A year after the Bataclan terror attacks, France is still in deadlock on religion and identity

It is one year since a series of terror attacks killed 130 innocent people in Paris but more atrocities would follow as the French government failed to resolve the tension between religious observance and a fiercely secular state.

A placard reading ‘Islam is peace, not barbarism’ is held up against another that says ‘Charlie, I think therefore I am’ during a peace rally in Paris following the killings at Charlie Hebo magazine in January 2015. AFP Photo
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A year ago on Sunday terrorists inflicted massive bloodshed in the heart of Paris with a series of barbarous attack that sullied the name of Islam. The Bataclan nightclub would be the scene of the greatest loss of life in three years of atrocities, including the murderous rampage at Charlie Hebdo magazine. More would follow.

But after Bataclan, as after Hebdo, something strangely uplifting happened. As crowds took to the streets in solidarity with the dead, wounded and bereaved, there was just a hint of reconciliation. Amid the grief and anger were calls for unity in the face of a common enemy of humanity.

In words, spoken or scrawled on banners, demonstrators – who included Muslims as well as those of other faiths or none – gamely attempted to challenge hatred, intolerance and violence and instead preach tolerance and respect.

Sadly, if without great surprise, the spirit of togetherness was cruelly short-lived.

By law, no census in France asks about religious affiliation. But it is accepted that France has Europe’s largest Muslim community, and unofficial estimates put the total at up to 7.7 million at the end of 2011. But there is a long history of failure to assimilate the immigrants who have settled there since its North African and sub-Saharan colonies gained independence.

Religious extremism in France dates back several decades. The most recent spate began with Mohamed Merah’s killings in and near Toulouse in 2012, his victims including Jewish children. The resulting tensions inspire troubling questions about French identity and the concept of vivre-ensemble, how people of differing cultures can peacefully share the same territory.

In those days following the bleak events of the night of November 13, it was just about possible to set aside raw feelings of loathing for the perpetrators and sorrow for the 130 dead, and grasp at a slender ray of hope. Further atrocities and ugly rhetoric – including the unseemly controversy over the “burqini” – have propelled France into a familiar wasteland of mutual antipathy.

As in 1998, when a racially diverse French football team’s victory in the World Cup final offered a vision of social rapport (its slogan black-blanc-beur reflecting the black, white and Arab ethnicity of the team), dreams of harmony quickly vanished. Yet the aspiration seemed simple enough: people, whatever separates them, should be able to rub along together. The principle is not only conducive to social well-being but, if put into practice, has the welcome side effect of frustrating extremists’ desire for perpetual conflict.

In a narrow but compelling way, vivre-ensemble was captured long ago by the Cameroonian goalkeeper Joseph-Antoine Bell. He played for Marseille, a city that suffers more problems with drug-related crime than racial tension. Bell saw this, even in the 1980s. “When we score,” he said, “Jews, Arabs and everyone else rise to their feet at the same time.”

But there is a snag. France cannot decide either what vivre-ensemble should entail, or whether it is even desirable. For some voices, not exclusively on the right, the notion is incompatible with the country’s rigid attachment to laicite, securalism with roots in the 1789 revolution and bolstered by France’s seminal law of 1905.

Defenders of secularism contend that the law separating church and state, with religion excluded from governance of the nation, underpins freedom of philosophical and religious expression and belief. Opponents argue the opposite, detecting a hidden anticlericalism that chips away at the right to observe faith.

The burqini row neatly illustrates clashes of interpretation. A national disgrace, declared those enraged by Riviera mayors who banned body-covering swimwear conforming to Islamic traditions of modesty. France holding firm to its values, retorted the mayors’ supporters. No evidence was produced to justify claims that the garment was a manifestation of extremism, and no one favouring the bans – mostly later overturned by courts – could explain why clothing that was lawful in other public places, even under France’s contentious 2010 law on the niqab, should be illegal on the beach.

France’s loftily proclaimed status as the birthplace of human rights suffered as images swept the world showing groups of policemen confronting Muslim women on beaches, with nearby sunbathers sometimes adding vulgar encouragement to the officers.

Hardly had the courts halted this dark farce than France’s socialist president, Francois Hollande, was revealed to have told journalists that Islam presented a “problem”. He also said the veiled Frenchwoman of today might in the right conditions “free herself” to become the Marianne – France’s national symbol, a ”goddess of liberty” – of tomorrow.

Little wonder that French Muslims find it hard to know where they fit in.

Almost seven years ago, France was making one of its occasional attempts to encourage meaningful debate on national identity.

Outside the magnificent Grande Mosquée of Paris, a Parisian policeman, born in France to Moroccan parents, offered his disconcerting thoughts. “The question should not be ‘what does it mean to be French?’ but ‘do you feel French?’,” said Mohamed. “And I am afraid that I do not. There are many reasons, but above all it’s a matter of my appearance and my name. In France, I am not considered French but in my parents’ home country, I am not considered Moroccan. It is as if I have no identity.”

If an agent of authority thinks that way, it is easy to imagine what plays on the minds of youths in poor, crime-polluted banlieues.

One man with no need to imagine is Magyd Cherfi, a French-Algerian singer, poet, writer and, back in the 1980s, the first Arab on his Toulouse estate to pass the baccalaureat, France’s high-school examination. He was mercilessly taunted, even physically assaulted, because his academic gifts set him apart from resentful young toughs who felt no empathy with French society.

For those contemporaries, he says, the equation was simple: “You write, so you’re French, you’re white, you’re our oppressor.” He was a traitor on two levels, having swung to the ”other side” where his relative lack of militancy was also frowned upon. He sees little change in succeeding generations.

So is vivre-ensemble a lost cause? “We must start to offer a different story of France,” Cherfi, who tells the powerful story of his “bac” year in a book Ma Part de Gaulois (My Part of Gaul), published in August, tells The National. “For so long we’ve been told of a white France, Catholic and eternal. It is time for the story to include the sons of Arab and black immigrants. We need symbols that speak to us, a republic that is benevolent towards immigrants, to feel part of a new family that is both patriotic and cosmopolitan.”

Cherfi welcomes securalism, provided it develops to give all citizens feelings of inclusion. “It just needs to be fairer in its treatment of religions. Secularism has abandoned Islam and fundamentalists of all kinds have filled the void as a weapon against the republic.”

Interestingly he does not feel other countries such as the United Kingdom have coped better with integration, arguing that French minorities have simply become more vocal.

But Pierre Dumazeau, a political writer at the increasingly successful right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuels (Current Values), accepts that France labours more than neighbours to relate to settlers. “Since the 60s and 70s, France has known immigration from Maghreb,” he says, “but the ‘new’ generation of this source of immigration doesn’t feel French. Why? It’s very simple. Year after year our country has abandoned symbols: the national anthem is not taught in school, our flag is not displayed in front of schools or in the street. Young people should be assimilated to a French ideal; but this ideal is disappearing, unfortunately.”

He sees Marine Le Pen’s far- right Front National, widely seen as anti-Islam as well as being openly anti-immigration, as a party much changed from when the leader’s father, Jean-Marie, with his shaming record of insulting Arabs and Jews alike, was in charge. “The fact that FN is the [leading] political party in France shows the real anger of French people,” he says. Le Pen stands a chance of becoming the most divisive president in French history at next May’s elections.

Dumazeau says far too little is done to combat radicalisation and cites the worrying links of some mosques with extremism.

Before he became a centre-right president in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy hinted at tweaking the 1905 law to permit public funding for new mosques, countering the menace from rabble-rousing, self-styled imams preaching hatred of France and the West in squalid makeshift prayer rooms. Today, more concerned with courting voters wooed by the far right, Sarkozy would run a mile from such a suggestion.

Dumazeau attaches more importance to a need for respect to work both ways. “We accept and respect all religions, as long as religions respect values of France,” he says.

A recent front cover asked whether France was heading for civil war. This seemed to echo warnings from an intelligence chief, even before the Nice massacre and the hideous murder of an elderly Catholic priest two weeks later, that the extreme right may be only two or three atrocities from violent response.

Dumazeau rejects the linkage. “It’s not a question of extreme right,” he says. “I was writing about the right to bear arms in France. My investigation showed most French people want to defend themselves, because the French police is exhausted. The French people, French society is so tense, exhausted, unhappy.”

He describes as “unfair, dangerous and stupid” a question on whether Paris’s Black Friday represented the worst French massacre since October 17, 1961, when an unknown number of Algerians, somewhere between a much belatedly conceded official figure of 40 and unofficial estimates of 100 to 300, were killed as police attacked pro-independence demonstrators.

One response might be that while no one with a shred of decency doubts the unmitigated evil of November 13, it is vital in a mutually respectful society that revulsion is also felt at another monstrous act, albeit half a century earlier.

There may also be steps French Muslims could take to make vivre-ensemble seem less unattainable. Some male public transport workers of Arab origin have reportedly refused to shake the hands of female superiors, even turning their backs on them. Writers of Muslim origin have faced abuse or death threats for opposing extremism. Should moderate French Muslims be more willing to denounce such provocations?

Weak flames of reconciliation still burn. There are important role models from the Moroccan-born education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem and the charismatic owner of Toulon rugby club Mourad Boudjellai, born in France but of Algerian-Armenian origins, to the former French football captain Zinedine Zidane. But as well as needing more prominent examples, Muslims must have incentives to regard France and “the republic” as belonging to them, too.

A recent poll of Muslims by the think tank Institut Montaigne revealed contrasts: more than 70 per cent were “completely securalised” or close to being so within French contemporary values, even if strongly observant; 28 per cent, especially the young, held secessionist, anti-secularist values. But terrorism, with further attacks feared, produces the more entrenched attitudes ISIL craves.

France, in short, has an obligation to make its sizeable Muslim minority feel at home. And Muslims could do worse than follow the example of Mohad Altrad, an illegitimate Syrian-born son of a Bedouin tribal leader who rose to head a flourishing industrial group and be named World Entrepreneur of the Year for 2015.

Arriving in France at 17, he encountered hatred of Arabs following Algeria’s independence, but found his own means of rising above prejudice.

“One day,” he says, “I decided that for me to stay, it was not France that had to change for me, but me for France.”

Colin Randall is a regular contributor to The Review.