dwell on that, he prefers to look for solutions.

Brahim Branki, 53, is one of those Zitouni helped. A secular Muslim who opened a popular seafood restaurant in Mantes-la-Jolie, he is worried about the current climate.

“Now they point their finger at a Muslim, the bearded one,” he said. “It’s like the Jew before.... It’s dangerous, because anything is possible once you start aiming at one group.”

Today he feels better hanging out with “his kind.”

But that’s a shame, he said. Branki has always been fascinated by the mix of cultures, and points to one of his recipes as an example: a French chocolate fondant cake made with orange blossom.

“You see, it’s better when you mix the two,” he said, laughing. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”

Lauter is a special correspondent.