As a Canadian who returned last year after three-and-a-half years in Paris, I can attest to the fact that you can't walk about Paris for more than an hour or so without seeing French police stopping young men "of colour" and asking for their papers. The three young men who tried to avoid this arbitrary police "attention" while rushing home from a soccer game for an end of the day Ramadan meal with their families in November 2005 and were electrocuted in a transformer station are but one glaring example of how many immigrants are not welcomed by French society. The subsequent riots that saw thousands of cars burnt all across France were testimony to the frustration felt by young immigrants who face this daily discrimination. Pierre gets a job interview while Mohammed doesn't, even though they may have exactly the same academic credentials and grades and come from similar middle-class families.
At the same time, many French citizens at Paris City Hall for the Olympic torch ceremony on April 7, 2008, expressed their indignation to me at the violation of civil rights of the many carrying Tibetan flags who were denied entry to the plaza by French police, while people waving huge Chinese flags were allowed to take positions front and center. France, they said, is after all the originator of the concept of universal rights.
Paris is a big, dirty city of 11 million people, with some of the worst social problems in the world. But it is also a centre of fascinating diversity and enormous richness, not only in its museums and galleries but also on the street, where you can "taste" the fruits of the entire world in a few blocks.
These contradictions rarely get adequate attention in the mainstream press or in tourist literature, with the result that the stereotypes fostered in the public, as well as in "intellectual" and political circles, run rampant. They undermine and threaten to destroy the cultural (as well as bio-) diversity that we will need to survive the coming climate and economic crises generated by our mad, globalized, industrial overconsumption.