Last week it was reported that France’s highest administrative court upheld a ruling against a long-term Algerian resident of France. The lady in question was to have become a French citizen but was denied the opportunity solely on the basis that she refused to shake hands with a male official at her 2016 citizenship ceremony. There is something particularly odious about this – the framing of it, and what it signifies – but I suspect far more to come, particularly judging by France's tough new immigration law introduced yesterday, which some politicians complained treated migrants as "criminals" and allows children to be locked in detention centres for up to 90 days.
The way last week's case is framed is simple: a non-French individual wants to become French but is "insufficiently French" to do so. The evidence provided is also rather simple: she, it is claimed, rejects certain quintessentially French norms of conduct. Thus, her citizenship application – although satisfactory according to French law – is to be arbitrarily denied. That's the frame. And it's nonsense.
There are four major points to be made here. The first is about discrimination; the second is about Western culture; the third is about Algeria and the fourth is about Islam.
The first is the most blatant, because it is hard to come to any conclusion other than this is discriminatory against an Algerian Muslim woman. Had the applicant been, for example, an Algerian Muslim male, he would have been given citizenship. Had the applicant been female but was a traditional Jewish Israeli, moreover, is it any less than fanciful to assume the same treatment would have been meted out?
All that is very pertinent indeed because there are many French-born citizens who likewise would have been reticent to shake hands with an unfamiliar member of the opposite gender. Their reasons might have been different but at the end of the day, their notions of personal space and their freedom to reserve intrusion into that personal space, would have taken precedence. It is, after all, their own personal space. That might be a conservative view – even an ultra-conservative view – but it surely doesn’t obviate their belonging to France. If so, then the French state might find it has to reconsider the citizenship of many an Orthodox Jew. Of course, that’s not likely to happen or even become a subject of public discourse.
After all, some people might choose to greet with kisses on the cheek. Others might choose to greet with handshakes. Other still might choose to hug. All of these are intrusions into one’s personal space – but it is the choice of the individual to accept or reject such intrusions. At a time when the #MeToo movement is so well-known, it is absurd that one needs to note such freedom to refuse intrusions is indeed a personal right. But this is 2018. The reality is that none of this is remotely relevant to citizenship in French culture in particular, or western cultures in general – rather, it is a foil designed to problematise a particular group in Europe. And that group is the Muslim population.
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Before examining the Islam or Muslim aspect of this controversy, the Algerian identity of the lady in question cannot be overlooked. Because France has a long history with Algerians – and the French state’s colonial enterprise in Algeria in the 20th century remains a stain upon France even today.
Finally: the Islam aspect of this episode must be kept at the forefront of analysis. Only one day before this ruling by the court, the French president – a "centrist", we are told – declared that those who wear the headscarf must be "tolerated", as though they are doing something particularly odious. Indeed, the French president, who is supposedly the president of all Frenchmen and Frenchwomen, admitted he was "not especially happy" when some French Muslim women chose to wear the headscarf. But he has to "tolerate" it – very progressive, indeed, that a man has to "tolerate" a woman’s free choice to wear a scarf on her head. Of course, no such "toleration" is warranted when it comes to French Catholic nuns – then, the word "toleration" does not apply. With that section of French society, their choice is not even questioned.
But this is part and parcel of the rise of populism in France, and more widely, Europe. Such problematising of Muslims and their religious practice is widespread – and not simply on the right, but across the political spectrum. The sentiment is becoming less subtle every day and ever more blatant.
There are senior politicians, even heads of state, in Europe today who express the most abhorrent declarations about Islam and Muslims; which, if they were uttered about Jews, they would be castigated, rightly, as anti-Semitic. We've come a long way, it seems, only to take several steps back.
It was only a few years ago that much of the European Union threatened a diplomatic boycott of Austria for the inclusion of the extreme right in its government. Today much of the rhetoric of that same extreme right is mainstream and it has a direct impact upon European citizens. Only today, France introduced tough new immigration laws which, some politicians complain, treat migrants as "criminals" and allow children to be locked in detention centres for up to 90 days, double the previous limit.
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The essential question is rather simple. Europe today has tens of millions of Muslim citizens and more residents. Will we, as Europeans, recognise their belonging? Or will we continue to further problematise them, as somehow foreign and alien to our continent? If so, then we forget our all too recent history when it comes to failing to accept the "other" – and the consequences will unlikely be fruitful for us, our children and generations to come.
Dr HA Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London