Thursday, November 17, 2005

“Don’t get me wrong, I have lots of black and Arab friends, but…”

In the wake of the recent rioting in France, every French politician is trying to demonstrate that he or she is in touch with the deep problems that have been made so painfully apparent, in a manner not identical, but in terms of generalised psychological impact comparable, to the New Orleans catastrophe. A worrying number of MPs from Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party have crawled out the woodwork to reveal that in a low-key sort of way, they think that the problem could probably be solved by, if not sending people back to where they came from, at least making sure that it’s going to be damned hard for any more to join. This includes plans to limit the reunification of families (wives and children coming to join fathers working in France), the obtention by married partners of French nationality. Then of course there’s a fair amount of support for the repressive approach favoured by the Interior Minister. Jean-Marie Le Pen (who has been having a whale of a time grandstanding on Russian television this week) has been having a marvellous time watching the UMP tentatively reaching for National Front policies. There has also been a somewhat strange surfacing of a theory whereby much of the recent trouble was caused by widespread polygamy amongst black and North African citizens. And that last piece of hysterical nonsense is in fact a admission of unthinking prejudice.

In a remarkable article today, the Moroccan-born philosopher Alain Badiou relates how his 16 year old adopted son Gérard has been arrested six times since March 31st 2004 and today, for no particular reason apart from the fact that they’re teenagers, and some of them are black, others are from North Africa, some Turkish, and that in the manner of teenagers, sometimes they stand around having a chat. They are regularly arrested, asked for their papers, harassed, insulted, and then released sometimes after up to two days. The police then apologise to the parents. Now Alain Badiou doesn’t live in a sink estate, he lives in a rather more affluent area of Paris, so imagine the sort of police harassment that young inhabitants of Clichy-Sous-Bois are subjected to. Badiou speculates that the police there may not apologise quite so readily.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that the French police is institutionally racist. Everyone in France knows this, but they don’t like it, they’re in denial about it, it doesn’t fit with their ”certaine idée de la France” as De Gaulle called it. But more disturbingly, the police reflect and amplify the poisonous low-level ambient racism that permeates much of French society. Casual prejudice against ethnic and religious minorities is acceptable in conversations in France to a degree that is no longer easily thinkable in the UK for instance. The following translated email conversation is I think an entertaining yet pertinent illustration of this. The names of the participants have been changed, but their ethnic origins have been retained through the use of ironically stereotypical names. I must stress that they are what may be termed pinko fruitloops to a man (and a woman), and that the shocking ethnic stereotyping and discriminatory language is in fact SATIRE, all in the poorest possible taste. The point of this is that the participants were able to easily riff off on this in these terms because they are regularly exposed to people who speak like this with no qualms whatsoever. They’re not happy about this. So they deal with it with gallows humour, a reaction more usually associated with the Brits, to their credit.

Nigel Dupont _ This article is well worth reading, but it’s not pleasant. [Refers to the aforementioned article]
Sandra Dupont _ Yes. But the problem is that no one will admit it. No one. And the worst thing is that most people who won’t admit it do so because they don’t really believe it.
Nigel Dupont _ Personally, I’m not a racist, however…
Gérard Bové _ Well exactly. Don’t get me wrong. I have lots of black and Arab friends, but…
Nigel Dupont _ You idiot, you don’t say “black”, you say “renoi”! [”Noir” in Verlan, a slang device whereby the syllables of a word are reversed].
Sandra Dupont _ Rubbish. You say “un black”. It’s more “roots”.
Nigel Dupont _ Does anyone know what’s the current favourite slang term for an Oriental is?
Sandra Dupont _ “Niaque” I think, at least that’s what they said in “Taxi 2”.
Isaac Levi _ No, it’s “Bougnoule”, I should know, I’m… Oh hang on.
Nigel Dupont _ Don’t you start piping up, Yid Boy.
Isaac Levi _ I have a Kabylian friend who came out top of his class at college, so he’s not exactly a crack dealer. He is regularly harassed by the rozzers for no reason. He was even beaten up by the police once. It’s all pretty ugly. But you want to know what the worst thing is? I’ve been beaten up because they thought I was an Arab! And that’s just inadmissible!
Gérard Bové _ Hey, be a bit careful when talking about crack dealers! There are some perfectly decent crack dealers. I have plenty of friends who are crack dealers. It’s sweeping generalisations like that that spread the problem.

Once again, I must stress that this not exactly random selection of the French electorate, and that they are in fact mimicking the sorts of comments that they hear every day. They’re really nice people, just with a twisted sense of humour.

The Militant Pine Marten has a suggestion to start dealing with this, because we’re not going to solve France’s current problems unless we change people’s unthinking attitudes. If the police is the worst example of widespread racism, then Nicolas Sarkozy could start by stamping ruthlessly on the sort of abuse mentioned above. He likes to talk and act tough I believe. Well here’s a perfect place to apply that. Investigate all claims of abuse. Make examples of police officers that participate. Show the citizens of France, both native and immigrants or their descendants, that the French Republic doesn’t tolerate discrimination by the organs of state against any particular group. That’s after all the great underlying fundamental idea isn’t it? Well do it! Go on Sarkozy, if you want to be the man of the hour, if you really believe what you say, start making the ”Egalité” a reality by punishing those who undermine the idea with the apparent tacit agreement of the State. No more blind eyes, no more heads in the sand. You’re always saying that the French should face facts and deal with them. Well show them how!

And if you won’t do that, then at least have the decency to stop pretending that you care about anything but power.

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