“We’re not racists, we’re realists!” The words of a Front National supporter, who believes that Marine Le Pen, a candidate for President in 2017, “was right all along”.
France is being forced to confront the legacy of its racist and colonial past, but it’s not going to be easy. First, a few facts and figures courtesy of “Being a Muslim in France”, a report from the Brookings Institution, with the caveat that concrete data are hard to come by as the French Republic considers ethnic and religious affiliation a private matter.
- The current population of France is estimated to be 65,142,290 people. Of these, approximately five million or 7.68% are of Muslim descent. In other words, the crisis in France has nothing to do with “hordes” of Muslims trying to take over the country.
- Muslims in France come from a large number of countries, although most came from North Africa, mainly Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.
- The major Muslim population centres in France are Paris, Marseille, and Lyon, and their outlying suburbs (banlieues).
- As much as half the Muslim population (2.5 million) is believed to be under 24 years of age.
Despite their ethnic and national diversity, Muslims in France share a “lived experience” that includes the bitterness of prolonged suspicion and exclusion as well as successful efforts to integrate. That lived experience colours a “French Muslim” identity (as opposed to the historical, cultural identity that France proudly flaunts) which has also been tainted by France’s controversial role in Algeria and more recently in Mali and Syria. The notion of integration has also foundered on other rocks.
Muslims who came to France during the second half of the 20th century have had to endure desperate economic and social hardship: from low-level jobs in the 1960s and early 1970s, predominantly in the industrial sector, to unemployment during the economic downturn of the 1970s and 1980s. They have also experienced isolation in high density housing projects on the outskirts of big cities that have been slowly deserted by native French families; barriers to education; and higher than average levels of crime and unrest. In recent years, the racism and negative stereotyping of the Front National under Jean-Marie Le Pen have skewed public perceptions of Islam and Muslims, which have been exacerbated by the economic migrant and political refugee crisis facing Europe.
The biggest single obstacle to integration and to advancement for immigrants is unemployment. The urban riots of November 2005 had many causes, but civil unrest was both a direct result of the enforced idleness of many young people of immigrant origin and an indirect result of having no real incentive to succeed at school, making young people less employable.
Hand in glove with unemployment goes housing. Recent immigrants and their descendants have been obliged to live in public housing built in the 1960s and 1970s in low-rent neighbourhoods. These are located in the urban outskirts, known as banlieues or cités, where approximately six million people live, of whom 33% are under the age of twenty. The local non-immigrant French populations and successful immigrants alike abandon these locales as soon as their incomes allow. Such neighbourhoods are marked by poverty, welfare dependence, black markets, broken families, and single mothers.
This is the reality that the majority of Muslims in France face. They are not outsiders, foreigners, terrorists, or jihadists (a word that has been hijacked by politicians), but ordinary people seeking a better life for their children and grandchildren. The real threat to France comes from outside the country, from a group of organized fanatics whose grievances currently lie with the geopolitics of Palestine, Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, and who seek to destabilize the West politically and economically by playing on deep-seated prejudices and fears.
If France is to be realist and not racist, it must examine its own conscience. It has to tackle the social policies that create second-class citizens and discriminate between immigrants and non-immigrants, the hate speech of right-wing media-savvy intellectuals, and most importantly the government’s abdication of its responsibility to address institutionalised racism by promoting vague concepts like “Republic”, “citizenship”, “indivisibility”, and“political secularism”.
As Kofi Annan has pointed out, “Ignorance and prejudice are the handmaidens of propaganda. Our mission, therefore, is to confront ignorance with knowledge, bigotry with tolerance, and isolation with the outstretched hand of generosity. Racism can, will, and must be defeated.”