Just two months ago, the French watched in horrified fascination at the anarchy of New Orleans, where members of America's underclass were...

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PARIS — Just two months ago, the French watched in horrified fascination at the anarchy of New Orleans, where members of America’s underclass were seen looting stores and defying the police after Hurricane Katrina.

Last week, as rioters torched cars and trashed businesses in the immigrant-concentrated suburbs of Paris, the images of wild gangs of young men silhouetted against the yellow flames of burning cars came as an unwelcome reminder for France that it has its own growing underclass.

The coincidence of timing can be revealing — and deceptive.

The corrosive gap between America’s whites and its racial minorities, especially African Americans, is the product of centuries: slavery, followed by cycles of poverty and racial exclusion that denied generation after generation the best that the United States could offer. France, on the other hand, is only beginning to struggle with a much newer variant of the same problem: the fury of Muslims of North African descent who have found themselves caught for three generations in a trap of ethnic and religious discrimination.

Even so, France is still low on the curve toward developing an entrenched, structural underclass — one that could breed extremism and lasting social problems.

So far, while hundreds of cars and buses have been burned and dozens of businesses destroyed in violence that has spread to a dozen towns, most rioters appear to be teenage boys bent more on making the news than making a coherent political statement.

“It’s a game of cowboys and Indians,” said Olivier Roy, a French scholar of European Islam. He is usually keen to warn Europeans of the potential danger posed by Islamists living among them. But in this case, he said, the danger is a long-range one. So far, he said, the attacks on the police and the torching of cars have less the character of a religious war than of “a local sport, a rite of passage.”

The violence, on the other hand, reflects something that any American who lived through the urban upheavals of the 1960s, or the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, might recognize: a dangerous degree of isolation felt by a growing segment of its population, especially its young.

Although many Americans think their country still has a lot of work to do to close the gap between blacks and whites, the social protests and urban upheavals of the 1960s produced a stream of measures intended to increase political and economic opportunities rapidly for members of minority groups, and to stress the value of diversity to a democracy.

By contrast, the French model has so far relied largely on expensive measures to keep poor Muslims fed, housed and educated. But it has not effectively addressed the social or political isolation they feel from job and housing discrimination, and has actually limited their ability to define themselves as a political interest group. Affirmative action, a cornerstone of the American approach, has been taboo here.

Manuel Valls, a member of Parliament and mayor of Evry, a troubled suburb south of Paris that has seen its share of violence in the past few days, put it this way: “We’ve combined the failure of our integration model with the worst effects of ghettoization, without a social ladder for people to climb.”

“In the U.S. and Britain, the communities help create opportunities for advancement,” he continued. But in France “the state and the politicians have left the playing field open for a political-religious response — that’s undeniable.”

Still, because France’s difficulties are relatively recent, it may have a chance to escape the depth of the American problems.

For one thing, the physical conditions in these neighborhoods have not begun to rival those in poor urban areas in the United States. Even in the worst government housing developments, green lawns and neat flower beds break the monotony of the gray concrete.

There are more than 700 such neighborhoods in the country, housing nearly 5 million people or about 8 percent of the population.

The despair in these housing projects (called cités here) has been mitigated by better schools than those that serve poor, minority districts in the United States (education is financed nationally in France, rather than through local taxes) and by extensive welfare programs. Even when employed, a family of four living in a government-subsidized apartment typically pays only a few hundred dollars a month in rent and can receive more than $1,200 a month in various subsidies. The unemployed receive more.

For all, health care and education are free.

There is crime, but not nearly at the level of random violence feared in poor neighborhoods in American cities. Guns are tightly controlled and are still relatively rare. When a teenager was killed in a drive-by shooting in a Paris suburb this year, it made national headlines. The family unit among immigrants is still strong, as are ties to their homelands.

But that tight social fabric is fraying as the second and now third generations of French-born immigrants come of age.

On two levels, many young immigrants find themselves questioning where they really belong. They have weaker ties than their parents did to their ancestral countries, but they are also discovering that, contrary to what they have been taught in school, they are not fully French.

That is one foundation of the fear among some experts that a structural underclass is emerging. Already, French Arabs and French Africans make up the majority of inmates in France’s prisons, just as minorities make up a vastly disproportionate part of the American prison population.

France’s definition of citizenship also presents problems. While the United States stresses pluralism, France continues to discourage anything that could carve up the French body politic along ethnic lines; the word communautarisme, which roughly translates as ghettoization, is known to all French as a destructive force that afflicts, most notably, the United States.

It was only in 2003 that the French government encouraged the formation of an umbrella Islamic organization that could represent French Muslims in a dialogue with the state. The overall policy has only increased Muslim resentments by banning any form of affirmative action and by suppressing cultural expression in measures such as forbidding Muslim girls to wear veils in school.

As in the United States, most experts agree that in the long run, full employment would be the best way to solve the problems and accelerate integration. Here, the comparison between the history of American minority groups and those in France seems particularly close.

The jobless rate among French Arabs and French Africans is as high as 30 percent in some neighborhoods, triple the national average. French Arabs regularly claim that when identical résumés are submitted to an employer with an Arab name on one and a French name on another, the résumé with the French name will get the priority.

That much, at least, may be changing. In March, President Jacques Chirac appointed the chairman of the automaker Renault, Louis Schweitzer, to head a council created to fight job and housing discrimination. The country is also engaged in a debate over whether to bend its laws to allow affirmative action in the job market.

“The picture of France as a country that doesn’t want to recognize diversity — that’s partially true,” said Patrick Weil, an expert on immigration and integration based in Paris for the German Marshall Fund. “But there’s a debate now about what steps should be taken to change that.”