Passport

A U.S. engagement success story on the outskirts of Paris

The United States doesn't always do the best job of promoting itself abroad. Lots of people in lots of different places like to burn American flags and chant anti-U.S. slogans. It's stock footage at this point.

But yesterday the New York Times highlighted an encouraging U.S. cultural diplomacy effort in a pretty unexpected area: French banlieues. 

Obviously the U.S. image is a bit worse in other parts of the world, so why do outreach in France instead of FATA? For one, terrorist plots are increasingly being launched by disaffected Muslim youth in western countries who have been shunned by their new societies. Demonstrating that they can actually have a future in the west is thus both good on a social and security level. And if there were any western country in which to combat the ill-effects of racism and bigotry, it's France, which has totally abrogated any responsibility of caring for its growing immigrant population.

President Barack Obama's election certainly played a role in silencing the once ubiquitous anti-American voices in the banlieues (hey, look! It still means something!), but just as important has been the substantial engagement attempts on the part of the U.S. Mission to France:

The United States Embassy in Paris has formed a network of partnerships with local governments, advocacy groups, entrepreneurs, students and cultural leaders in the troubled immigrant enclaves outside France’s major cities...

Residents “have the sense that the United States looks upon our areas with much more deference and respect,” said Mr. Roger, the Bondy mayor.

The embassy also runs an International Visitor Leadership Program that brings 20-30 up-and-coming French entrepreneurs and politicians to the United States each year, and at least one participant raved about the program:

A Moroccan-born Muslim, Mr. Senni traveled to the United States in 2006 as a participant in the visitor program. He was effusive in his praise for the outreach and the optimism it has spread. “Never has France had this type of approach,” he said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has a history of dealing with Parisian suburbs, and it's not particularly flattering. During the 2005 banlieues riots, then-Interior Minister Sarkozy infamously called the rioters "scum" and that they should be "hosed down." Surprisingly, his comments only made the rioters angrier.

Nowadays when Sarkozy ventures out to the suburbs he's accompanied by a major police presence and spends his time focusing on law enforcement issues, and not on the myriad social and economic complaints of the locals. He said in 2007 that the riots were the result of "thugocracy," which sounds like a brilliant future title of a 50 Cent album, and not social issues.

The embassy also brought Samuel L. Jackson to the banlieues to connect with local youths, and I believe he told them that, "I've had it with this mother-******* unemployment in these mother-******* banlieues." Seriously.

The U.S. is freaking out over qurans, shariah law, and Manhattan community centers, but at least some of our diplomats get the importance of engaging on a human level. The U.S. Ambassador to France, Charles H. Rivkin, sums it up: "It’s easier to hate something you don’t understand."

JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

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