brief notes on racism in france

Brief notes on French racism

 by Sam Fanto, followed by some additional comments by Kyokai

France is undoubtedly a thoroughly racist society. In some ways, more thoroughly entrenched than in the UK (where I originally come from). I remember being shocked by a story back in the late 1980s of a small town in the Gard (Languedoc-Roussillon) which was having a weekend festival in the summer. Some Arabs, including kids, were walking around. A white French guy went to his car, took out a baseball bat and started taking swipes at them. The cops came, didn’t arrest or harass the guy with the baseball bat but expelled the Arabs from the town and set up roadblocks to prevent any other Arabs coming in to participate in the festival. I know this because I was staying with friends in the area; the events were  not reported anywhere. In the UK such a blatant public form of state-protected racism would have, at the very least, created a massive scandal.

And we must remember that in October 1961, about 200 Algerians were killed in Paris under the orders of Maurice Papon, chief of police for Paris, who’d been a collaborator with the Nazis. Nothing appeared in the media at that time. The French state only acknowledges 40 killed (and it took it 37 years to admit to it). Though this mass murder is constantly referred to as one of the expressions of French anti-Arab racism, many of the same people who (rightly) refer to it, omit the fact that Papon had been directly responsible also for sending hundreds of Jews to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps in the war, when he was secretary general for police in Bordeaux. It’s a banality that racism – of Jews towards Arabs or of Arabs towards Jews, for example – invariably represses consciousness of what people have in common across the fake “race” boundary. Today we’re a very very  long way off from the time when Arabs shouted out on demos in Paris in 1968 “We are all German Jews!” (in solidarity with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who was being expelled from the country, at the same time as being denounced in anti-semitic terms by the French Communist Party). Anti-semitism is also very strong in France, and extends from the far-right to the far-left, but few people come out with crazy things such as “What Hitler did to the Jews was done on purpose so that the world would sympathize with them and give them all the rights… What Hitler did to the Jews was wanted and planned for a specific purpose… They sacrificed some Jews so as to have everything they have today, Hitler took part in the colonization of Palestine, he was part of the plan….The relation of Hitler with the Rothchild family, this satanic Jewish family that owns all the land of Palestine and which is one of the most powerful families in the world” – as 2 members of the Montpellier branch of the committee for boycotting, disinvesting and imposing sanctions on Israel did earlier this year (one is the president for the association of Palestinians for the whole of the Languedoc-Roussillon region) (see here in French). Which I quote mainly to show how insane the dialectic of anti-semitism and anti-Arabism is becoming in France (though certainly not just here). In this atmosphere, attacks on synagogues are almost as high as attacks on mosques – not the kind of “critiques” of religion I recommend.

When I first went to Lunel, a 20 minute drive from where I now live, back in 2001 before I moved here, I went to a cafe and sat down next to a sweet oldish woman I’d never met before and within 2 minutes she was spouting the cliché “I’m not racist but…” and then mouthed off a string of complaints about the Arab youths in the town. Clearly she took it for granted that I’d agree with her. Lunel is now known as the town, proportionately, with the most amount of Arab jihadists in the country (see here). 

There’s clearly a symbiotic relation between anti-Arab racism and Islamic fundamentalism, both reinforcing each other. The transformation of racism from biological racism (that race is genetic and such genetic differences justify racial hierarchies) to cultural racism (put simply – that race is cultural and such differences justify a cultural hierarchy) expresses the change from hatred of Arabs to hatred of Muslims. But at the same time, unlike the previous period of the anti-Arab ideological mentality linked to the loss of France’s empire**, today the cultural element increasingly develops on the back of the retreat from class struggle and as a false reaction to the intensified individualism which has resulted from this retreat. This false reaction intensifies identification with phoney hierarchical communities (e.g. modern secular “France” v. the apparent archaisms of Islam; “citizenship” ideology v. theology). The success of the various competing spectacles of “community” in an increasingly insecure world resides in convincing people that there’s more security in taking sides against one or the other “community” than in identifying with what appears to be a far more fragile community – the anti-hierarchical community of struggle. In succumbing to the manipulation making them believe that their self-interest is tied in with the various hierarchical “communities” that promise “security”, proletarians contribute to the intensification of their own insecurity in the face of the intensification of capital’s attacks on even the ability to survive. The millions who demonstrated behind the various heads of state following the Charlie Hebdo killings is indicative of these contradictions: it can only have encouraged an equally crazy taking of sides amongst various Muslims. 

In this context, Islamophobia and silence about the misery of Islam have a mutually reinforcing relation. Whatever a revolutionary movement does not critique and attack, the forces of this society express in miserable ideological and hierarchical form. Disgust with Islamophobia is taken up by the Muslim hierarchies and disgust with Islamic forms of identity is taken up by the Front National (or, for that matter, atheist scientists whose applied research is equally destructive, though obviously in a very different way from the overtly political forms of ideology). If a radical movement can’t attack the miserable intensification of the hierarchical mentality and comportment embodied in Islam (as in Judaism or in Catholicism or “secularism”, for instance), such disgust will be taken up by political demagogues (and, very clearly already is).  Which is why applying the ideas expressed in this Letter on the attacks, the question of the estates and of religion… is a vital and essential contribution to the development of the subversion of the increasingly horrendous dominant social relations here. 

**The brutality of  French colonialism is exemplified by things such as the mass murder in 1945 of Algerians in Setif (and elsewhere), carried out by the alliance of the Communist Party and General de Gaulle. Probably 20,000 were killed. Probably a million Algerians were killed in the whole of the Algerian war. This was not the only mass murder: eg Madagascar in 1947,  or even the killings within French territory outside the mainland (Guadeloupe 1967 or  New Caledonia in 1987).

Kyokai has added these comments to what I’ve written above:

As for racism in France, I tend to think that expressing racist views openly hasn’t been that widespread : as the population is largely mixed, racists usually express themselves when they have the feeling that those they talk to will agree (presuming that they’re French). In public crowds, expressing racist views is more unusual, and those who do face the risk of being thumped…which is a good thing (it is not that risky in Spain or Italy, for example). We have to have in mind that French racists are usually pretty fearful of poor adolescents and young men and women from the estates.

At the same time, this is starting to change with all the decomposition and confusion we now have to face…it is even more and more common to hear racist comments towards migrants or even towards Arabs coming from Arabs, or hearing about blacks or even Arabs voting for the National Front (there are lots of articles in the French press about this). And in the places where there are a few immigrants (especially in departments where the big cities have a very mixed population, such as Marseille or Nice), racist views are now widespread, even dominant sometimes (in the south, in the departments of Herault, Gard, Bouches du Rhone or Alpes Maritimes, the National Front has the highest scores).

Links to other parts of this text:

Introduction 

1st letter: Open letter to the libertarian site  “Beneath the Ashes”

2nd letter: Letter on the attacks, the question of the estates and of religion, addressed to some English-speaking friends

What is the Islamic State?

4 Responses to brief notes on racism in france
  1. Cautiously Pessimistic says:

    By the way, you may well count this as irrelevant leftist squabbling (and you may well be right to do so), but I think it’s probably indicative of something: the other month, there was a minor fuss when Maryam Namazie, the Iranian-born secularist, who I think is a member of the Worker-Communist Party of Iran, was due to speak at Goldsmiths and had her talk disrupted by members of the Goldsmiths Islamic Society. In the immediate aftermath, the uni feminist and LGBTQ societies both declared their solidarity with the Islamic Society (in a minor footnote, the Islamic Society president has since had to resign after being caught spouting off about “fag lovers” and the disease of homosexuality – I’ve not seen any sign that this has caused the LGBT society to change their stance at all). Following on from that, student lefty group the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts voted to issue a statement in solidarity with Namazie and condemning the disruption – so far so banal, but it’s been fascinating to see how quick student activist types have been to attack them for “racism” for choosing to side with a leftist atheist from an Islamic background over Islamic reactionaries. Some of the more generous ones have conceded that it’d be OK for her to criticise Islam if she was still in Iran, but it’s strictly off-limits now that she’s here. Of course, all this is just a storm in a teacup, and/or another reminder of why one should avoid lefty students as much as possible, but it does seem remarkable how these people have arrived at a position where Namazie, solely because of her secularism, is “the oppressor”, and the Muslim men trying to stop her from speaking are striking a righteous blow against racism and imperialism… anyway, I thought you might potentially be interested in it as a sign of the times, as it were.

  2. Cautiously Pessimistic says:

    Also, perhaps less directly relevant to this article but seems the sort of thing you’d be interested in in general, have you seen anything about the latest mass road blockade/attempts to storm Eurotunnel at Calais? The only write-ups I’ve seen have been in things like Russia Today (https://www.rt.com/news/327142-calais-refugees-christmas-eurotunnel/) and the Daily Mail (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3374705/Hundreds-migrants-attempt-storm-Eurotunnel-Christmas-Day-amazing-video-captures-gangs-people-marauding-streets-Calais-pushing-prams.html) – you can take your pick as to which source is less reliable. There’s bits and pieces about it on the Calais Solidarity twitter, e.g. https://twitter.com/calaisolidarity/status/680499836572024832, but they don’t seem to have done a full report.

    • I’d normally put this type of report about Calais in the News of opposition – but for some time things have been going on in Calais every day, so it seems as pointless to mention everything as it would be to mention the daily things going on in Palestine and the occupied territories. Or Bahrein (pretty relentless for the last 4 or 5 years, even if they’ve been dominated by oppositional political perspectives). There comes a point when – unless I or other people have something more interesting (by way of facts &/or analysis) to say – it seems kind of pointless to say that yet again there’s been conflict with the state and/or those who identify with it (of which there are loads in Calais).

      It seems worth saying that many – probably the vast majority – of those who oppose the influx of migrants into France (or elsewhere in Europe) don’t consider themselves as racist (of course, it’s not what people think of themselves that counts, but the social relations that they maintain or subvert). Often they pity the people who are fleeing war-dominated areas and even might declare their opposition to the French state’s involvement in these wars, but then object to how “their” culture is being polluted by this influx, and invariably make a distinction between economic migrants and refugees from war-torn areas; though often this is a hypocritical mixture of pity and rejection – “it’s terrible what they’re suffering but this country can’t afford such a massive increase in the population at a time of high unemployment and austerity”. Obviously this involves usually forgetting their own origins, as sons and daughters or grandsons and granddaughters, great grandsons etc. etc. of economic migrants (which, if we go back far enough, we all are). And obviously the ruling class play on such divisions, which anyway come from accepting the ruler’s economic logic. So migrants are both encouraged by the state and rejected by the state – encouraged in order to divide the working class and to create a large pool of cheap labour, treated like shit in order to preserve the hierarchy amongst proletarians that give France’s working class the illusion that they’re superior to the utterly impoverished and culturally retrograde migrants, whose crappy treatment they either support or wish to make worse – eg by kicking them out of the country. A slightly higher position on the hierarchical ladder that French workers wish to preserve even though the rulers’ economy invariably intensifies their precarious hold on this position. Such separations are also maintained by such simple things like language barriers, though this is usually an excuse as they don’t have the same attitude towards migrants from Western European countries who have not mastered the French language, and not just because of their economic status (for instance, I know a 72 year-old English guy who speaks virtually no French, who has no regular income, not even social security benefits, and who lives in a tent, who is helped quite a lot by the local French – and Arab – people). Undoubtedly some of the attitudes towards the French amongst some migrants themselves contributes to such divisions (as they do between the migrants themselves – there have often been heavy conflicts between migrants of different ethnic origin, but then what can you expect when you treat humans like rats in a cage – the same kind of thing sometimes went on in concentration camps as well) .

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