La France: Love it or leave it

25 September 2006
Only in en
Since the 2005 rejection of the EU constitution, the riots in the banlieue, and the anti-CPE demonstrations, France has been seeing a populist backlash often tolerated, if not supported, by the media. Although there has been self-criticism by some journalists, the language of security remains too deep-seated to allow a thorough enquiry; close links between media and politics also compromise full media independence. Recently, however, there have been signs of growing awareness of the scale of racial discrimination in France and the media's role in encouraging diversity.

Seen against the background of the identity crisis resulting from globalisation, the
55 per cent French majority “No” vote in the European Constitution referendum
on 29 May 2005 demonstrated yet again the size of the gulf separating the ruling
elite and France’s “lower orders”. The mass media, which had campaigned for a
“Yes” vote, like all bad losers went on to accuse the French of having voted in
error. In particular, the Left’s “No” was denounced as amounting to cynical
collusion with the racist, xenophobic “No” vote led by the anti-establishment
supremacist Right.

In his editorial for 30 May 2005, Libération‘s Serge July was outraged by what
he called “a populist epidemic”: “You would expect it from Le Pen; it is his home
ground, but to think that leaders on the Left should campaign in such an area […]
we used to think that kind of xenophobia was unthinkable.” What the boss of this
leftwing, liberal daily failed to point out was that the media themselves have been
guilty of ploughing that particular furrow. It was they who created the imaginary
“Polish plumber” bogeyman, symbol of the Bolkestein Directive on creating a
single market for services within the EU and responsible for introducing unfair
competition between workers from Eastern Europe and the French labour force.
They also presented the huge imports of Chinese textiles into the European
market as nothing less than an “invasion”, allowing them, once again, to trot out
all the old clichés about the “yellow peril”. Nor must we forget Turkey’s proposed
membership of the EU, a question that straddled the divide between Left and
Right. In the same week (11 December 2004), the Nouvel Observateur and Le
Figaro Magazine
used an almost identical front cover: “Should we be afraid of the
Turks?” asked the one; “Should we be afraid of Turkey?” demanded the other. In
both cases, the Red Crescent banner was depicted as besmirching the serene blue
field of the EU’s flag. This time the threat was a Muslim invasion.

Thus Philippe de Villiers, the leader of the Mouvement pour la France (MPF),
could see how the media were building on his own obsession: rampant
Islamisation. Ever since what he considers “his” victorious “No” vote, he has
continued to harp on the same theme: Islamist infiltration is everywhere,
including at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport. Riding high on the wave of
paranoia about Muslim terrorists prowling around aircraft – the images from 11
September 2001 are in everyone’s mind – he is constantly to be heard on
television or radio denouncing “Islamists and delinquents from the housing estates
working together to have the airport placed under sharia law”. At this point, Paris-Match and other parts of the media rush to mount inquiries into his allegations.
Their revelations on the probable existence at Roissy of an illegal immigration
ring or a recruitment system that favours staff of North African origin, simply
reinforce the notion of links between immigration, Islam, and insecurity.

Despite some unfortunate precedents, the media continue to adopt a tolerant
stance toward politicians on the extreme right, allowing them a platform that
would be condemned in any other context. Why? Is this the media’s duty to
inform? Respect for freedom of speech? Or are they in thrall to any demagogue in
tune with popular opinion? After the political upheaval of 21 April 2002 when
the leader of the Front National (FN) got through to the second round of the
presidential election, anti-Le Pen demonstrators waved banners that read, “The
media are to blame”: to blame for having acted as a mouthpiece for demagogues,
for having blown up stories that later turned out to be dubious set-ups. Four years
later, a survey conducted by the BVA Institute found very little change in the way
people thought about it: of those polled, 73 per cent thought that “This feeling of
insecurity is mainly being created by the media” (Figaro, 8 June 2006).

It is true that the media have asked themselves questions about their
responsibility in all this. One might have thought this would trigger a salutary
process of self-criticism, but that would be to reckon without the way the
language of security has become part of the mindset of some journalists. For
example, the TV director Tewfik Farès claims in an article under the dramatic
title “The banlieue – territory we must reclaim for television” that “there are petty
gang bosses whose housing developments have become their territory and who
refuse to be filmed.” (La Croix, 26 June 2002)

It underestimates, too, the complexity of the network of links between the
media and the political class. In his traditional 14 July speech in 2001, Jacques
Chirac had already broached the subject of insecurity; the media, both public and
privately-owned, hastened to follow in his footsteps. Generally speaking, the
media regard declarations by the government as the “authorised version” of events
that it is their public duty to convey. Consequently, the powers-that-be use the
media as a channel for official pronouncements, including and especially in times
of crisis. At the time of the riots in the banlieue in November 2005, Prime
Minister Dominique de Villepin, chose to declare the state of emergency on TF1
in front of 13 million viewers. Not only that, but political circles and the media
regularly consult each other on a more or less formal basis. The resulting tacit
accords often come to the fore in a surprising fashion in the press or on television.
On 9 November 2005, at the height of the riots, Jean-Marie Colombani, director
of Le Monde, went so far as to write: “The notion of firmness with justice, as put
forward by Nicolas Sarkozy […] is the sort of thing that could unite the country.”
This was a quite astonishing lack of neutrality given the controversial position of
the interior minister at the time.

But Nicolas Sarkozy is never out of the media and knows how to turn it to his
advantage. “Communication is to action what an air force is to the infantry: it
allows you to clear the ground,” he said to his troops on one occasion. His
resounding declarations, promising the residents that he would “clean up the
housing developments with a power hose” to get rid of the “scum”, and of the
“mafia-style gang bosses” and “bearded fundamentalists”, were delivered in front of
embedded TV cameras. The young people he singled out for public opprobrium
were enraged by his language. His choice of words also shocked some sectors of
public opinion because of what he was stirring up in the French public’s collective
unconscious: recollections of colonial times, of the “cleansing operations” during
the Algerian War and the idea of France as a “rubbish bin”. His use of the word
racaille – scum – echoed the language of the extreme right in the 1930s to denote
foreigners and Jews. The rightwing newspaper Figaro recalled that historically it
was used in France to mean “a contemptible rabble”.

Sarkozy, claiming that he was simply speaking “like all Frenchmen who think
exactly the same thing”, took no notice: he was quite happy to persist in saying the
opposite of what was actually the case. And yet, his own internal security services
provided him with a detailed report that gave a more objective analysis of the
situation. According to this report there was no fundamentalist or mafia-style
manipulation of what for them was part of a “popular uprising in the housing
developments, with no leader and no programme of concerted action”. Some
reporters, too, were forced to accept the evidence. They may have begun by
conveying hackneyed stereotypes of “urban guerrilla warfare” against a background of images of unprecedented violence – cars torched in their thousands,
schools and buses set on fire, police and firemen pelted with stones etc – but they
were unable to report the presence of any “fundamentalist rabble-rousers”, no
“career delinquents”, just young people and residents who were angry.

At this point, editors tried to gain a better understanding of what was
motivating these people. On 5 November 2005, Libération‘s front page read: “The
ghetto speaks: young people from the housing developments explain why they
are angry; unemployment, sink estates, police stop and search – and their hatred of
Sarkozy.” In Le Parisien one young person explained: “A cry for help that is
expressed through violence is bound to be clumsy. But these people aren’t
delinquents. They are just without hope.” On television, the evidence given by
young people about the deaths of Zyed and Bouna in Clichy-sous-Bois [two young men electrocuted while fleeing from a police identity check on 27
October Ed] conflicted with police statements. It was at this point that most of the
media threw their weight behind a major campaign, launched by the comic actor
Jamel Debbouze and the rap artist Joey Starr among others, to get young people
onto the electoral register.

Reacting to the new climate of empathy with the banlieue, several “media
intellectuals” protested loud and long. Writing in Figaro on 28 November, Robert
Redeker, editor of Les Temps Modernes, complained: “All the justifications came
from the media commentators; they tried to make these events say things they
never intended to say.” In his view, “it is not poverty, not a social situation, that
has brought about this senseless, anarchic violence but rather nihilism, a cultural
concept”. The philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who caused uproar by denouncing
“an ethnic-religious uprising” in the columns of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, also
attacked “the authorised version that reduces present events to nothing more than
questions of inequality and discrimination”, and went on to deplore the fact that in a France split between understanding and indignation, “it is the voice of
understanding that speaks loudest. Some have even gone so far as to congratulate
the rebel multitude” (Le Monde 27/28 November 2005).

Sarkozy is relying on “French indignation” and “the silent majority” to win him
the French presidency in 2007. He has no hesitation in trespassing into areas
belonging to the nationalist Mouvement pour la France (MPF) and the FN. “If there’s
anybody who has a problem with being in France, we have no objection to their
leaving the country if they don’t like it,” he says bluntly to a meeting of new UMP
militants in Paris on 22 April 2006. The media furore that this arouses doesn’t
upset him, quite the contrary. Encouraged by the response of his militant powerbase, he deliberately takes over the slogan: “France – love it or leave it!” which the
MPF had itself borrowed from the Front National. He also promises to go out
looking for extreme right electors “one by one”. At a meeting in Nîmes (an area of
the south where the Front National is deeply rooted), Sarkozy exhorts militants in
his rightist grouping, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), to celebrate
“that ideal which bears a name that will live forever: France” and to reawaken
“their pride in being French”.

It was at this meeting, held the day before the first official French
commemoration of the African slave trade and the abolition of slavery, celebrated
on 10 May 2006, that he lambasted “a society that can’t manage to teach its
children about Charles Martel, Napoleon, colonisation, or the Holocaust because
it is ashamed, because it is afraid”. Admittedly, he said, “France did take part in the
African slave trade” but he was not willing to see “the slave trade as the only image
of France”. By attacking the argument in favour of “repentance” he is setting
himself apart from the President’s “climb-down” over Article 4 of the law of 23
February 2005. This requires schools to teach “the positive role played by the
French presence overseas”. In the face of strong opposition to this form of re-legitimisation of colonialism, Article 4 was withdrawn.

In the face of an impressive mobilisation of opposition from young students
and workers, the government also gave in over Villepin’s proposed CPE, the first
employment contract launched in April this year. On that occasion Sarkozy
demonstrated his pragmatism and was in favour of negotiation. His aim was to
isolate his main rival, Villepin, leaving him to entangle himself in the crisis on his
own. To demonstrate that he was not about to “let the streets rule”, Villepin
conducted a highly visible campaign of police repression against the most insistent
rebels and the “casseurs” (wreckers). Over 3700 people were arrested and, as had
been the case in the November riots, hundreds were sentenced by special courts.

The “wreckers” were denounced as banlieue troublemakers and fugitives from
school who were mounting attacks on students out of “anti-white racism”. This
was a new kind of racism accompanied by gratuitous violence that rap groups were accused of encouraging in their compositions, along the same lines as
anti-Semitism or “anti-police racism”. Figaro asked: “Is this art or is it an insulting
attack on whites?” while Le Parisien wondered: “Should we be afraid of rap?” The
press pretended to examine its conscience while rightwing deputies and even the
interior minister took several rap groups to court, accusing them of “treating
France with contempt” or “defamatory behaviour towards the police force”. Until
now, courts have generally decided in favour of a discharge on the grounds of
freedom of expression. But under orders from the executive, the public
prosecutors are appealing and the pressure is kept up throughout the lengthy
proceedings. New laws prescribe ever harsher penalties for “insulting” or
“defaming” the French Republic. Nowadays you can be breaking the law if
you whistle the Marseillaise. And as a result of Sarkozy’s law on selective
immigration, foreigners can have their residence permit withdrawn for “insulting
the national anthem or the flag”.

Increasingly, the media has focused on confrontations with the “wreckers” on
the fringes of the anti-CPE marches: this constituted 59 per cent of the total
coverage of the demonstrations by TF1, France’s largest TV channel. On the
other hand, the same media covered up the development of the movement in the
secondary schools in the banlieue whose young people, having been saddled with
the image of “wreckers” and undesirables, were more or less prevented from
joining in demonstrations. In suburban stations and the Paris Metro, the police
operated a form of triage among the demonstrators, arresting young blacks or
Arabs. And yet these are the very people who are the first to be affected by the
equal opportunities legislation of which the CPE was only one among many
measures: apprenticeships from age 14, night working only permitted from age
15, removal of their family allowance from parents of absentee schoolchildren,
national service in the army or the gendarmerie for excessively unruly pupils, and so
on. This law, now in force, is the government’s answer to the November 2005

In the midst of the anti-CPE protests, over 700 associations, groups, and
political parties set themselves up as a collective to protest against another bill on
“disposable” immigration: one of the aspects of the authoritarian, neo-liberal, and
repressive society Sarkozy aims to create. On 13 May 2006, tens of thousands of
people demonstrated across the country and a large number of teachers and
parents of all ethnic origins are now siding with the families of schoolchildren
who are under threat of deportation at the end of the school year. Journalists of all
persuasions are showing genuine sympathy for the plight of these children and
even for citizens who are prepared to undertake acts of civil disobedience to help
illegal immigrants. Articles on the subject appear regularly.

There is also a growing awareness across the media of the scale of racial
discrimination in this country, particularly against young people from immigrant
families who, at the time of the riots, showed themselves to be a lot more French
than would be suggested by the stigma of “communautarisme” or “the enemy
within”. The surprising feature was the discovery of highly diverse social profiles
within the banlieue, in particular, the number of young people with qualifications
who, because of their ethnic or geographic origins, had no access to the labour
market. Such a picture does not match the narrow stereotype of young people
from the banlieue as idle and self-destructive in their behaviour. It is much closer
to the profile of the ordinary citizen concerned about social insecurity and

Parts of the press and broadcast media are currently engaged in a process of
self-criticism of their prejudices in relation to the cultural, religious, and ethnic
differences that have become such frequent topics of discussion in the context of
such things as the controversy surrounding the attempt to outlaw the “Islamic”
scarf in public places. It is focusing more widely on social questions and resolving
to promote greater social and ethnic diversity on the air and in editorial offices.
New faces are appearing as presenters of TV news programmes and the editorial
policy of several major popular newspapers is showing signs of affirmative action.
For example, Le Parisien has originated a new daily column highlighting positive
experiences in the banlieue. Residents from immigrant families are asked for their
views on social questions that affect everyone, and several front pages have hinted
at change and hope. “French proud of their diversity” runs the headline on 1
February; and on 16 May: “Integration and equal opportunities: that’s what the
banlieue believe in”.

But these changes are still at the fragile stage and it would be all too easy for
the ethnic and religious divide to be reinstated. The intolerance aroused by the
affair of the Danish cartoons – reproduced by French newspapers including France
and Charlie hebdo – was matched by other instances of intolerance. Following
the ban on the “Islamic” scarf and visible religious symbols at school, some people
want to prevent Tariq Ramadan from taking part in anti-globalisation discussions
or ban public showings of films that are accused of fundamentalist sympathies;
Jérôme Horst’s Un racisme a peine voilé, for instance. The anti-racist movement and
human rights organisations are torn between denouncing “Islamic leftism” and the
struggle against “Islamophobia”. This schism is of particular concern at a time of
political upheaval when the left itself is divided, torn between renewed resistance
to globalisation, social-liberalism, and “zero tolerance”.

The Socialist Party’s rising star Ségolène Royal, who advocates “military
supervision” for minors the moment they commit any act of delinquency plus
parenting classes for their families, is putting the whole question of repressive
control at the centre of the political debate. In the longer term, this risks making
the authoritarian state the norm and means that special measures, always ready and
waiting in the wings, will automatically be used to crush any future social
uprising. Already the state of emergency decreed in November 2005 – based on a
law passed on 3 April 1955 during the Algerian War – authorises a curfew, the
closure of meeting places and control of the press and media. It has probably not
been said often enough: stirring up the threat of the “enemy within” also threatens
civil liberties.

Published 25 September 2006

Original in French
Translation by Mike Routledge
First published in Index on Censorship 3/2006

Contributed by Index on Censorship
© Mogniss Abdallah/Index on Censorship Eurozine


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