By Sasha Mitchell
As I left the office on Friday evening shortly after 6:30 pm, I turned right onto the Rue de Charonne and headed toward the underground. It was the end of a grueling week and I looked forward to spending a couple of days in the Centre of France, a remote and rural area dubbed “la diagonale du vide” (or ‘the diagonal of emptiness’) by the locals, three hours south of Paris.
As the train rattled along the track out of Austerlitz station, I delved into the intricacies of the cover story I had been asked to produce for the following issue of Politis, a left-of-center weekly current affairs magazine. Writing about anti-racism is a tricky task and as a white middle-class male, I didn’t feel that I had the legitimacy to do so. The French anti-racist movement is highly divided and paradoxically “racialized:” the four main anti-racist organizations often criticized for being “too white” by activists who claim — and rightly so — that the battle against racism cannot be fought and ultimately won without the support of those directly affected by it.
A few minutes before my train was due to stop in the charming town of Saint-Amand-Montrond, my final destination, I took my phone out of my coat and the words that showed up on the screen made me shudder: “Shootout underway in central Paris.” Although not as frequent as in the U.S., shootouts occur from time to time in France and are usually related to drug trafficking. But they scarcely take place in the centre of major cities, and hardly ever in Paris. Something was going on. Something terrible.
I immediately thought of the horrendous attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher supermarket that had claimed the lives of 17 journalists, policemen, and ordinary Parisians 10 months earlier. But this couldn’t be another attack, could it? Not after the French Parliament had voted to strengthen anti-terrorism legislation, increased online surveillance, and President François Hollande had decided to start bombing Islamic State training camps in Syria back in September, in what many hailed a bold move to defeat the jihadist group.
Sadly, as events unfolded live on television throughout the night before the eyes of millions of French citizens, it became clear that the efforts to curtail the rise of jihadist extremism on French soil hadn’t paid off — in fact, far from it. Compared to January, eight times as many people lost their lives on Nov. 13, and Paris resembled a war zone. “France is at war,” François Hollande subsequently declared before Congress on Monday, Nov. 15. Later in his speech, he pledged to strip terrorists of their French citizenship and urged lawmakers to approve a three-month extension of the state of emergency. All the French President could do was propose more safety laws. More of the same.
Once again, partly because of the threat posed by an increasingly popular far-right Front National, but also because he lacks the political courage, François Hollande turned a blind eye to the deeper causes of these attacks. Both the January attacks and those that took place last week were carried out by French citizens of North African descent — five of the seven perpetrators identified so far were French nationals. We can keep on saying that “our” values — Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité — are under attack and that the problem stems from the situation in the Middle East, but there is obviously something wrong with the way French society functions. These petty criminals turned suicide bombers were born in France, went to school in France, and worked in France. Like so many other young people from disadvantaged social backgrounds and of (North) African descent, they were also probably discriminated against throughout their lives.
Of course, this is no excuse. But over 50 years after the end of the Algerian war of Independence and the subsequent intake of North African immigrants, France must question the way it treats its minorities. According to a recent study conducted by the Institut Montaigne, Muslim job seekers are still four times less likely to get an interview than their Christian fellow citizens. Less than three weeks ago, thousands of Parisians took to the streets to say “No to police brutality” against ethnic minority citizens, 10 years after two teenagers died while escaping the police — it turned out they had done nothing wrong and were probably scared of the treatment they were likely to endure from the officers. Since the January attacks, Islamophobic behaviors have also gone up by 70 percent and a series of assaults on “Muslim looking” passers-by have already been reported since Friday.
A sociologist I spoke to the day after the attacks for the story on anti-racism feared that the recent attacks would only make things worse and reinforce the stigma. Unless France decides to address structural racism and Islamophobia, young French Muslims will never feel completely at home and share France’s values. Subsequently, disadvantaged areas in the suburbs of major French cities will remain an ideal breeding ground for extremists.
Sasha Mitchell is a former editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo by Sasha Mitchell]