As France prepares for a new chapter in its political and social history, Helene Irving from the At Home in Europe project spoke to people in France working on issues of social inclusion about the significance of what has passed to date and what the future may hold.
Karim Miské is a documentary filmmaker based in Paris. He is the director of the three-part documentary series Muslims of France and the author of a multicultural crime thriller, Arab Jazz.
Marwan Muhammad is the spokesperson for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France, CCIF).
Paul Max Morin is the executive director of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM).
Samia Chabani is the founder and director of Ancrages, a documentary resource center and association based in Marseille, working on issues of migration in the Provence-Alpes Côtes d’Azur region.
Mohamed Bensaada runs the association Quartiers Nords, Quartiers Forts, which works in the northern neighborhoods of Marseille.
What role do you believe xenophobia, the fear of foreigners or outsiders, has played in the French presidential election campaign so far?
Karim: Xenophobia has allowed us to talk about things other than the real problems of the country; the economic and social problems, the same as elsewhere in Europe and for which nobody truly has the solution.
Marwan: The campaign for the presidential election has been mostly focused on immigration and xenophobic issues. The Front National has been asking questions and the other parties have just had to answer the questions in a different manner, but they have all been following the Front National’s political agenda. So, of course it gives them a future advantage which explains the results of the first round of the elections. But there is no unemployment problem anymore, there is no housing problem, there is no social problem in the country because everyone’s attention is focused on phenomena such as the halal meat business, the presence of immigrants in the country and the place of Muslims and Islam in France nowadays. So that gives you the tone of these last weeks of the presidential campaign.
Samia: In all periods of crisis, the theme of immigration is used for electoral gain; the issue being to crystallize fears around the “foreigner.” For five years, part of the “classic” right has fallen in step with the Front National in this discourse.
Mohamed: The electoral score of the Front National is an answer to this question in itself. I do not agree with those who think that the Front National vote is a "normal" vote; it's a racist vote, and people who make that choice know exactly why they did it according to me, and I’m not afraid to say it; around 18% of the population made a negative vote against Muslims.
The Front National, a nationalist/far right political party founded in 1972, claimed almost 20% of the vote in the first round of voting. In your opinion, what is really behind the Front National results?
Karim: Behind these results, are a number of factors which could all be summed up by fear; fear of losing one’s social status, one’s job; fear of the insecurity that is presented to us on the television, fear of the “other”. More profoundly, I think that globalization means the loss of a superiority which has been taken as a given by white Europe. Unless you can alter the external conditions, people will have a go at these “foreigners” who are amongst us and who are dismissed to this form of radical otherness symbolized by Islam—even if they are French by three generations.
Paul: The Front National vote is very difficult to decipher as it is very diverse. Broadly speaking, it can be explained in the following way: Firstly, a disenchantment with parliamentary government, traditional political parties and an exasperation with the incompetence of governments to respond to the needs of French citizens.
There’s also neglect of the peripheral territories, in particular the outer urban and rural areas where the Front National vote has really progressed. The loss of public services, boredom; the imaginary vision of an invaded France and the fear of being downgraded are all issues. Moreover, contrary to previous times, the Front National vote is moving back into the cities where the fabrics of socialization are the thickest.
We need to consider the crisis vote—anti-globalization, anti-European—the turn to a closing of borders in the belief that alone and isolated we will be stronger.
Mohamed: The explanations are multiple, but xenophobia and particularly Islamophobia and its political instrumentalization is the major cause.
Thinking about the halal meat debate, which Nicolas Sarkozy claimed was the “issue that most occupied the French,” what in your opinion is the real priority for French citizens now and in the coming year?
Karim: The main concerns are social: employment, wages … There is also a real worry on the question of debt, of balancing the accounts. Nobody wants to see the banking system collapse. But it is important to know that the debate around halal plays on these profound feelings, these underlying worries. If not, it wouldn’t have happened. It encompasses a general anxiety about French identity, and in my opinion, a fear of having an identity weaker than that of Muslims. Consequently, there is a fear of being submerged.
Marwan: We are in a very difficult situation, and the same is true for other Western European countries but, we have big crisis and this crisis is not just an economic one. It’s also a social one … there’s the problem of social distance in big cities where people live more and more closer to each other physically but mentally and socially they are worlds apart, and they don’t talk to each other, there is a great distance which widens every day.
Paul: The first issue is still purchasing power, growth, and safeguarding social welfare. But in a sort of blind logic it served certain presidential hopefuls well to make believe that the French population think that halal meat is the first priority, and this led to a legitimization of racist speech.
Samia: It is obvious that the subject of “halal” meat is a diversion much like the debate on national identity. The subjects which most concern French people are employment and purchasing power, and to a lesser extent the tax system.
What does the future hold for France; is there still a place for liberté, egalité, fraternité?
Marwan: Unfortunately, this “device” as we call it in France, is now only a slogan on the front of the city hall. It is nowhere to be seen in the society. Freedom is limited for a lot of people and when it comes to the Muslim, these elementary freedoms are not respected. This equality is not true anymore because it depends on whether you live in the center in Paris, or in the suburbs; you will have a completely different life experience of what opportunities there may be. And Fraternity—if we are brothers we should not be treating each other like that, and the politicians today are more about divide and conquer than they are about uniting people together. So if we look at the situation as it is today we have reasons to be very pessimistic.
Paul: Of course, “la liberté, l'égalité et la fraternité” are just a question of will. These values must become once more our ruling ideology.
Samia: The future of France will fluctuate with the economic crisis; if there is an upturn, "liberté, égalité, fraternité" will find a second youth. Multicultural France is a fact; its children are from different migrations. The success of national cohesion will depend on how this is considered by future governments.
At Home in Europe, an Open Society Foundations project, examines the position of minorities and marginalized groups in a changing Europe. Currently the project is studying Muslim inclusion in 11 cities across Europe. A report on Muslims in Paris will be launched this summer.