The Multi-Ethnic France That is Under Attack – By Ethan Katz

Ethan Katz on what the Paris attacks mean for France

The horrific attacks of this January in Paris — first on the satirists at Charlie Hebdo and then on Jewish customers in the kosher supermarket Hypercacher two days later — have elicited a flood of narratives, analyses, and prescriptions regarding what ails France. It might seem as if there is little left to say. Yet surprisingly absent from most discussions has been a recognition that these were, in significant part, attacks specifically on a multi-ethnic France. The reality of that France, as the attackers would have wished, risks being completely lost due to the logic of not only the violence itself but also many of the subsequent conversations about it from across the political spectrum. Particularly with historical perspective, we can appreciate how crucial the fact of France as a multi-ethnic patchwork is to understanding both the attacks themselves and many of the debates that have surrounded them.

Multi-Ethnic Targets

The attacks struck targets deeply reflective of France’s diversity. Contrary to what their worldview might imply, in their attack on Charlie Hebdo the jihadists did not murder a group of white Christians whose families have lived in France for generations and who are singularly intolerant of Islam. First, among the murdered staff members of Charlie Hebdo were two Jews, Georges Wolinski, born in Tunisia, and Elsa Cayat, born to Tunisian immigrant parents; and the Algerian-born Mustapha Ourrad, who identified with his Kabylian roots. A Muslim police officer named Ahmed Merabet was killed in the street as the attackers left the scene. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, moreover, have long critiqued racism and its exponents.

As too few English language commentators have noted, while the magazine did caricature Muslims and the Prophet Mohammed, it caricatured any and all groups if it had a political point to make. Frequently, the magazine attacked racism specifically. The extreme right-wing anti-immigration party the Front National, which has often criticized Muslims specifically, was a favorite target of the magazine. Cartoons commonly used irony to satirize discrimination against the very group whose image appeared in its caricature. A December 2013 cover, for instance, pictured Boko Haram sex slaves wearing the veil, complaining that they were losing their benefits, in order to mock the conflation of Islamism abroad and social welfare policies in France. Many such cartoons, however, were easily lost on certain audiences; more to the point, if Charlie Hebdo fits within certain aspects of left-wing anti-racism in France, its disproportionate mockery of religious dogma, and Islam in particular, appears to suffer from the same longstanding problems as left-wing multiculturalism in France more broadly. But more on this later.

In a different manner, the supermarket Hypercacher (literally translating to super-kosher) was also emblematic of the multi-ethnic France that exists today. A couple of generations ago, France had no large supermarkets that so visibly catered to a religious minority, because it would have been considered too public a display of religious identification in a country that prides itself on its public secularism. Yet since the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel, and even more so since the 1967 War, Jews in France have become increasingly confident about public displays of religious and ethnic affiliation. In many neighborhoods of Paris and its surrounding areas, the streets are filled with not only openly kosher food markets and restaurants but also those of other religious and ethnic groups, including halal butcheries for observant Muslims. In many instances these Jewish and Muslim markets and restaurants are situated in the same neighborhoods or even on the same streets. These elements of shared space reflect a long history (which I detail in a forthcoming book) of Jewish-Muslim cohabitation in France. This history has been characterized both by potentially conflicting Jewish and Muslim religious and political group identifications and by, in many instances, overlapping Jewish and Muslim cultural and social daily life. Indeed, Hypercacher was not just a proudly Jewish site within a multi-ethnic landscape; its employees included Lassana Bathily, a Muslim man born in Mali, who helped to save several Jewish shoppers by hiding them in a refrigerator for hours, and was rewarded soon after with full French citizenship.

Since the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel, and even more so since the 1967 War, Jews in France have become increasingly confident about public displays of religious and ethnic affiliation

Multi-ethnic France has been under attack in other notable outbursts of violence against Jews in recent years: In March 2012, Mohamed Merah’s most lethal attack was against the Jewish school Ozar HaTorah in Toulouse, which aims to cultivate both an attachment to Judaism and an appreciation for French culture; his preceding attacks sought to kill French soldiers of Maghrebi origin in particular. In the summer of 2014, some of the most notable anti-Semitic riots occurred in Sarcelles, a banlieue (outskirt neighborhood) north of Paris that has long prided itself on its multi-ethnic character and has seen itself as a model for how religious minorities can at once coexist and find their place for expression within the Republic. The neighborhood is even described by many as a “Little Jerusalem” for its very public mix of large numbers of Jews and Muslims. At least initially, most of the rioters who attacked synagogues and Jewish sites in Sarcelles were not local residents but Muslims coming from other parts of Paris or its banlieues. Some residents have reasoned that they were drawn to attack specifically a place of multi-ethnic coexistence. During the riots, local Muslim imams in Sarcelles reached out to local Jewish leaders and even issued a formal apology that denounced the rioters, trying to restore the good relations of the neighborhood.

Mirror Outlooks of the Jihadists and the Far Right

The renewed narrative by some commentators in the wake of the attacks of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West corresponds, however unwittingly, to the vision of both the jihadist attackers and the French extreme right. Mohammed Merah, Mehdi Nemmouche (the Algerian-born French Muslim who carried out the lethal attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussles in May 2014), and Cherif and Said Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly — the perpetrators of the most recent attacks — all underwent processes of radicalization under the influence of jihadist clerics. Their worldviews were shaped in part by the writings of contemporary Sunni jihadist thinkers such as Abu Mussad Al-Suri. Al-Suri has encouraged a war of small acts in Europe that will, he explains, ideally provoke a wave of Islamophobia and thereby facilitate an open civilizational struggle.

Meanwhile, the far-right Front National, seeking to rebrand itself under Marine LePen’s leadership and enjoying high standing in French opinion polls, offers a kind of mirror-image of the jihadist vision. According to the Front National outlook, French civilization and the West more broadly are under siege, and immigration, multiculturalism and the presence of Muslim culture are all both enabling the rise of Islamism and leading to a fundamental loss of French and Western values.

Competing memories of French decolonization and postcolonial migration become important here as well. Front National founder and longtime leader Jean-Marie LePen was among those of the far right who fought personally to keep France’s prized imperial possession of Algeria under French control. Many in LePen’s party find France’s Muslims to be both a reminder of the loss of empire, and an unacceptable violation of the civilizational hierarchy at the core of what remains a colonialist worldview. Conversely, radical Islam sees the history of colonialism as emblematic of all Western relations with the Islamic world, and frequently places jihadism within longer traditions of anti-colonial struggle by Islamic militants.

These Islamists map the Israel-Arab conflict as well onto notions of a wider struggle between Western, Christian, and Jewish forces on the one hand, and those of a pure Islam on the other. By contrast with many pro-Palestinian activists in France of preceding generations — who were often at pains to articulate a distinction between Zionists and Jews, and between their support for the Palestinian cause and their attitude toward Jews in France — for Mohamed Merah, for Mehdi Nemmouche, for the anti-Semitic rioters of last summer, and for the attackers of this January, Jews in France were, by definition, legitimate, subhuman targets inseparable from Zionism and colonialism. According to the same worldview, Muslims in France had to ally with their Palestinian brothers, in complete opposition to their Jewish neighbors.

Thus it is for a host of reasons that a multiethnic France in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews might coexist peacefully utterly defies the visions of both the radical Islamists and an extreme right that at once positions itself as militantly secular and remains strongly inflected with France’s Catholic heritage.

Ambivalent Multiculturalism on the Left

But the activist left in France has its own deep problems with a multi-ethnic republic. Despite continuing to speak a language of inclusion, the far left in France has increasingly shown neither the necessary level of acceptance for difference, nor the required assertiveness about the values and norms that underpin mutual toleration. In the first instance, portions of the activist left in France have taken up a militant version of what the French call laïcité, loosely translated as public secularism. Thus, for instance, the eagerness with which Charlie Hebdo satirized religion broadly and Islam specifically suggested the same discomfort with all things religious that has haunted many left-wing efforts toward multiculturalism in France since the 1980s. A kind of religious difference that is common to much of observant Islam and Judaism — in the form of public religious symbols and religious law that deeply informs daily practices — is something with which France’s ostensibly multiculturalist left has never fully come to terms (the same is of course true of the far right). Yet this is the very sort of difference that has come to mark France as a more publicly multi-ethnic space.

The struggle around secularism and multiculturalism has come to the fore once more in the wake of recent events, and extends very much to the mainstream left and beyond. Since the attacks, President François Hollande of the Socialist Party has staunchly defended the immutability of a rather restrictive reading of laïcité; fierce critiques have been heard from parts of the left against anyone advocating greater tolerance for public expressions of Islam. Others have instead highlighted the challenge of finding a balance between the importance of maintaining a set of core values around secularism and showing toleration toward the changing ethno-religious landscape of France. As the work of political scientist Véronique Dimier has shown, France has a much longer history of debates between more militant and more pragmatic notions of republicanism and laïcité. Contrary to the insistence of some that Islam in France today makes unprecedented demands of compromise, Dimier notes that historically, the republican state sometimes took an even more accommodationist route specifically toward its Muslim colonial subjects of the empire.

France has a long history of debates between more militant and more pragmatic notions of republicanism and laïcité

Meanwhile, in recent years, when parts of the activist left — often those most affirmative of multicultural difference — have insisted on toleration, they have done so in ways that increasingly render the concept meaningless and divorced from the liberal values of the Enlightenment. Thus the avowedly anti-Semitic Cameroonian-French comedian Dieudonné, convicted in court now several times for acts of hate speech, finds his greatest defenders not only on the extreme right but also even more frequently on the far left. When Mohammed Merah died at the end of a dramatic stakeout following his gruesome crimes, much of the left-wing media became fascinated by him, focusing on his life circumstances rather than his acts or his victims. The left-of-center daily Le Monde, for instance, carried a fictional cover story written from Merah’s perspective. When they observed a moment of silence following the tragedy, teachers in at least a few schools in France included Merah’s name among the victims.

Banalization of the Holocaust is part of the same picture. Dieudonné’s mockery of the Holocaust, including in a reverse Nazi salute called the quenelle, has been widely embraced by many of his supporters, especially on the far left. A September 2014 poll showed that more than half of voters for the far left parties in France agree that Jews utilize the Holocaust for their own advantage, and nearly 40% believe that Dieudonné is correct that the Holocaust is too often discussed. Until quite recently, the Holocaust remained a bulwark of liberal values in France that helped to remind people of the dangers of all sorts of racial discrimination. In the mid-1980s, the visit of President Ronald Reagan to the Bitburg cemetery in Germany, where he laid a wreath at the feet of German soldiers who had died in World War II, provoked protests from not only Jewish but also Christian and Muslim anti-racists within the left-wing SOS Racisme coalition. Indeed, all participants seemed to understand what today’s far left risks forgetting: widespread insults to the memory of the Holocaust have the potential to jeopardize the acceptance of France’s liberal heritage and the right to difference — essential components to a multi-ethnic society.

Multi-Ethnic Visions of France

Despite the shifting relationship between Muslims and Jews in France, as Maud Mandel suggests in her recent book Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict, the overtaking of a more complex reality on the ground by a story of conflict is hardly new. And yet that more complex reality persists. The much discussed statement of Prime Minister Manuel Valls in front of Hypercacher the day after the murders there that “France without Jews is not France” must be understood in part as an articulation of a vision of France that, increasingly since the 1970s, has acknowledged the country’s more multi-ethnic fabric. Greater clarity on this point might be found in Valls’s statements before the National Assembly three days later that “I don’t want there to be Jews who may be afraid or Muslims who may be ashamed.” These words imply something akin to the “right to difference” championed by SOS Racisme in the 1980s. In the face of jihadism, right-wing racism, and left-wing indifference or intolerance (not to mention, occasional anti-Semitism), that same vision was out in force in the unity rally that on January 11 brought nearly 3.7 million people into the streets across France. When we understand France as a multi-ethnic republic that sees itself as under attack from these forces, the much-criticized decision of President François Hollande not to invite LePen’s Front National to participate in this unity rally makes far more sense, not only ideologically but politically.

The same sense of France as a place that permits public expressions of ethnicity was on display in the Grand Synagogue of Paris when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a visit. Netanyahu entered to loud cheering, invited French Jews to come to Israel in his speech, and then, as he concluded his remarks, he watched awkwardly as the same audience spontaneously broke into the Marseillaise. This moment expressed the way that for many French Jews, loyalty to Israel is not at the expense of their love of France. It is rather part of what it means to live in a republic that allows for ethnic diversity. That is a France that has been thrown into question from multiple quarters, and for which it remains well worth staying and fighting.