This article originally appeared in the September 28, 1985, issue, as a “Letter From Europe.”


Racism and xenophobia have raised their ugly heads again in France. As I wrote in my last letter, this development explains the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the ultrarightist National Front, who charges that the “invasion” of immigrants has passed the “threshold of tolerance.”

In reality, the proportion of foreigners on French soil is about the same as it was in 1931, when they made up 6.6 percent of the population. Immediately after World War II the number of foreigners dropped, and it was during the 1960s that our “white niggers” were imported as a temporary work force to fuel France’s (and Western Europe’s) “economic miracle.” These people took the dirty, monotonous, low-paying jobs, allowing native-born workers to climb to better ones. By the time the economic downturn came, in the 1970s, the temporaries were here to stay. Between 1962 and 1982 the proportion of foreigners in the population rose from 4.7 percent to 6.8 percent. The largest gain, however, was registered by North Africans, who went from 0.9 percent to 2.6 percent.

The latter increase is what has aroused Le Pen and his supporters. France can absorb Italians, Spaniards, Poles and Portuguese, but not North Africans, whose manners, customs and religion are dissimilar from those of the French. Ironically the same objections were leveled against Jewish immigrants before World War II. But the point should not be overstated. There are several times as many North Africans as there were Jews before the war, and in a country as centralized as France this creates the need for much greater tolerance.

The Jacobin tradition is still strong in France. Black schoolchildren in the African colonies used to recite the same lesson as Parisian kids: “Our ancestors the Gauls had blue eyes and blond hair. ” This centralizing tradition was particularly strong on the left, which only in the last fifteen years or so has recognized a right to be different for Bretons or Corsicans, let alone for Arabs.

The problem should not be exaggerated, however. Although not a melting pot like the United States, France contains a rich mixture of ethnic groups, by European standards. If you go back three generations, some ten million French people, roughly one-fifth of the population, are of foreign origin. France has a tremendous capacity for assimilation, and it would be surprising if it did not manage to swallow the latest wave. The current tensions result directly from high unemployment and indirectly from the left’s failure for many years to perform its function as the principled enemy of every form of racial discrimination.

The Communists, proclaiming on their banners that workers of all lands should unite, did little to fight against the prevailing racial and national prejudices in the French working class. Indeed, at one point they pandered to these prejudices. In December 1980, the Communist municipal council in Vitry threatened to bulldoze a hostel for black immigrants, saying it should be relocated to another district. The party has since expressed regrets over its policy and, at least verbally, has altered its line, but in this area the damage done is not easily repaired.

Socialists are hardly in a position to play holier-than-thou. Granted that when they took over, in 1981, illegal immigrants got their documents, immigration workers were instructed to treat foreigners decently and the climate did improve for a time. Not for long. In August of that year, French Foreign Secretary CIaude Cheysson suggested in Algiers that France keep one of Mitterrand’s 110 pledges and grant foreign workers the right to vote in local elections. When the right wing raised hell, the government caved in immediately, using the excuse that the country “was not ripe” for the reform–as if the Socialists’ job was not to lead but to lag behind public opinion. Incidentally, while migrant workers have the right to vote in local elections in several European countries, they do not take part in parliamentary polls anywhere (except in Britain, if they come from the Commonwealth). A substantial section of the Western European working class therefore is simply disenfranchised. Modern capitalism, or the return to the model of ancient Greece with its productive slaves?

Another example of Socialist timidity is equally revealing. At the time of the 1983 local elections the Ministry for Immigrant Affairs prepared a booklet with simple answers to the usual xenophobic accusations. From it you could learn that unemployment did not begin its sharp rise until after 1975, when immigration had leveled off; that since most immigrants arrive as young adults, society saves on the cost of educating them; that on balance they are not a drain on welfare; that the rate of criminality is not higher among foreigners than among natives of the same social class. If such knowledge does not produce miracles, it does provide ammunition to counter the propaganda of the National Front. At the last moment, however, the government decided to withdraw the 2.2 million booklets that had been printed. The less fuss over this matter, the better! The success of Le Pen and other candidates of the National Front is the price paid for years of refusal to go against the fashion.

With the left-wing parties burying their heads in the sand, the initiatives had to come from less organized quarters. Before describing them, I must explain two terms: “second generation” and the Beurs. Unlike in the States, the expression first- or second-generation is rather new here and used very loosely. If you are called Poniatowski and are a prince, yours is a good old French name. If you are a minister, like Socialist Pierre Bérégovey or the conservative Lionel Stoleru, you are considered French, even if your parents happen to come from Eastern Europe. If you are good with a tennis racket, like Yannick Noah, or at kicking a soccer ball, like superstar Michel Platini, you’re as French as a baguette or Camembert cheese. You are “second generation” and a problem only if you are plain Ben Mohammed, born on French soil but the son of an Algerian worker. And because you are likely to live in a suburban slum, where unemployment is high and tensions are real, you are more of a problem. You are a Beur.

Just as Londoners have their rhymed cockney, Parisians have their verlan–reverse slang. You say ri-pou when you mean pourri, i.e., rotten. Beur in this slang comes from Arabes and is used to refer to young Frenchmen of North African origin. In October 1983, the Beurs started a march from Marseilles to Paris to protest police harassment, unequal treatment and other forms of racial discrimination. While they were en route, three drunken louts threw a young AIgerian out of the Bordeaux-Vintimille express to his death. I am not suggesting that the National Front plotted this crime, merely that such a racist murder was made possible by the pro-lynching climate created by its propaganda. Many French people were shocked by the atrocity, and tens of thousands came out to greet the Beurs in the capital.

On the morrow, however, nothing much had changed, and a year later another movement, called Convergence for Equality, sponsored a mass moped ride to Paris. The emphasis this time was on the possibility of living fruitfully together “despite our differences.” The riders even invented a witty slogan: “France is like a moped. To move forward it needs the méange,” a play on the French word that means both a mingling of races and the mixture of gas and oil required for those bikes.

The most successful slogan is “Hands off my pal,” part of a campaign called SOS-Râcisme launched by a group bf Parisian young people. Its spokesman is a half-West Indian and half-Alsatian youth with the predestined name of Harlem Désir. True, this movement has gained more followers in middle-class schools than in working-class suburbs and its advertising has the slickness of Madison Avenue, but its impact has been enormous. More than a million buttons bearing the campaign’s symbol, a warning hand, have been sold. The huge antiracist concert in Place de la Concorde was proof that the young can be mobilized. A measure of the political impact of the event was the rage with which Le Pen and his cronies greeted it, calling it “anti-French.” Last but not least, this movement has given an opportunity to young Arabs and Jews to stand on the same platform for the first time in quite a while.

France has the second-largest Jewish community in Europe, just behind that of the Soviet Union. Since religious affiliation is not recorded here on any government forms, estimates of the number of French Jews vary between a half-million and 750,000. In any case, it is a population very different from the one that lived here before the war. Ashkenazi Jews from Alsace and Eastern Europe are now outnumbered by Sephardic Jews from Spain and North Africa. For the first time in the twentieth century, France’s chief rabbi is a Sephardi. When he was appointed, there was a joke going around that went: And what did the Ashkenazis get in return? Answer: The archbishopric of Paris. (The present archbishop, Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, is of PoIish-Jewish origin.)

In France the “black feet” are not an Indian tribe. Pieds noirs was the name given to French settlers in Algeria, and it was hoped that they would forget their colonial resentments once they were back on French soil. They haven’t, as the nearly 11 percent of the vote the National Front received in last year’s elections to the European Parliament shows. The pieds noirs in general, and the Jews among them in particular, have little love for the Arabs. And vice versa. So it is encouraging to see that some Sephardim and Beurs are working together in the campaign against racism. SOS-Râcisme’s first important demonstration, in April, was provoked by the murder of a Moroccan and the wounding of a West Indian in the town of Menton, in southern France, and by the explosion of a bomb at a Yiddish film festival in Paris. Jews and Arabs marched together chanting slogans condemning those crimes. More recently, two young Beurs joined a Jewish delegation that traveled to Auschwitz to hold a memorial service. And next year, Jewish youths plan to take part in a commemoration of the Algerians who were massacred by the Paris police toward the end of the colonial war. Admittedly, this alliance is still fragile, and holds together only because its members avoid debate on the Middle East. Yet symbolism is important. The most inspiring demonstration I have witnessed here occurred in May 1968, when, to protest the expulsion as an “undesirable alien” of Danny Cohn-Bendit, one of the leaders of the student movement, tens of thousands of people gathered at the Bastille and chanted, “We are all German Jews.”

That slogan came straight out of old socialist tradition. Our elders had great hopes and simple convictions. They believed that racism was a weapon of the right, an instrument of the bourgeoisie. It, along with other forms of injustice, would vanish after the revolution ushered in a classless society. The persistence of racism and discrimination in the Soviet Union has led some people to draw the conclusion that socialism contains no solution and others, myself among them, that the countries of the Soviet bloc are not socialist. Yet even we have to admit that things are more complex than they once appeared. Racism’s roots are undoubtedly economic and social. Its revival in France must be linked with unemployment, exploitation, inequality, overcrowding, insufficient funding for health and education, and so on.

But prejudice has acquired a life of its own over the centuries. The battle against this plague does not begin magically the day after the revolution. It begins here and now. It is the daily struggle against all forms of fascism in everyday life. When the first race riots occurred in the 1950s in London’s Notting Hill district, a liberal editorialist proclaimed in genuinely surprised indignation, It can happen here! Yes, it can happen anywhere. But it does not have to.