Rough weeks in France

7 min read

16 October, 2020. Samuel Paty, a history teacher was beheaded in a Parisian suburb in what President Emmanuel Macron has called an “Islamist terrorist attack”. The motive? He is said to have shown cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo) while teaching his pupils about freedom of expression. The attacker, an 18-year-old man of Chechen origin was shot down by police. Nine other people, including a minor, have been arrested in connection with the attack, and so were 4 pupils of the school who, for some money, pointed to the victim, helping the attacker.

News of the attack spread all over the world as fast as lightning.

Unfortunately, tragic as it was, this was only the tip of the iceberg.

Less media attention was given to other horrific stories from the last couple of weeks – and probably this is why many raised their eyebrows, when, on 2 October, 2020, even before the latest attack, French President Emmanuel Macron promised a series of new measures to curb the “influence of Islam”. What events?

The attack on a police station near Paris, in Champigny-sur-Marne, on 12 October, 2020, for example. The attack can easily be categorized as a siege: fireworks, other projectiles and metal bars were used by the 40+ attackers. A scenery very unusual in Europe. A week before that, two police officers were attacked and shot multiple times with their own guns. The former offices of Charlie Hebdo were also attacked a few weeks ago, leaving two wounded. French officials said that the attacks were “the latest among numerous attacks against police officers, and sometimes firefighters”.

Unlike with the attack on Mr. Paty, the ethnic identity of the attackers was not specified when policemen were targeted (in one of the cases it was said they’re from a housing project with 10.000 inhabitants), and this gives ample space to speculations and conspiracy theories. But in similar cases in the past, it was acknowledged that tensions have long run high in those densely populated and often poor areas where large immigrant communities live. Combine the above and it implies that the perps might have had immigrant background.

COVID restrictions and loss of jobs due to it might just have escalated those underlying tensions even further. And with the pandemic just starting to peak on its second wave, things might get even worse. It’s been established by many sociological researches that in times of crisis hate crimes and anti-immigration feelings skyrocket in any society.

The French Alliance of Police Unions issued a statement, claiming “There is no longer any respect for law enforcement and unfortunately the government has not succeeded in changing this trend.” President Macron said that the beheading of Samuel Paty was “another sing of the great savageness” undermining French values. Both have some truth, though not the whole truth. Just as most French citizens do respect law enforcement, most of the time they also aren’t savages.

Macron didn’t say it but every single attack makes it more and more difficult to react to it in a calm and restricted manner. And every single attack makes it easier for far-right or anti-immigration parties to spread their racist ideas and gain votes. (Valerie Pecresse, the rightwing leader of the Ile-de-France region, quickly used the opportunity to say that “these are literally scenes of war”.)

Are we frogs in heated water?

Understandably, in many cases, authorities try to hide the ethnic/religious background in order to keep the rage of society under control: even if it means that cooperation (a.k.a. silence) from the news outlets is requested. Just like it was the case in 2016, when German news outlets, in cooperation with the police tried to conceal the number and gravity of sexual assault cases during the New Year’s Eve party in Köln/Cologne. For the Greater Good, of course.

Freedom of speech and independent journalism as pillars of democracy? We curb them only for the sake of social peace, to avoid flaming anti-immigration sentiments.

The new regulations proposed by President Macron cover a wide variety of topics, from giving more money to tackle local issues or placing mosques under greater control all the way to demanding from imams to have French degrees. But some touch upon the fundamental rights of people, like the planned ban on homeschooling and/or enhanced control of independent schools. What, homeschool? Who cares? It is illegal in many European countries, so why does it even matter? And it is absolutely not widespread in France, either. So what?

The reasoning behind these measures was that Islamist extremists use these possibilities to segregate their children from mainstream French society. The fact that out of the approximately 50.000 homeschooled French children (and the 50.000 more going to independent private schools), only a small proportion is actually Muslim and an even smaller proportion belongs to some extremist group, while many of them are Christians or non-believers, is of secondary importance in light of this new proposal.

The fact that, because of a small minority, they’d restrict the right (granted by the Constitution) of every French parent to choose the way they want to educate their children and they’d also put very different kinds of, mostly peaceful religious believers into one category, is apparently also of less importance. The fact that this could be averted by less restrictive ways (like exams in the end of the year)? It doesn’t matter, either.

Because it is for the Greater Good, the Republic (thus said Macron).

But will it truly solve the issue? Germany has compulsory schooling, yet integration results are not much better, just ask any Turkish person in and around Berlin. And if it’s not working, what comes next? A ban on religious schools in general? Because, obviously, we can’t ban only Muslim schools.

I know this sounds like a marginal issue, even an over-exaggeration, but it is just an example.

Rule of law in a courtroom means that the principles of due process of law, like right to a lawyer, the principle of innocent until proven guilty and such, are applied. This, in some cases means that we need to let go some who are guilty, because we want to ensure that no one goes to prison innocently. There’s a delicate balance at play. If we tip that balance by restricting some of the above principles, we might end up with innocent people in jail.

The same is true to every freedom granted now in Europe. If we start to cut back on freedoms, any kinds of them, we might end up like that frog in the fable with the boiling/heated water. (Ignore the fact that the story is scientifically incorrect, please.)

The realities and problems of integration

While I doubt (and have repeatedly written) that our countries will be turned into Muslim kingdoms, the existence of such enclaves is indeed a threat. And by ‘such’ I mean the police ’no-go’ zones. But there are many minorities and religious communities all around Europe that live in close knit (almost closed) communities, have their own language, customs, schools, etc. And cause no problems at all.

And not every Muslim and not every Chechen is a terrorist, either. Migrants are often the target of discrimination, racial bias and victimization. You can fill libraries with research showing this. Arguments can go back and forth (can’t wait to see all your comments on this) about who is responsible for the situation in which many migrants (or their communities) find themselves, why they aren’t truly integrated into the society that hosts them, let them be real refugees, asylum seekers or simple migrants who came here to work or even are second or third generation. A friend of mine from Central Europe could tell you many stories about trying to find a flat in Brussels but being able to rent one only after the intervention of a Belgian friend of hers. And she has fair skin, blue eyes and is fluent in French. And there are thousands of similar stories.

Many ideas around migration are oversimplifications, painting it either good or bad, or anything in between: that’s another source of endless debates. Another library can be filled with the solutions offered by NGOs, think tanks and other civil and/or expert groups and with the results (and failures) when they are tested on the ground.

The thing is we have a huge problem. Large parts of society, sometimes of a special ethnic or religious background, simply not being truly parts of it. And I don’t think it is racism to talk about it, as long as we try to stick to the facts and try to leave our emotions and biases out of the debate and try to focus on solutions instead of playing the blame game.

But as of now, no one has a solution.

And in light of tragic events like those in France, politicians are prone to overreact. Because they must be seen “doing something”.

Since being PC and anti-discriminatory requires the authorities not to discriminate against any social group, it’s extremely difficult to regulate situations like the one in France. So, it happens, and with tensions running high, it might happen ever often, that we throw out the baby with the bath water, as the Germans say. We can’t create a regulation specifically targeting one subgroup, because it’d be discriminatory, so we curb the rights of everyone else, hoping that the target group will be affected, too.

What next? (Schaffen wir das?)

Things have dramatically changed in and after 2015. Back then, it was considered outrageous to say that one doesn’t want immigrants or wants to control the flow. Many friends of mine were on train stations all around Europe, helping and feeding the newly arrived (with chicken, so they don’t offend their religious beliefs) and they quarreled with everyone (including me) who looked at the events through a “security policy lens” and dared to say that we might have some problems in the long term. Because Wir schaffen das.

Now, we are closer to a balance: no one believes in entirely closed borders, but it is not a shame any more to claim that one doesn’t believe in completely open borders, either. And one’s not automatically labelled xenophobic for it.

But we still didn’t manage to draw the line between open and closed borders, acceptable and inacceptable behavior, the level of preferred and/or acceptable or minimal integration and such.

If we truly want to protect our European values, the ones we so vehemently defend when it comes to rule of law violations in Poland, Hungary and to a lesser extent in many other countries (see the latest report of the Commission for details), we need to handle the situation, in accordance with our own values.

It’d be a lot easier if we could just “close the tap” and focus on those who are already in. Integration is a marathon; it takes not years, but decades to fully come through. But it is not possible, immigration is here to stay. So, we need solutions for both short and long term.

This might mean that in the short term we need to calibrate the numbers coming in to any country. Some can handle more, others, due to their already fragile social framework or other issues, less. Even the countries hosting large migrant communities should be able to say: “as of now, we can’t handle more”. This is partially reflected in the new European migration policy currently on the table. If we leave out mandatory relocations, we might end up with a different kind of solidarity: more money, more manpower, and more resources to those on the frontline and at the same time, limited inflow due to other measures also included in the pact.

This also might mean more spending on housing, schools and hospitals. Here again, there are countries that can afford more, while others cannot absorb the influx without harming the services they already give or are struggling to give to their citizens. Especially when a pandemic, like COVID hits and economies plummet. European funds might help in these cases, as well.

This might mean that we take tradition and culture into account and not label our fellow European citizens “deplorables” (a.k.a Hillary Clinton) or “xenophobes” on face value just for not wanting a foreigner as a neighbor. And this also might mean that we turn the “Greater Good” upside down: namely, either by trying to apply more targeted instruments or by indeed taking measures that might be considered discriminative against particular groups in order to ensure that the liberté of the majority of law-abiding citizens is granted. Like the freedom of speech.

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