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Charlie and the Banlieues

Paris.

They came in their hundreds of thousands. Jews, Muslims (although fewer than hoped for), Christians and atheists: Students, workers, the unemployed and the bourgeoisie. They said “I am Charlie.” “I am Ahmed.” (the policeman executed at Charlie Hebdo). “I am a Jew.” Or, they just said nothing.

They were anarchists, communists and ultra nationalists, social democrats and conservatives. There were also islamophobes and anti-Semites. The one thing that united them all was their refusal to yield to fear and their desire to keep the freedom to think what they want and to be able to say it in public without facing obscurantist violence. This coming together of those who want the right to disagree with each is extraordinary. France, which gave us the Enlightenment, 1789 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is still Une Grande Nation.

Then there were the world leaders. Ukrainian Prime Minister, Arsenily Yatseyuk, who has neo-Nazis in his government and has done nothing to bring to justice the fascists and their police accomplices who murdered 48 ethnic Russians in Odessa last May.

There was Hungarian Prime Minister, Victor Orban, who has taken numerous measures to muzzle the opposition press, earning the scorn of Reporters without Borders which ranks his country 64th in press freedom. He has also come under international criticism for his treatment of gypsies and his party’s rampant anti-semitism.

Also present was the Israeli Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, whose human rights record on Palestinians needs no comment. Israel is a country Professor Shlomo Sand calls “the most racist society in the world!” Netanyahu used his Paris visit to call on French Jews to migrate to Israel where he says they will be protected implying that in France they are not.

For five days reporters ran with the story, following the police, counting the dead, whipping up hysteria, staying on the surface of evolving events, keeping us well-informed about what we could see happening on the screen.

And, of course Omni-present on all the TV stations are the political and religious leaders, the system’s analysts and experts and apologists promoting the “valeurs de la République”; the talking heads all pointing their fingers at radical Islam “imported” from the Middle East, “which has no place in our République,” informing us that “this is not Islam.”

But the problem is the three murderers were children of France: born, educated and imprisoned in La République. They are the extreme product of a broken experiment. Perhaps this is why the one thing that is blatantly absent from the ‘boob-tube’ were the Banlieues, those suburban ghettos where the cités are located, faceless housing projects built for low cost immigrant labor in the 1960s and 70s and where the great majority of France’s Muslim population is parked.

The life of an Arab or Black youth is one of humiliation. They can be stopped several times a day to have their identification papers checked by police. Their horizon is blocked by the 15 storey concrete slab of housing across the way. Unemployment is three times the national average. So what if their parents came here for a better life? The promise is not for them. As one school teacher put it “equality does not exist and the pupils are not fooled.”

This could be seen when some students walked out of their classrooms, whistled and heckled rather than respect last Thursday’s minute of silence for the 17 people murdered by the three Islamist gunmen. Hash-tags and internet traffic hail the assassins as heroes.

For many of these youths, France is at war with Islam. The Army was in Afghanistan. Paris spear-headed the campaign to overthrow Gaddafi. They are bombing Syria. They are fighting Muslims in Mali and the Central African Republic. Given the frustration of their daily lives, feeling victimized by a society that has stacked the cards against them, many have a natural tendency not to see the fanatics as “bad guys.”

The rhetoric over the week end can only reaffirm their belief of war. On i-Télé Saturday, Roger Cukierman, the President of the Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) declared the attacks in Paris to be the beginning of “World War Three” and likened them to what is happening in “Syria and Gaza.”

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy said “war has been declared on France.”   For the editorialist, Ivan Rioufol, writing in Le Figaro: “Franceis at war. Perhaps at civil war tomorrow. Its enemy is radical Islam, political Islam, Jihadi Islam.”

Roger Cukierman’s answer seems to be one which would make tensions worse in the Arab and Muslim ghettos of France. “We are in a state of war,” he said. “We need measures at the scale of a state of war.” The Spanish born French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, is deploying up to 10,000 troops to back up the police.

Some marchers on Sunday carried posters which read “the response is more democracy and more liberty” but politicians in France are debating administrative detention: the arrest and jailing of a person, not for what he has done or is planning to do, but for what he could do given the way he thinks and speaks. It is a “measure at the scale of a state of war.”

More repressive laws are on the way because “nothing will ever be the same.” Many people told me “this is our 9/11.” Valls has promised government decrees as soon as possible. “I don’t want there to be youth who do the ‘V’ for victory after what has happened.” Among measures to be taken are preventing “suspect” nationals from leaving the country even if they have done nothing wrong and banning internet sites on which fundamentalist ideas are spread.

“We change an era tomorrow,” one government advisor is quoted as saying. “Mobilize the courts, detect them in prison, domestic and foreign intelligence, intercept communications, controls at the borders: everything is on the table.”

It is not hard to see why Muslims would feel targeted in general. All of these measures will be applied to their neighborhoods when what they would like to see are measures to help them find jobs, to cut back on police harassment, to live with dignity rather than feel persistent humiliation. More repression may not be enough to convince the marginalized banlieue youth that Jews are people who deserve respect; that women are equal; and that others have a right to a different religion, or no religion at all.

If measures are not taken to right every wrong decision France has made concerning its immigrant population over the past fifty years, beginning with a whole new urbanization program, the increased policing may only produce a French intifada and more furious killers.

In a speech in Evry Saturday where he was once mayor, Prime Minister Valls managed to juggle two opposing notions. While he applauded multi-cultural, multi-religious Paris on the one hand, he also denounced communautarisme, the identity with a race, ethnicity and/or religion which goes above the nation. The interpretation angry Muslim youth will have to Vall’s call for “secular tolerance” is that Multikulti is alright if you are wealthy or Jewish and live in the capital but not if you are an unemployed Arab living with your parents.

As the German philosopher, Jürgen Habermass, pointed out in an interview after 9/11, tolerance is not the same thing as hospitality. “Tolerance possesses the kernel of intolerance” because it implies a stronger person or nation allows the weaker to act as she pleases within imposed limits. And it looks like those limits are going to be even tighter for France’s Muslim community.

George Kazolias is a journalist based in Paris.

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