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France: no to state racism

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In the wake of the terrorist atrocities of 13 November 2015, which left 130 dead, Socialist government ministers and local mayors in various cities and regions have launched a series of measures targeting Muslims and the immigrant population.

The barbarous attack in Nice on 14 July has renewed the sense of fear and the tolerance of the state's repressive measures under the state of emergency declared in November. This has been repeatedly renewed and shows no sign of coming to an end. It has resulted in arbitrary and intimidatory police searches directed against people whose only ‘crime’ was to be Muslim. The whole botched attempt to strip bi-national terrorists of their French citizenship also emphasised a link between terrorism and immigration.

As a consequence of this racist climate, encouraged from above, attacks against Muslims and mosques have sharply increased, including against people simply wearing traditional costumes. After the killings in Nice, a city known as a strong base for the right and the Front National, FN, the atmosphere has become even more hostile to Muslims, despite the fact that a sizeable fraction of the 14 July victims came from the North African community.

In an article published by the New York Times, a young woman accurately summarised the situation: “Tongues have loosened. No one is afraid of telling a Muslim to ‘go back home’ anymore”.

The decision by more than twenty French mayors to ban the so-called burkini on their beaches marks a new stepping up of these racist politics. While this decision was later overturned by the Conseil d'Etat, which found that the ban violates civil liberties, the mayors received the support of Prime Minister Manuel Valls who said the burkini was “not compatible with the values of the French Republic” because, “A beach, like all public spaces, is not a place where people should be allowed to make religious claims. The Burkini is the translation of a political project, a counter-society, based on the enslavement of women”.

Valls and a section of the Socialist Party are eager to continue to use the state power against Muslims. Back in 2004, under conservative President Jacques Chirac, the headscarf or hijab was banned from schools in the name of secularism, the niqab and djelbab were banned from the streets a few years later. These laws are in fact racist measures, designed to isolate and stigmatise immigrants on the pretext of defending secularism and the liberation of women.

“Liberating” women against their will, or by sending girls home from school because they will not remove a headscarf, is an attack on women’s right to dress as they please and the right of all communities and religions to avail themselves of state education. It is an attack on freedom of religion and in fact does nothing for secularism, women’s liberation or “republican”, that is, democratic, values.

All this reached a new and disgusting climax with the scenes of policemen on a Nice beach enforcing the law by making a Muslim woman take off the offending garment.

Indeed, this echoes the racist propaganda of FN, which has claimed for decades that there are too many immigrants and blames them for unemployment, lack of housing, criminality etc. In recent years, several well-known intellectuals, including the author Michel Houellebecq and the ex-Maoist philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, have joined this chorus. Both describe a country in which the “real” French identity is in danger, Houellebecq goes as far as evoking “a civil war to eliminate Islam from France” and calling on people to vote for Marine Le Pen and the NF.

Needless to say, these “threats” to French culture and identity are completely imaginary, in a country where immigrants from the Maghreb are a socially and racially oppressed minority, often ghettoised in impoverished suburbs, and where Muslims are often not allowed a sufficient number of religious buildings. What can French citizens from a North African and/or Muslim background feel except that the French state wants either to forcibly assimilate them or to pressure them into leaving? Are these politicians surprised that the result is the alienation of people who have grown up in France and that a tiny number of those become vulnerable to the message of the terrorist groups? Islamophobia and terrorist-Islamism feed on one another.

The campaign for next year's presidential elections promises to continue in the same vein. Nicolas Sarkozy has already announced his intention to campaign on the theme of national identity, and further racist attacks against hijab in universities, or against providing non-pork school meals as an alternative for Muslim pupils.

The latest episode in this series of racist attacks has been Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve's announcement of the dismantling of the Calais camp, (the “jungle”) where 10,000 immigrants trying to reach the UK live in precarious conditions. Recently, despite the state of emergency, the FN was able to initiate a demonstration in Calais demanding more police forces and more repression.

Of course, the pressure put on the workers and citizens of Calais is severe, but the blame must fall on the British and French governments which refuse to provide decent accommodation and the right to seek and be granted asylum in Britain or in France. Class-consciousness is clearly being overridden by this racist climate, since even a local CGT leader in Calais called for the “eradication” of people around the jungle and supported other demands by the demonstrators.

Indeed, while the largest far left group, the New Anticapitalist Party, NPA, has pursued an internationalist line on the whole question, organising a demo against the ban on the burkini, and calling for the opening of the borders, its positions are almost unique among the French left. The next largest far left group, Lutte Ouvrière, Workers' Struggle, says virtually nothing and in any case supports the ban on Muslim dress in schools and public buildings.

Attacks on civil liberties are today aimed primarily at Muslims and immigrants, but can be turned against the workers' movement and political liberties tomorrow. The building of an anti-racist movement against this poison, and its spread within the working class, is now an urgent task. But it is also necessary to revive the struggles abandoned before the summer break, taking up the issues workers have good reason to be angry about and showing there is an alternative to the Socialists and the Right.

Given the record unpopularity of President François Hollande, and the furiously feuding Socialists, who are divided over the party's support for austerity policies and anti-labour laws, the right is well placed to make a big comeback in the Presidential elections in April/May next year. And this does not just mean Sarkozy and the conservative right, but Marine Le Pen and the National Front.