Blaming the Muslim victims in France

Jonah Birch reports on the latest insult against France's Muslim population.

Interior Minister Manuel VallsInterior Minister Manuel Valls

FRANCE'S INTERIOR Minister Manuel Valls, a leading member of the Socialist Party, has announced a blanket ban on all street protests against racist anti-Muslim cartoons published last week by the magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Speaking at a September 21 news conference in the Mediterranean port of Marseille--France's second largest city, known for its large immigrant population and proximity to bases of support for the fascist National Front, a leading source of vile Islamophobic rhetoric--Valls made it clear that attempts to violate the ban would be met with force: "Demonstrations will be banned and broken up," he told reporters.

To intimidate any would-be violators, riot police were deployed over the weekend in big cities like Paris, where they detained several dozen people over two days, according to reports. Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada cited French news reports reporting that some of the detained were Muslim women who were "guilty" of nothing more than wearing headscarves.

French officials justified the ban as necessary to prevent unrest in the aftermath of worldwide demonstrations against the U.S.-made, anti-Islam propaganda film The Innocence of Muslims. Those demonstrations mainly targeted U.S. embassy buildings and other symbols of Western power in countries with large Muslim populations.

In Paris, officials refused to grant a legal permit for any such protests--nevertheless, 150 people were arrested on September 15 when they gathered for a small nonviolent protest near the U.S. embassy. The next day, Valls denounced the unauthorized protest as an "incitement to hatred," and the public prosecutor's office said it was launching an investigation.

In response to these events, Charlie Hebdo--a self-described "left-wing" satirical magazine--published an issue with a cover that mocked the Prophet Mohammed. The magazine's publishers framed their action as a statement challenging what they consider to be religious irrationality and assaults on free speech.

Thus, contrary to Valls' claims, it is Charlie Hebdo, and not the Muslims the magazine sought to provoke, that is guilty of "incitement to hatred." Emphasizing the racism that underlay the decision to print the cartoons, one editor declared: "We're a newspaper that respects French law. Now, if there's a law that is different in Kabul or Riyadh, we're not going to bother ourselves with respecting it."

This isn't the first time that Charlie Hebdo has tried to antagonize Muslims by publishing racist material. In 2006, it reprinted a series of bigoted cartoons that had appeared the previous year in a Danish newspaper, including such artful assertions of liberal values as a depiction of the Prophet Mohammed wearing a bomb in his turban.

Last fall, the magazine faced a furious backlash, including an attack on its offices, when it published an issue that had cover art mocking the Prophet and a subtitle reading "Sharia Hebdo," in reference to Islamic legal principles.

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THE MOVE on the part of French officials to pre-emptively outlaw demonstrations against such racist caricatures shows that the key issues here have nothing to do with free speech or a defense of enlightenment values against reactionary extremism--and everything to do with the increasing prevalence of racism and Islamophobia, in France as well as in Europe more generally.

The French state has responded to a racist insult to the country's estimated 5-6 million Muslims by blaming the victim and restricting their democratic rights.

In doing so, the recently elected government, headed by President Fran├žois Hollande and Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault of the center-left Socialists, continues a longstanding pattern whereby the French state takes the lead in reinforcing popular anti-Muslim bigotry.

This tradition dates back through the heydays of French colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries--it was a notable feature of the brutal war France waged from 1954 to 1962 against a popular independence movement in Algeria, when officially sanctioned anti-Islamic fervor served to justify the military's campaign of mass bombings, torture and indiscriminate killings. The death toll from the Algerian War is unknown, but estimates range as high 1.5 million people.

Such racist violence has never been limited to Algeria. It has also been evident in the state's treatment of immigrants living on French soil: most famously, in the 1961 murder of around 200 pro-independence Algerians demonstrating in Paris by members of the national police, who drove some of their victims into the Seine River.

More recently, state-sponsored anti-Muslim racism has taken the form of moves to restrict Muslim women's right to wear religious head coverings--which culminated in legislation that makes it illegal to wear a face veil in public--and the widespread refusal of representatives of the state to challenge employers, school officials and other authority figures who openly discriminate against Muslims.

It is therefore hardly surprising that Valls, in announcing the ban on street protests, made sure to add: "Neither will I allow street prayers, which have no place in this republic. And naturally, the law will apply to anyone who wears the full face veil."

Like the editors at Charlie Hebdo, officials from the center-left government have tried to couch their attacks on the most basic democratic rights of Muslims as a defense of traditional French values of free speech and secularism.

The hypocrisy of this twisted argument should require no comment. For Socialist Party leaders, it partly reflects an orientation on winning some voters lost in recent elections to mainstream conservatives and even the far-right National Front by claiming the mantles of nationalist chauvinism and law-and-order politics.

Valls himself regularly apes the racist demagoguery of Hollande's predecessor in the Elysee Palace, ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy. Valls, for instance, has announced that the government would maintain Sarkozy's policy of attacking campgrounds of the poverty-stricken Roma population and aggressively deporting those without proper residency permits. To prove his toughness, he unleashed police on a Roma campsite near Paris, where 70 people were arrested.

Valls has likewise taken the same stance as Sarkozy toward the urban rebellions which have, in the last decade, repeatedly exploded in poor, heavily segregated suburbs that pepper the outskirts of many French cities.

Sarkozy famously derided the youth who participated in one such uprising as "scum." Valls, now ensconced in the same position of Interior Minister that Sarkozy held before being elected president, responded to disturbances that broke out in the northern city of Amiens by rushing to the area and proclaiming the need to "restore law-and-order."

Ignoring the racist police harassment that touched off the riot, Valls denounced residents and quickly found himself the object of jostling and catcalls by locals furious with his refusal to recognize their grievances. For his part, President Hollande used the opportunity to announce: "Our priority is security, which means that the next budget will include additional resources for the gendarmerie and the police."

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THE LARGER context for these developments is the long-term growth of new far-right currents all over Europe during the past three decades. These parties have gained substantial support through their violently anti-immigrant appeals--and in particular, during recent years, on the basis of hostility to Islam.

The National Front (FN, according to its French initials) was at the forefront of this trend and has become a major force in French politics since it first emerged in the mid-1980s. By the 2002 presidential elections, FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen won more votes than Socialist Party candidate Lionel Jospin, putting him in the second-round run-off between the top two vote-getters. This spring, Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie's daughter and his replacement as FN chief, won almost 18 percent of the vote of the first round of presidential voting.

Marine Le Pen is known for, among other outrageous assertions, comparing Muslims praying in the streets of French cities to the Nazi occupation of the Second World War. She has called for restrictions on the sale of halal food, which she describes as evidence of the Islamic cultural invasion that is undermining the foundations of French society.

The elevation of xenophobic nationalism to the center of mainstream political debates led parties of the center-left and center-right alike to crack down on immigrants as well as Muslims' religious freedom. In order to shore up his nativist credentials, for instance, Hollande has promised to hold down the number of new entrants into France and affirmed his support for existing anti-Muslim restrictions, including the Sarkozy-era law criminalizing wearing the face veil in public, plus earlier legislation outlawing headscarves in public schools.

France is not the only country of Europe where the far right has been on the rise. All over the continent, far-right parties and figures--like the Dutch Freedom Party and leader Geert Wilders, notorious for his characterization of the Koran as a fascist document akin to Hitler's Mein Kampf--have ridden a wave of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant racism to prominence.

Today's European radical right blames non-European immigrants and their descendants for everything from responsibility for crime and social disorder to stealing jobs and welfare resources from native-born Europeans. They vilify Muslims as part of alien culture, alleged to be backward and antithetical to traditional European values. From country to country, the bigots have helped to drive through restrictions on Muslims' religious practices such as the ban on the veil in France and the Netherlands, and measures making it illegal to construct minarets in Switzerland.

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IT IS important to recognize that the groups demonized by such far-right forces are disproportionately poor and working-class.

While France does not keep direct statistics about its Muslim population, the vast majority of new immigrants into the country today come from ex-French colonies in Africa, Asia and the Americas, many of which are largely Muslim. These people and their families suffer from enormous inequalities, touching on every aspect of social and economic life: from education, to health, to poverty and unemployment.

Even in the second and third generations, the descendants of non-European immigrants face chronically high levels of unemployment and are disproportionately relegated to what the French call "precarious" work (such as temporary jobs). They suffer widespread discrimination and tend to be segregated in low-income neighborhoods, where conditions are poor, educational opportunities inferior, and police harassment a fact of daily life.

In these circumstances, the idea that the main issues at stake today are free speech or the defense of secularism against religious fanaticism is absurd.

Unfortunately, however, the racism that shaped both the publication of the cartoons and French officials' response has also hampered the prospects for organizing an anti-racist challenge to the protest ban. According to one poll, 71 percent of respondents favor the government's decision to pre-emptively outlaw demonstrations.

Since disruptive protests are commonplace in France, these attitudes can only be attributed to the hold of racist ideas throughout the French population, including not only moderate left parties like the Socialists, but more radical formations and parties. Meanwhile, most mainstream Islamic organizations in France, on the defensive and facing enormous political pressure, have counseled their members to stay off the streets.

All too often, self-described leftists in France, like those at Charlie Hebdo, have promoted reactionary and bigoted conceptions of Muslims. But recent events should further clarify the meaning of controversies like the current one. Fights like this have nothing to do with free speech or atheism--rather, the key question that must be confronted is the racism that plagues French society and serves to divide workers of European descent from their non-European sister and brothers.

The very first priority for those who care about justice in France must be upholding the democratic rights of Muslims--whether the attack on them is coming from the far right, the mainstream parties or self-identified "leftists."