Africa-France: Life after #JeSuisCharlie
Days after the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Jewish supermarket that left 17 dead in Paris, a huge gathering converged on Place de la République.
It was the ubiquitous #JeSuisCharlie hashtag made flesh: a slow-shuffling ocean from all backgrounds – Muslim, Jewish, Christian, black and white.
The young generation are willing to be the ones who will bring unity
Except this fairy-tale response was not quite the whole story: also tweeted in France that day was the #JeSuisKouachi hashtag celebrating the two brothers of Algerian descent who carried out the assault on the satirical magazine. The fault lines run deep.
France is no stranger to identity and integration politics strung out over continents.
Centuries of colonisation followed by decades of post-war labour migration brought millions of immigrants into Europe.
Integration – the process of incorporating immigrants into the workforce, education system and the political process, among other domains – requires change and compromise both from French communities and immigrants living in France.
Integration can be fraught with conflict as locals and newcomers alike hold to the ideas they find dear.
Politicians have long argued that the French republic is indivisible and cannot recognise differences between its citizens.
Therefore, it cannot treat one citizen distinctively from another.
Out in France’s suburbs, immigrant families receive lower quality public services and face discrimination in the labour market, leaving many to argue that the republic is broken.
For those from elite backgrounds or those who have managed to crowbar themselves into the system, like Moroccan writer Fouad Laroui, the disjunct between worlds – between his native land and current home – is complex but tolerable.
“I don’t need to define myself. I know where I am coming from and that is enough for me. I was born and bred in Morocco. I am a Moroccan citizen. I am also a Dutch citizen, and I write books in French in Paris,” explains Laroui.
It is the same for Kahi Lumumba, grandson of the revolutionary Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, who grew up in Brussels.
“There is absolutely no conflict between my two identities. I guess I feel what mixed-race kids feel. If you are smart, you see your multiple identities as strength, as the opportunity to seize the best of both worlds,” says Lumumba.
But for those outside the system, this is not the norm.
“We are 15 million indigènes [people of colonial origin] in this country. If they [the white power] don’t listen to us, at some point we will have a revolution” says Houria Bouteldja, a founding member of Indigènes de la République, a political movement born out of frustration at the daily struggles of life in France’s neglected suburbs.
She argues that France remains a colonial state based on racist principles.
“People can’t tolerate oppression for so long. We do not recognise the republic. We are not treated like equal citizens,” she tells The Africa Report.
Public debate following the Charlie attack focused on where integration is failing: the banlieues, the outskirts of the cities, where most French people with immigrant backgrounds live.
In 2005, two teenagers, Zyed and Bouna, were electrocuted after running away from the police in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, triggering the worst rioting in France for 40 years.
Highlighting the unhealthy ‘us-versus-them’ dynamic, some French television stations sent their war reporters to cover the event.
While most people admit that there is discrimination against people with immigrant backgrounds, some argue that it is not the symptom of a continuation of France’s colonial-era policy.
Benjamin Stora, director of the Musée de l’Histoire de l’Immigration, points out that there is widespread xenophobia but “there are no racist laws or clear racial policies. And this is why it is harder to fight.”
Neither is it easy to gather statistics. In a report released in March, the French government think tank France Stratégie got round the ethnicity taboo by using census data on national origin.
It found that, in 2012, 42% of under-25s with African-born parents were unemployed, compared to 22% for those with European or French backgrounds.
“Part of the gap is explained by socio-demographic factors such as area of living, education, economic background and so on,” says Hélène Garner, a researcher at France Stratégie.
“We can only assume [the remainder] is the result of discrimination.”
Gilles Dolatabadi was born in Lomé to a French/Iranian father and a Togolese mother.
“I only became aware of my African identity when we moved to Paris at age seven. This is when I understood the inequality of opportunity people get according to their skin colour and their background in this country,” says the 30-year-old petroleum engineer.
Indeed, various non-governmental organisations in France have shown the impact of the bias against African names in blind tests of fake CVs sent out to potential employers.
This economic exclusion has driven a wedge between immigrants who arrived just after the Second World War and the second generation born in France.
Those who arrived decades ago saw a confident France – one that needed workers to fill its Renault factories and rebuild a France shattered by war.
Youssef, a chibani (‘an old man’ in North African Arabic) who left Algeria in 1965 at the age of 22, explains: “I have been respected all my life. I don’t understand what the problem with the youth nowadays is.
“During my time, there were no problems with Islam or the suburbs. We came here to work. I have worked all my life in this country.
“Now I just want to go home to my kids and wife. I have never asked to be naturalised and never will. I am not from here.”
The problem for the children of immigrants is not just being stuck out in ghettoes or ignored by employers.
Second-generation kids – with their mixed cultural heritage – face a centralised French state that seeks to flatten people’s identities.
The immigration museum’s Stora explains that the French state “has always imposed a homogeneous identity from top to bottom”.
France is experiencing a new rise of right-wing parties, particularly the Front National headed by Marine Le Pen.
Stora says: “There is a part of French society that doesn’t accept the world is changing, that doesn’t want to let go of the uniqueness of the French state, nation and identity. It is fuelling a dangerously old-fashioned form of nationalism.”
An Institut Français d’Opinion Publique poll in September 2014 suggested that Le Pen would make it into the second round of the presidential elections in 2017, repeating her father Jean-Marie’s second-round stand-off in 2002.
However, in the final round of local elections on 30 March, the Front National did not win control of a département, defying predictions.
As in several European countries, far-right parties increasingly point to Islam as a threat, fomenting hatred against those perceived as foreigners.
“Islamophobia is the new anti-Arab racism,” argues Nicolas Cadène, rapporteur general for the Observatoire de la Laïcité, a government agency concerned with questions of secularism.
“The extreme right is trying to spread false ideas to limit the practice of Islam in France and punish [Muslims] by constantly trying to define new areas as off limits to religion.”
Rached Kheriji, a 33-year-old sales manager and nephew of Rachid Ghannouchi, head of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party, says: “One can’t choose. I am French, and I am Tunisian. This is who I am.
“The problem is in some French people’s eyes, not with me. I am at peace with who I am. My faith is something private.
“I come from a family with a deep religious identity, but I have been raised in a secular country and I don’t feel the need to expose my beliefs. But it is harder and harder to be Muslim in France.
“What happened on 7 January is a tragedy, and I hate how people are using these horrible events to deny the French identity of French Muslims and French people of foreign origins. We are the republic’s sons as much as any others.”
Religion has often been a sensitive matter in France.
The country’s strict secular principles are based on a 1905 law that bans state funding for religious organisations but does not in any way forbid the practice of religion.
“Secularism protects the right of every faith to be practised. It is, for instance, against the law to refuse the construction of a mosque for political reasons,” explains Cadène.
“Religious items in France are forbidden for civil servants when on duty. This [law] does not affect constituents when they dealing with officials,” he adds.
France’s history is one of revolutions followed by years of stagnation.
For those who hope the French state can shock the world anew by recognising the diversity of its populations, helping bridge worlds rather than divide them, the current solutions on offer are minor.
“We cannot give a specific community special treatment. It would be discriminating against the rest of the population.
“We have found ways to bring a universal answer to specific issues, for instance offering vegan meals to allow Muslim children to respect their beliefs and not be forced to eat pork,” says Cadène.
To achieve progress, compromise will have to go both ways.
“Both France and the Netherlands have good systems on paper, but in reality they are both asking for few social and cultural differences between their citizens,” says writer Laroui.
“But I agree with Rotterdam’s mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb when he says that people who spend their time spitting on Dutch society can go and live somewhere else. That’s only fair.”
Lumumba, who is promoting intercultural dialogue, puts his faith in the hands of the youth: “The young generation are willing to be the ones who will bring unity.”
All those involved – from the masses at Place de la République to those locked out from the inside – can only hope that he is right. ●