[DEBATE] : vive la resistance
hein at marais.as
Wed Oct 3 06:37:48 BST 2007
The French government aims to deport 25,000 illegal immigrants by the end of
the year. But the police snatch squads aren't having it all their own way. A
new 'resistance' has sprung up, inspired by memories of wartime deportations
and shame at the way France treats its ethnic minorities. Angelique
Wednesday October 3, 2007
Like most illegal immigrants working in Paris's textile sweat shops, nail
bars or restaurants, Chulan Liu kept her head down. A 51-year-old divorcee
who left her only son in northern China this summer, she spoke no French.
But she knew the name Nicolas Sarkozy and his order for police to round up
thousands of France's "sans papiers" - immigrants with no papers and no
right to stay.
When, a fortnight ago, officers knocked at the Paris flat Liu shared with
four Chinese sans papiers, she panicked. She leaped from a window and hung
from an awning by her fingertips, like a scene from a bad Hollywood film.
She hit the pavement awkwardly and died.
Ivan Demsky, 12, was a popular pupil at his French secondary school, but his
Chechen and Russian parents were failed asylum seekers. When police came to
their flat in the northern town of Amiens in August, Ivan followed his
father in escaping via the balcony. He fell four floors to the street below
and into a coma. He has regained consciousness but is still being treated by
The faces of Liu and "le petit Ivan" have been broadcast all over France in
recent days and displayed at demonstrations against what the left call
As police struggle to pick up and deport President Sarkozy's target of
25,000 illegal immigrants by the end of this year, France is searching its
soul. The right says the nation must be firm with its 200,000-400,000
illegal immigrants, many who have been in France for years. Others on the
left say the police swoops on street corners, metro stations, outside
schools and workplaces bring back uncomfortable memories of the wartime
occupation, when a collaborationist government helped deport more than
75,000 French citizens and Jewish refugees to the Nazi concentration camps.
More than 22,000 people have joined protest movements and underground
networks to hide immigrant children and prevent their parents' deportation.
They call themselves a new Resistance.
Marie-Pascale describes herself as a typical thirtysomething bourgeois
Parisian. She is proud of her aristocratic roots and Catholic beliefs. She
wears expensive gold jewellery, has three small children and a good career,
but she has a secret life defying the French state. She and her husband
recently hid two children of sans papiers in their apartment in gentrified
"I'm not an expert in clandestine activity. I had to learn quickly," she
says. Two west African teenage brothers came to live with them from a
provincial town in rural France. It was easier to hide them in multiracial
eastern Paris, where they could be anonymous. They were enrolled in a local
secondary school and cover stories were invented. To the neighbours, a
missionary had asked the family to look after the boys. To the boys'
classmates, they were relatives of Marie-Pascale, who had supposedly been
adopted as a child by Africans. The boys were allowed to leave the apartment
only to go to school. "They were banned from using instant messaging systems
online in case they could be traced, but often when I turned on the computer
I would see they had been on. There had to be give and take, they were under
so much pressure," she says. "I couldn't tell my parents-in-law what we were
doing because they are Sarkozy supporters."
She says she was inspired by the French people who hid Jewish children
during the occupation. "What you are doing would have changed our lives in
1942," one French Holocaust survivor told her. Marie-Pascale's own
conservative family was probably "on the side of collaboration" during the
war, she says. "I fear a sad period of our history is coming back. But these
children, when they feel excluded in the future, will have learned from us
that French society isn't monolithic or monocultural. They will remember
people were prepared to defend their place in France." If the children who
are being sheltered can't be deported, French law makes it impossible to
expel their parents.
What it takes to be accepted in France is a central question as the country
struggles to keep up with the frenetic first months of Sarkozy's presidency.
The nation that once openly welcomed foreigners - and in the 1930s had
proportionally more immigrants than the US - is facing awkward questions not
just about its sans papiers, but about its colonial history and the place of
French citizens descended from immigrants.
Sarkozy, the most popular president since Charles de Gaulle, has gone
further than anyone - including the Socialists - in opening up the
government, appointing what he terms "visible minorities" to senior
positions. For the first time France has a key minister descended from north
Africans - the justice minister Rachida Dati, who grew up on one of the
poor, multiracial housing estates in Chalon-sur-Saône in Burgundy. Rama
Yade, the daughter of a Senegalese diplomat, was appointed to the foreign
office as Sarkozy's "Condi Rice". A leftwing women's rights campaigner of
Algerian origin, Fadela Amara, who still lives in a council flat, has been
appointed to help solve the crisis on suburban estates.
But campaigners still wonder if this means France is prepared to accept its
black or Muslim citizens. It is nearly 10 years since the country's
multiracial football team was hailed as a symbol of a rainbow nation, after
Zinédine Zidane and the "bleus" won the 1998 World Cup. But it's not just
the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen who complains there are too many black
people in the team. A leading Socialist regional head was kicked out of the
party this year for making the same observation.
Sarkozy believes France is in the grip of an "identity crisis" and must
learn to love itself again. His first step in his quest to reunite France
behind its traditions and erase what he calls the "I hate France" graffiti
on multiracial housing estates was to create a controversial new government
department: the ministry for immigration and national identity. It was
described by the left-leaning newspaper Libération as the defining moment of
a new era.
After concerns from even those close to him, such as the Auschwitz survivor
Simone Veil, Sarkozy lengthened the name of his ministry to "immigration,
integration, national identity and co-development". But more than 200
historians, academics and intellectuals from around the world, including
Britain and the US, signed a petition protesting against it. Eight French
historians opposed to the ministry walked out of a project to create
France's first museum of immigration, which opens next week.
They did not object to the separate concepts of immigration or national
identity, but felt that linking the two suggested that anyone whose foreign
ancestors settled in France - be they African, Chinese or Portuguese - was a
threat to the very notion of France.
"How do you define national characteristics?" asked the historian Gérard
Noiriel. "You can always say France is the Eiffel Tower, or the flag. But
that's pointless." The concept of "national identity", he said, was always
an excuse to define yourself "against" someone else, "the dangerous other".
To the rapper Rost, one of 10 children of Togolese parents, the ministry for
immigration and national identity means "striking fear into the average
French person who can be made to believe that all France's problems stem
from immigrants." He fears "two Frances pitted against each other".
"All French people with foreign roots, even a few generations back, should
go on strike for a day," he suggests. "The whole country would shut down,
even the president couldn't work."
The ministry is headed by one of Sarkozy's best friends, Brice Hortefeux,
who says his mission is to help citizens "live together better". He has
enforced the round-ups of illegal immigrants, however, insisting that France
cannot be seen as a soft touch: "They must know that coming here is a dead
end." With Sarkozy, he has presented France's fifth new immigration law in
five years, limiting families' rights to join immigrants and introducing
requirements for French language and culture lessons. But as the senate
debated the bill last night, Hortefeux faced rebellion in his own ranks.
Some politicians, including on the right, objected to proposed DNA tests to
prove links between immigrants and relatives they want to bring to France.
One senator in Sarkozy's own party yesterday warned "we know the use Nazis
made of genetics". Church leaders cautioned against distinguishing between
"good and bad migrants".
Meanwhile, public protests over deportations have multiplied. Unions at Air
France disagree with immigrants being bundled on to planes, occasionally
with the use of force. Two passengers who put themselves between police and
immigrants being deported on a flight to Mali last month were pursued in
court for "inciting a rebellion" but were cleared. The sans papiers
themselves have marched in demonstrations all over France. Some have gone on
hunger strike. One group squatted in the car park of the steakhouse chain
Buffalo Grill to highlight the extent to which the restaurant trade relies
on illegal workers.
Sarkozy points out that he is the first French president to be "the mere son
of an immigrant", as he puts it. His father is a minor Hungarian aristocrat
who left for France in the 1940s before the iron curtain closed, and later
became an advertising guru. Sarkozy's maternal grandfather was a Jewish
doctor from the Greek city of Salonica. The president has complained about
the burden of a foreign-sounding name. His wife Cécilia is Paris-born but
boasts that she has not a drop of French blood: she is half-Spanish, half
In a sense, France's first couple represent their country's strong history
of accepting immigrants of all kinds. Around one third of people in France
have a foreign relative in their close family tree. For centuries, the
country prided itself on giving asylum to foreigners from across the world.
It still attracts the highest number of asylum applications of any OECD
country. It was not until recent decades that immigration came to be seen as
a problem, bound up with unemployment, poor housing, and issues of Islam in
a secular state.
During his election campaign, however, Sarkozy tapped into unease about
foreigners coming into France and not abiding by the customs of the
republic. He was unashamed about adopting certain rhetoric from the extreme
right. Le Pen's National Front may have been defeated at the election, but
his ideas live on.
When it was first mooted, Sarkozy's department of immigration and national
identity won the support of the majority of French people in polls, although
the left now dismisses it as "the ministry of the round-up and the flag".
The number of immigrants legally settling in France fell in 2005, but a
survey by the National Human Rights Commission that year found that 55% of
French people still thought there were too many foreigners in the country.
One in three admitted they were racist, an increase of 8% from the previous
year. Last year, 51% of French people in a Le Figaro survey felt foreigners
who didn't love France should get out - an old Le Pen slogan, which Sarkozy
paraphrased in his campaign.
Sarkozy's racially diverse cabinet members look brilliant on the endless
magazine covers devoted to them. But campaigners insist the appointments
mean nothing unless the lives of ethnic minorities change. What, they ask,
will stop the discrimination against French citizens who are non-white or
have a foreign-sounding name?
In theory, at least, France follows the republican model of integration:
once a person becomes a French citizen, they are equal before a state that
is blind to colour, race and religion. Multiculturalism along the British
model is, to many, a dangerous taboo. It is illegal to count the number of
black people, north Africans and other minorities in France, or classify
people according to ethnicity - all people should be equally French with no
differentiation, the theory goes.
But in practice, the nation is not colour-blind. When France's black
associations held their first annual meeting last year, American civil
rights activists toured the run-down suburban housing estates and said
discrimination reminded them of life in the US in the 1950s. One survey this
summer found that three out of four companies preferred white to non-white
workers. Black French students with African names have been advised to
change their name to something "more French" when applying for jobs.
Discrimination has reached such a level that last year the government
decreed that companies with more than 50 employees should use anonymous CVs
Patrick Lozès, the president of Cran, France's umbrella group of black
associations, has fought for direct census questions that would determine
the exact ethnic, racial or religious make-up of French society. Without
statistics, he feels discrimination is being swept under the carpet. But
although a clause in the latest immigration law may allow "diversity
statistics", many of those on the French left are opposed. More than 40
leading figures launched a petition warning that counting ethnic minorities
would be "dangerous" and lead to "confrontation" between community groups.
Lozès says that Sarkozy is at a crossroads: he could voluntarily face up to
discrimination in France, measure and deal with it, or sit back and wait for
the race riots. "He must be brave. I think he knows the real level of
discrimination - but does he want to show it to the country?"
Religion and the secular state are also often uneasy. In 2004, the
government banned religious symbols such as the hijab in schools. This week,
a court in southern France will consider the case of a driving instructor
sued for refusing to give lessons to a Muslim woman because she wore a
headscarf. He said the scarf would impair her vision and initially won his
case, although it is now subject to an appeal. In the Vosges, in eastern
France, another court is to consider a case against the owner of a rural
holiday cottage. She refused entry to a family who had made a reservation
and driven 500km, stating the women should first remove their headscarves.
The owner's lawyer said she was simply defending the secular state and came
from a feminist perspective.
The debate over national identity has deepened the festering sore of the
2005, where young people who felt discriminated against, marginalised and
packed away in high-rise suburban ghettos expressed themselves in the worst
violence for 40 years. In three weeks, more than 9,000 cars and buses were
torched, dozens of public buildings and business were burned, 3,000 people
were arrested and €160m (£110m) of damage was done across France, from Paris
to Lyon, Normandy to Toulouse. Many on the estates fear trouble could easily
flare up again.
One recent Saturday on Les Bosquets estate, beyond the Périphérique
ring-road that serves as Paris's moat against the suburban high-rises,
teenagers had torched some wheelie bins for a laugh and firemen were putting
out the flames. Rats darted from the weeds as teenage joy-riders roared up
and down on motorbikes. The tower-blocks with broken windows and
piss-smelling entrances bore a rainbow of grafittied variations on "Fuck the
Hamadi Diallo, 22, stood at a bus stop. He said he was proud to be French.
His parents arrived from Mali in the 1960s, his father worked packing TV
sets in Darty, the French equivalent of Argos. "My parents taught us to work
hard," he says. "I'm lucky - I was only unemployed for a year before I got a
job in a garage. My sister has two diplomas in public administration but can
only get work in McDonald's."
He knows that Sarkozy has proudly repeated that wayward youths on the
housing estates were "racaille" - a word that translates as rabble, but is
perceived round here to mean scum. "It tarnishes everyone. But it's best not
to think about it, because if you did, you'd give up on yourself, you'd lie
down and die".
· Marie-Pascale is a pseudonym.
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