France, Racism and the Left | The Nation


France, Racism and the Left

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

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.

About the Author

Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

Also by the Author

It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

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.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.