Segolene Royal has been much criticised for warning that the French ‘banlieu’ will riot if Sarkozy, the interior minister who called banlieu inhabitants ‘racaille’ (‘scum’), is elected president. The banlieu is prone to riot anyway. Why?
Well, here are a few personal anecdotes. The stories are 15 years old, so are not directly relevant to Sarkozy, but they explain something of the racist background to France’s social problems.
One: One evening in Paris I was walking with an upper-middle class English friend whose mother is Malaysian. I’m an English Arab, but white-skinned and blue-eyed. Out of nowhere arrived two policemen. With no warning they grabbed my friend, threw him against a wall, then pushed a truncheon against his throat until he was choking and weeping. They took me round the corner and asked why I was walking with him.
Two: I had a French girlfriend of Algerian origin, also white and not noticeably Arab, who was being harassed by an insane neighbour. She was scared, so we went to the police station to inform them of the situation. The police were polite and concerned. They wrote everything down. But when they asked my girlfriend’s name, their tone changed radically. They scrumpled up the report sheet, told us no offence had been committed, and advised us to get out immediately.
That girlfriend remembered her old maths teacher ordering her to the back of the classroom with the rest of the Arabs and Africans because, as the teacher explained, “I’m employed by the French state to teach French children.”
Her father had escaped from the extreme poverty of his (French-occupied) Algerian childhood to France, where he spent a lifetime as a migrant labourer, suffering casual and brutal violence from foremen and police – and then inflicting some himself, in his impotence, on his own family. When they finally settled in an industrial town, he found work in a factory where he would train white teenagers to do his dangerous, lowest-of-the-low job, and then watch them promoted after a couple of months to brighter and better things.
In Paris I had an African friend who for a time lived in a slum building with other African families. One day a skinhead threw a teargas canister into the corridor where children were playing. The police weren’t interested. They clearly had more important things to do with their time. The same friend was stopped almost every day by police on his way to work, insulted, and ordered to show his papers.
These scorned and abused French citizens, the blacks and beurs who work in the worst jobs for the lowest pay, who live in the ‘rabbit cages’ of the urban wasteland, who constitute 70% of the prison population, who have the least representation, whose voices are not heard, are supposedly the omnipotent Islamic fiends who threaten to destroy French secularism, the whole French way of life, and whose clothing choices must therefore, for the sake of freedom, be sanctioned by the state. (To his credit, Sarkozy did not support the ban on hijab in schools. Update: he has since identified the niqab or face veil as a pressing danger to France, although only 367 French women wear it – that precise number was provided by French intelligence.)
The fact that the French were still using torture and prison camps for civilians in Algeria in the 60s, and that an ex-Vichy police chief (Maurice Papon) at the same time dealt with demonstrating pro-independence Algerians in Paris by tying their feet and throwing them into the Seine, suggests that France has got savage racial prejudice to blame, primarily, for its social problems. The bodies-in-the-Seine incident happened in October 1961. At least 200 civilians were murdered, a crime in which the French media collaborated by its silence and concealment.
It’s certainly the case that many young French Arabs and Africans are somewhat raggamuffin, but extreme alienation and marginalisation tends to do that to you. Besides, if white men in France have a couple of years off the rails they are not in danger of being shot by the police. When I was there, beurs and blacks were shot in the back every couple of months. This was considered normal. It certainly didn’t result in soul-searching by the white population.
It is the complex of racism and class oppression which has made the French innercities unbearable. The real ‘racaille’ are those who blame the victims.
Update August 2016: Now – after a serious of ISIS-linked atrocities and the continuing rise of the far right, things are becoming much, much worse. See the ‘burkini’ controversy. ‘Mainstream’ politicians and state officials describe the burkini as ‘a symbol of the groups attacking France’. This is a bit like saying beards should be banned because terrorists have beards, except this is directly targeted at Muslims (though, so I read, it isn’t only Muslim women who wear the burkini. Women with easily burnable skin use it too). Armed men forcibly undressing women, snarly whites cheering the while. I fear this is a sign of things to come. The West’s liberal age is over – the ‘left’ as likely as the right to indulge in racist sterotyping and conspiracy theories. We are heading into incredibly dangerous territory.