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French Students Mixed on Racial Unrest

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The Paris suburb of Trappes is one of the hundreds of communities that has seen rioting. Awaz Dehkani(ph) teaches high school there. She's been asking her students what they think about the violence. Most of her students are of Muslim and African origin, as are the young people involved in the unrest.

Ms. AWAZ DEHKANI (High School Teacher): Most of them preach the reasonable thing, like they shouldn't do it. And the ones who are prejudiced are us, `because we cannot use the buses, we cannot--I mean, they should do that you in the rich districts if they want something very effective.' But at the same time, they really understand why. They feel--the anger is there.

BLOCK: Help us understand what's underlying at least some of this anger. How much of it is directly related to unemployment, purely economic conditions, in these immigrant communities in the suburbs?

Ms. DEHKANI: Well, first--and that is very present when I talk to the kids at school--is that they feel that you play the game, you go to school, you do everything that, you know, the society and everybody wants you to do, and in the end, even with many degrees or many--they don't want you. We have no real laws to protect people from discrimination like you do have in the States. In France, they would feel--and it's a lot of the time very true--you just don't have a chance because nobody will--except you have a bus that is black or Arabic.

BLOCK: Do you have students who talk to you about thinking about leaving school and what might be there for them when they get out, what their economic future would be?

Ms. DEHKANI: They're very worried. What they told me is that they want to move to the States. They say, `Miss, we're going to just move to the States,' you know, joking with the American Dream and everything. But I think it's pretty true that they feel that they will have more chances everywhere else but here. So some of them say they just want to make something quick, quick studies, like two years, to work very soon, and very few want to achieve, you know, goals like being a doctor. And they see their big brothers and sisters, and I think that's part of what worries them because right now it's really hard for employment.

BLOCK: I wonder if there's not a very real risk of a backlash. There has been a very potent anti-immigrant strain in France.

Ms. DEHKANI: Yes. Yes.

BLOCK: Wouldn't riots like this simply fuel that strain, make people who wouldn't ordinarily...

Ms. DEHKANI: And it will.

BLOCK: ...tend in that direction...

Ms. DEHKANI: Of course, it will. And the image right now, even just, you know, the media when they go to interview young people--well, of course, you will hear accents and sometimes it's not well formulated. And all of this is playing against them, because once again, even more in France, it's so important to talk well. When they speak, it's just the country that they show. But they told me, `Maybe it's better if at least they're scared of us. You know, in their everyday life, everything is going on perfectly fine, and so nobody has any reason to change that.' So they feel that maybe it's necessary in that sense that to be heard, they need to scare people maybe.

BLOCK: Ms. Dehkani, thanks very much for talking with us.

Ms. DEHKANI: You're welcome.

BLOCK: Awaz Dehkani teaches English at a high school in the Paris suburb of Trappes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.