Conflict, climate and hunger swell human tides of millions seeking refuge. America shuns them, protected by oceans and guns at its borders. Because of its colonial past and its traditional role as a land of asylum, France is overwhelmed.
Most newcomers obey laws and refugees work hard to rebuild their lives. But many of them refuse to blend into French society or grow radicalized when they can’t find their niche. Fanatic Islamist groups are joined by rebels with a cause who act out against what they see as indifference to oppression in places they had to flee. Disaffected loners with nothing to lose decide to go out with a bang.
At the same time, what were once noisy but orderly street demonstrations over wages and social demands now often erupt into tear gas, mass arrests and bloody clashes.
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Headlines in October stunned France. Vicious beheadings by recent arrivals brought the terrorism death toll above 260 since 2015. Accomplices helped a Chechnyan refugee with a meat cleaver decapitate a middle school teacher near Paris who had used cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a civics class about free expression. Later, an 18-year-old Tunisian stormed a Nice church shouting “Allahu Akbar” to stab the sexton, behead a 60-year-woman and take a third life before police shot and subdued him. He had reached Lampedusa in Italy, a migrant flotilla entry point, then made his way into France.
A preposterous ‘security bill’ that threatens basic freedoms and the press
Then in November, protesters besieged the National Assembly. A “global security bill” prescribed jail and a 45,000-euro ($53,000) fine for picturing police in action. It banned “disseminating by any means or medium whatsoever…the image of the face or any other identifying element of an officer . . . when engaged in a police operation.”
As chanting crowds gathered, riot troops arrested an accredited cameraman from a publicly owned TV channel. He was later released after a formal protest. But Gérald Darmanin, Macron’s 38-year-old hardline interior minister, stood firm. He told reporters: “I would remind you that if journalists cover demonstrations, in accordance with the law enforcement plan, they must approach the authorities.”
Darmanin rails against what he calls Islamist “enemies” in a generalized crackdown that targets even halal food in supermarkets. Police closely watch and sometime raid the 70-something mosques in France. He scoffs at charges of police brutality, on occasion saying, “I can’t breathe,” to mock the rallying cry against brutality that has resonated loudly in America and beyond.
Critics of the bill made the obvious point: Such vague laws are how tinpot dictators impose self-censorship. The idea of getting prior permission to cover spontaneous reality in the streets is preposterous.
Despite the furor, four cops stopped Michel Zecler, a popular music producer, for not wearing a mask in public. They followed him into his studio, saying they smelled marijuana, where they claimed he assaulted them. A hidden CCTV camera shows they beat the crap out of him, unprovoked. This was France. Macron censured the cops and promised to defang the security law to protect press freedom. But the authoritarian trend is ominous, fed by the same sort of fear and loathing that now permeates the United States.
Beyond the headlines and commentators’ distant guesswork, the threat in France from external terrorism and internal upheaval takes some explaining.
Macron: a Donald Trump with table manners
In 2017, Macron skunked Marine Le Pen and the rebranded far-right party her fascist-minded father called the National Front. A recent Washington Post op-ed neatly defined half of him: “For many, Macron was a political fantasy come to life, a fresh-faced former private banker committed to upholding and defending the neo-liberal global order.” But many others saw a polished executive bent on shredding France’s entrenched “social contract,” which regards workers as more than expendable hired hands. In sum, a Donald Trump with table manners.
Macron’s second side sparked backlash from the les gilets jaunes, the Yellow Vests, a nationwide insurgency of people trying to make ends meet, rioters incited by politicians and just plain buttheads who like heaving bricks at cops. At least 26 people were killed in 2019 as riot troops suppressed the movement.
France had been on edge since 2015 after terrorists murdered 33 people at Charlie Hebdo after the satirical weekly mocked the Prophet. Later that year, the Islamic State directed a massacre from Brussels with local recruits after French air strikes in Iraq and Syria. Three suicide bombers attacked the Stade de France before an international soccer match. Others shot up crowded Paris cafes and restaurants. A main force opened fire on 1,500 people at a Bataclan Theater rock concert. The death toll was 130 victims and seven terrorists.
By then I had covered France for 38 years. With ups and down, the French protected their democracy, raising hell in no uncertain terms when anyone in authority impinged on individual freedoms.
Ecstatic crowds jammed the Bastille in 1981, when François Mitterrand, a Socialist who liked his luxuries, defeated the patrician president, Valery Giscard d’Estaing. Soon after, I went to see Robert Badinter, a celebrated lawyer who was named justice minister. “Look down there,” he said, beaming as he out the window to an evil-looking contraption in the garden below window. “That’s the guillotine, and I’m sending it into history.” He abolished the death penalty and lobbied hard for Americans to do the same.
For the next three decades, human rights were sacrosanct despite occasional terrorist attacks. Police were public servants, scrutinized closely. If any drew a sidearm, much less fired one, an inquiry followed. Citizens got to talk back.
Before the shift in 2015, a pair of encounters when I ended a visit home to return to Paris illustrate the transatlantic contrast. A Tucson cop, bristling with weaponry, stopped me for a minor traffic offense. Clearly in a bad mood, his look was unmistakable. If he sensed a hint of disrespect, I’d be eating dirt, hands cuffed. I touched my forelock and signed the ticket.
I landed in Paris soon after as a marathon run engulfed the city center. My cabbie reached the last stoplight before getting to my boat. As he nosed into the jammed crosswalk, a huge flic loomed at his window. “Don’t you see those people?” he bellowed. “The light’s green,” the driver replied. After a sharp exchange, he leaned out the window, eye to eye, and taunted: “Blah, blah, blah…” The cop muttered, “Bof,” and left.
That would have gone down differently today.
Social media allows demonstrations to form quickly. Images of police charging crowds, batons flailing, incite retaliation. Mostly, what changed is the character and quantity of who are generally, often inaccurately, called les immigrés.
As AP Paris bureau chief, my territory included North Africa and much of West Africa, along with French-speaking enclaves and islands strewn across the globe. For a book titled Mission to Civilize, I visited them all. Michel Secler, that random “black” who cops pummeled, is from Martinique, among a handful of overseas states as French as Hawaii is American. Territories are like Puerto Rico. French troops and financial aid support most former colonies.
Integration: Our ancestors: the Gauls
Across the ex-empire, kids studied books with a celebrated bit of text, “our ancestors, the Gauls.” They grew up eating gigot d’agneau and driving Peugeots. And they fought wars under the French flag. The idea was integration — be like us and you can become us. That worked fairly well into the 1990s, when newcomers crowded into high-rise public housing projects that became sprawling, squalid exurbs, le banlieue.
I visited the projects often, and once it got ugly. Young toughs hassled me hard until one picked up my accent. “You’re American?” Guilty, I replied. “You should have said so,” he told me, suddenly a close pal. They idolized a wide-open America alive with music and ideas. Their issue was not global politics but rather an entrenched bourgeoisie that condemned a multihued underclass to mostly menial work.
“You call to make an appointment,” one Algerian-born high school graduate told me in impeccable unaccented French, “and when you show up, they look at you and say the job is already filled.” Another, near Mantes-la-Jolie along a beautiful stretch of the Seine, was incensed. “There is nothing here.” He said. “Nothing! All we can do for kicks is take the train into Paris and beat up a Frenchman.”
As small guns found their way in followed by much bigger ones, police gave the banlieue a wide berth. Raids were brief and brutal. Slums near big cities were ripe for radical imams and ISIS recruiters. Middle Eastern refugees swelled the banlieue. Many refused to integrate. Some demanded that the French mend their permissive ungodly ways. Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim tirades added fuel to smoldering embers.
Increasing anti-Semitism is different from the age-old enmity against Jews that prompted Vichy collaborators to deport trainloads to Nazi death camps. France, like Germany, got past that. Now it is political.
As a reporter named Rosenblum, I’ve watched this evolve since al-Fatah extremists lobbed grenades and sprayed gunfire at Jo Goldenberg’s delicatessen in 1982 after Ariel Sharon’s retaliatory raid on Lebanon. Badinter, the former justice minister, was Jewish; his father fled Russian pogroms in 1921 but was deported to a Nazi death camp. Simone Weil, a perennial cabinet member who represented France in the European Parliament, survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Bernard Kouchner, ex-foreign minister and founder of Doctors Without Borders, lost his grandparents at Auschwitz.
Today, infuriated by Israel’s policy toward Palestine, with American support, individuals increasingly lash out at Jews, whatever their stand on Palestinian rights. Insults and harassment outnumber physical assaults.
More than four million Muslims live in France, nearly eight per cent of the population. The government just drafted legislation to curb extremists. Prime Minister Jean Castex says it does not target Islam. “It is the reverse,” he said. “It is a law of freedom, of protection, of emancipation from religious fundamentalism.” The bill targets online hate speech, “virginity certificates” for marriage, home-schooling for children over three and associations that flout “the values of the Republic.”
Turkey, among other Muslim countries, condemned the bill, as did, improbably, Sam Brownback, Trump’s envoy at large for international religious freedom. “When you get heavy-handed,” he said, “the situation can get worse.”
Macron will not likely be swayed by his repressive NATO partner to the east or blatant hypocrisy from Washington. But critics have a point. The law won’t stop clandestine groups and loners from inflaming the crisis. The grand plan is to build low-cost housing scattered across France so new arrivals can integrate into the society, breaking the ghetto mentality of tightly packed impenetrable banlieues.
Roger Cohen summed up the challenge in the New York Times: “That promises to be a long process with an outcome as uncertain as the attempt to legislate away the seeds of extremist Islamism.”
The problem goes far beyond France and so, it seems clear, does any solution. “Civilizing” the world by uncivil methods is doomed to fail. Like climate change, governments have to work together to confront the causes or all suffer the effects. For all its flaws and failures, the French mission to civilize has upheld citizens’ rights to brandish pitchforks at Bastilles and throng the streets when overbearing governments overreach, an inspiration for others fending off authoritarians.
Even after humiliating losses in war, Victor Hugo’s apt if vainglorious words echoed: “France, France, without you the world would be alone.” But, increasingly these days, Les Misérables comes to mind.
Global Geneva contributing editor Mort Rosenblum is a renowned American journalist, editor and author currently based in France and Tucson, Arizona. He has travelled and reported the world more years than he can remember. His regular column, The MortReport, is available online and by email.