France appears to be on a collision course with its over five million strong Muslim population. What began as a soft extension of colonialism in the form of mere rhetoric, reflected in Le Pen’s famous 1998 refusal to acknowledge the French team and dismissing them as a ‘bunch of immigrants’, and then became a more aggressive policy involving the banning of the headscarf in public institutions, has now become an all-out ‘identity cleansing’ that has permeated all levels of society up to the Presidency itself.
Not only that, but France has become an active partner in the bombing campaigns in traditionally Muslim lands, sending forces to Mali, bombing Syria, and taking a leading role in the failed peacekeeping force in Central African Republic.
On 14th August a French court ruled that the banning of the ‘burkini’ was ‘necessary, appropriate and proportionate’ in the fight against terrorism. To any layman with the most basic
understanding of human rights, the decision is nothing short of outrageous. Moreover, the French authorities have seen fit that the ‘crime’ of wearing a burkini on the beach warrants the use of armed police, pepper spray and tactics that include surrounding middle-aged women and forcing them to strip publicly. It is worthy of note that this does not apply to nuns who dress in a somewhat similar manner, but solely to Muslims who are the overwhelming majority of burkini users.
But, surprisingly, the decision is perfectly in line with the French principles of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’.
The simple reason is that these principles were never designed to be applied to people not of French composition. Instead, these principles were born at a time when France sought to assert its ‘civility’ and ‘superiority’ on lesser and more ‘barbaric’ people of Algeria, Tunisia, Vietnam, Mali, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire and others.
When the local population drove out the French occupation, the French chose the next best option; to choose a successor amenable to the notion of French cultural superiority, with the clearest example being Bourguiba in Tunisia, who utterly rejected Nasser’s brand of Arab nationalism and embarked on a process of such extreme secularism, that his legacy would lead to Tunisia banning the hijab, a policy that would form the basis for the French doing the same later.
Bourguiba would go on to challenge the concept of fasting during Ramadan, appearing on national television ordering the people not to fast as the economy required development. Mosques were placed under extreme surveillance to the point that Tunisia became renowned in the region as a secular country with a rather ‘foreign’ identity.
When colonialism ended and the population of these countries migrated to France en-masse, the authorities struggled with the threat to the ‘superior’ French identity. Did ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ apply to these immigrants? Or perhaps even more poignant, those second generation immigrants born and raised in France who had never travelled back to the so-called ‘homeland’ and therefore only knew France; did ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ apply to them?
The subsequent de facto segregation that became the status quo gives an insight into how France approached the issue. Immigrants ‘swarmed’ the ‘banlieues’ or suburbs which then became targets for some of the worst racist atrocities in modern times, including the notorious 1961 Paris massacre where Algerians were thrown in and drowned in the River Seine, a tragedy during which it was written on the walls ‘this is where Algerians drown’.
If France was supposed to keep up with the rest of the world in giving necessary equal rights to minorities, it simply did not. Following France’s World Cup victory in 1998, Le Pen declared that the national team could not represent France as it was composed of immigrants. A few years later, President Jacques Chirac would ban the headscarf in public institutions. Yet these measures could not curb the irresistible surge in successful second and third generation immigrants in the form of Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Marcel Desailly and others.
So France adopted another measure; to incorporate ethnic ‘desirables’, or non-French who adopted French ways, introducing ministers of foreign descent in high heels and typically acceptable ‘French’ dress. Whilst this was a marginal step towards accepting the reality of the new ‘France’, the message was clear; you are welcome as long as you are ‘French’, dress like ‘French’, act like ‘French’, and you abandon the ways of your forefathers.
If this attitude was supposed to have been dispelled in certain sectors, such as football as a result of the phenomenal success of the new ‘French’ generation from ethnic backgrounds, Laurent Blanc in 2010 proved otherwise. Upon becoming the manager of France, one of his first moves was to remove Halal meat from the academies; an inconceivable measure given the large number of Muslims in the set-up at the time including national star Karim Benzema, Abou Diaby, the mercurial Hatem Ben Arfa and others.
To Laurent Blanc, these players had to respect ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ by denying their obligation to eat halal meat and follow their traditions. These defining principles had no room for Benzema’s Muslim-Algerian heritage.
Yet despite this, France continues to find itself on the back foot. The latest national star is none other than Paul Pogba, a Muslim and now the most expensive football player in history upon whom the hopes of the French people in the Euro 2016 were placed.
Therefore, the more aggressive measures including Hollande’s declaration that the terrorism France faces is ‘Islamic’, as well as the ban on Burkini is none other than a desperate attempt by the remnants of ‘Old France’ to preserve its belief in its own superiority. Indeed, for them, a French Obama must be avoided at all costs. For what could be worse than a Black man with ‘Hussein’ in his name coming to rule La Republique?
The new French generation, and I include those who are ethnically French, are growing up in a time where their legends include Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial. The barriers to racism are being knocked down so fast that the old establishment is in disarray, desperately invoking ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ whose meaning is rapidly evolving to include the aforementioned. It is this generation that flocked to buy Burkinis following the ban in solidarity with their fellow citizens, representing a new France that accepts and protects all.
So whilst ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ never really existed in the meaning that we wanted it to, French citizens are beginning to carve out a new meaning, challenging the government’s narrative and refusing to give the government the approval ratings it desperately seeks to secure by politicising the attacks on Paris and Nice. Whilst the ban on burkini is a travesty to all who believe in Human Rights, it is a clear reflection that the age of ‘French superiority’ in the colonial meaning has its back against the wall.
And oh the irony when the power and force behind ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ is being delivered by those it was designed to exclude in the first place…