Fire in the underbelly

Written by Harsh Kapoor | Published on: December 1, 2005

The wider social canvas

a) The fading out of conventional social movement organisations from suburbs where new local actors don’t have a mass base: The decline in membership and influence of the Communist Party of France (Le PCF), which had a large social base among the labouring poor and in their areas of residence. The communist municipalities provided extensive support for low-income housing and social spending. The Communist party could have played a powerful role in the integration and assimilation of immigrants from North Africa, as it did before and after the second world war for Italian, Polish, Spanish and other European immigrants. The party connected local issues to the national level. The party initially took an ambivalent position on decolonisation in the 1960s and in the subsequent period its membership base of European workers lost jobs to the recruitment of North African workers (from Morocco among other places). It somehow never cultivated a base among North African migrant workers who had their own cultural associations.

The other major absentee from the suburban neighbourhoods has been the unions. The level of unionisation in France has been low compared to other countries in Europe. French unions have never managed to organise fragmented part-time low-pay low-skill informal sector workers.

The French children of (Arabic speaking) North African immigrants, like their parents, did not have much of a presence in the old social movement circles. In 1983, a march for equality and against racism was very successful, followed by a national campaign called SOS Racisme, which attracted media and political presence but couldn’t get rooted in the cités and suburbs. Beyond a certain point, anti-racism in France (as elsewhere) was caught in the double-edged game of pushing for diversity and therefore the logic of the ‘right to be different’. This can be very problematic at times when it ends up not taking a stand against obscurantist cultural practices in the name of ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’.

New actors from within these neighbourhoods: Two examples: i) The autonomous, secular and progressive ones and ii) the retrogressives, with growing state recognition.

i) The autonomous, secular and progressive: Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissive) – a women’s rights campaign (of largely third generation North African descent) against male domestic violence, forced marriages and honour crimes started with a bang and received huge media and public attention but has still not grown to become a force in the poor suburbs.

ii) The retrogressive and conservative: Rise of religio-political actors – Religious cults and denominations of all kinds (Muslim, Christian) are growing to fill the political vacuum in the absence of other actors among the North African migrant community in these neighbourhoods. Tablighi Jamaat-type operators alongside Christian Evangelical gospel cults compete on this territory. Ironic as it may seem in secular France, over the last 15 years the state has officially leaned hard to help craft interlocutors who are religious, notably from the so-called ‘Muslim community’. Just because a high proportion of post-war immigrants in France happen to be from North Africa, they are automatically and increasingly identified as being ‘Muslim’ and so, very naturally, it is the imams here who are seen as community representatives, even though nearly half of the North African immigrants are non-practising and non-mosque going.

There is a narrowing of any political possibility of action arising from these neighbourhoods, especially after the state cut subsidies to local non-profit associations. New national social movements like ATTAC or such anti-globalisation groups have next to no presence in the poor and working class areas. The far right National Front has been gaining in membership sections of the old working class (former supporters of the Communist party) and the unemployed (of non-North African descent).

b) Memory, ‘culture’ and history to reshape identity: It is important to note that more than four decades after decolonisation there is still a deafening silence by the political elites in France about the war in Algeria. Its wounds have been left unattended for society to deal with.

In the post-colonial period, disparate groups have recently invoked this past history with competing conceptions of it before differing political audiences. Here, notions of the past and the future collide, which are at the heart of moves to focus on identity, origins, immigration, tradition, culture, to undermine secular social space in France. Some examples:

Ø There is a sophisticated stream of the far right which is very active in supporting the ideas of ethnic diversity and the language of "difference" in the cause of ethnic separation. In France, the Groupement de Recherche et d'étude pour la Civilisation Européenne (GRECE), with ties to neo-fascist groups, has been portraying cultural identities as fixed and irreconcilable so as to push institutionalised multiculturalism. Leading light of GRECE, Alain de Benoist says that "racism is nothing but the denial of difference".

Ø The French Parliament passed a law in February 2005 (much to the horror of historians) which now implores the national education system to teach the positive role of colonisation. This panders to the ideological platform of the conservative right.

Ø A small group of French citizens (immigrants of sub-Saharan, North African descent supported by progressives and third world-ists) claiming to be colonised ‘natives’, indigènes de la République, in a pamphlet popularised via the Internet, invokes and juxtaposes the imagery of discriminatory treatment meted out to their grandparents, who were colonial subjects, to their own current situation. There is political manufacture here, of being eternal victims, invoking colour, race and ethnicity. This is dangerous fuel to fan the flames of sealed identities and of communalism.

Ø Signs of reverse anti-white racism are on the rise. A section among the second generation of immigrants of sub-Saharan and black descent – involved in a kind of historical stocktaking of the French role in slave trade and colonisation – provides the other rationale for the current discrimination or exclusion they are subject to. (Among the most recent pointers are: an attack on a Paris student demonstration by young black kids – against the ‘whites’ and the success of the anti-Semitic talk of the humorist, Dieudonné.)

Ø The move by the French state to introduce the right to enforce ‘curfew’ in recent violence affected areas under the old French state of emergency law from 1955 (last used during the war in Algeria) has unequivocally sent out loaded metaphorical signals about the association between the old war and the recent riot. This will undoubtedly become another controversial issue in the colonialism/post-colonialism debate.

In the coming year or so, with the build-up to the 2007 presidential election, the themes of immigration/migrants/Local vs Foreign will become hot topics for debate. There is a growing move to reconstruct, to ‘protect’ and fence off national space in ‘peril’ against the backdrop of globalisation, economic crisis, flight of capital and unemployment. The resident migrant ‘other’ located inside the nation (old ones from China, Vietnam, North Africa and recent ones from sub-Saharan Africa etc.) and the non-resident international ‘other’ (e.g. the threat from China’s economy) located outside the nation get the spotlight as, increasingly, hyper-nationalism becomes the main directing thread.