Gaza conflict exposes France’s own struggles with xenophobia

An article analyzing France’s decision to ban a protest against the war in Gaza in Paris, published in Al-Akhbar English in July 2014.

As Israel continues its deadly onslaught on the Gaza Strip, tens of thousands across the world have descended into the streets in support of the Palestinian people. But amid this wave of international support, France has become the only country so far to ban pro-Palestinian protests, leading to widespread outcry by French activists who denounce this infringement on their freedom of expression and reject accusations of anti-Semitism. With France witnessing the growth of a xenophobic political discourse over the past decade, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become the latest receptacle for tensions in a divided nation.

On July 13, an estimated 15,000 people gathered in Paris to call for an end to the Israeli assault on Gaza. However, coverage of the large gathering was quickly overshadowed by clashes between members of the Jewish Defense League (LDJ) and pro-Palestinian demonstrators outside of the Don Isaac Abravanel Synagogue on rue de la Roquette.

It was later revealed that the altercation had been provoked by the LDJ — a far-right Zionist militant group that is banned in both Israel and the United States — whose members had sent taunting tweets calling on “propalo” activists (a derogatory word for pro-Palestinians) to find them near the synagogue of la Roquette. French media was quick to jump on the story, initially framing it as an anti-Semitic attack by pro-Palestinian activists against the synagogue before retracting its coverage in light of testimonies and video footage of the scuffle.

The government, however, strongly condemned the incident. “Anti-Semitism cannot be used because there is a conflict between Israel and Palestine,” President François Hollande said on July 14, warning that there would be “no tolerance” for disturbances to public order, adding that he “had asked for these demonstrations to be banned.”

Disregarding the context behind the altercation at la Roquette, a decision was taken on Friday to ban a pro-Palestinian protest planned to take place in Paris on Saturday July 19, as Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve argued that “the conditions [were] not right to guarantee security” and calling on police prefects across the country to consider banning other pro-Palestinian rallies on a “case by case” basis.

Transgressing such a ban is punishable for up to a year in prison and a €15,000 ($20,200) fine, penalties that triple if a demonstrator covers their face. Advertizing a banned demonstration on social media is also a punishable offense, which can reach up to seven years in prison and a €100,000 ($134,800) fine if it the post is found to have sparked violence.

Thousands of demonstrators nevertheless gathered at several locations in the French capital on July 19. French riot police cracked down on the gathering in Barbès, which quickly turned into a full-blown altercation between security forces launching tear gas cannisters and protesters throwing slabs of pavement. The violent police operation in this low-income neighborhood of northern Paris, compared to the calmer situation for protesters in more touristic areas, “was a reminder of the most somber hours of the colonial era,” according to protest organizers, who estimated that some 10,000 people had defied the ban.

Xenophobic climate

The government’s blundering and short-sighted management of the Gaza assault and its repercussions in France has highlighted enduring fractures in French society. Ever since Jean-Marie Le Pen, then-leader of extreme-right party Front National (FN), reached the second round of presidential elections in 2002, France has been struggling with the fact that a growing number of citizens espouse xenophobic or outrightly racist views, often at the expense of its citizens of immigrant origins from former colonies.

Instead of addressing the root causes of this increasingly hostile mentality, including the country’s bleak economic prospects, French politics have shifted further right of the political spectrum in an attempt to capture FN votes. This has led to an increasing focus on Muslim citizens and their public expressions of faith, notably with the 2005 ban of “ostentatious religious symbols” in high schools – ie, the hijab – and the ban of the niqab in 2010, a garment thought to be worn only by an estimated 2,000 women in France.

This crackdown in the name of France’s particular brand of secularism,laïcité, has led many Muslim French citizens to feel ostracized in their own country. The situation is only exacerbated by the strong correlation between immigration, discrimination and poverty in France, a subject that remains taboo in a country skittish about public conversations on race.

France has still not figured out how to make space for citizens who choose to hold on to their roots, whether religious or national. Instances of vandalism by some supporters of the Algerian football team during the World Cup were used as a pretext by Mayor Christian Estrosi to ban the “ostentatious” display of foreign flags in downtown Nice, while current FN leader Marine Le Pen called for an end to dual nationality. Nice, not quite so coincidentally, has also banned some pro-Palestinian protests.

In this context, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resonates deeply with many citizens with origins from former French colonies, who identify with the Palestinian struggle to assert their rights.

As pointed out by Benjamin Joyeux on website Médiapart, France “continues to treat its children from traditionally Muslim popular neighborhoods as second-class citizens.[…] After that, we can’t be surprised that young and old, most of whom having never set foot in Palestine, (who are) victims of a double discourse of the Republic for all but not really, are affected by what the Israeli army is now doing in Gaza, according to international law for all but not really.”

It is important, however, to note the diverse support for the Palestinian cause in France, which brings together anti-racism movements, anti-Zionist Jews, anti-capitalists, environmentalists, communists, as well as secular and Muslim groups. But in a country where 74 percent of respondents in a 2013 Ipsos poll said they felt that Islam was “incompatible with French society,” and a 2011 poll showed that 76 percent thought “foreigners” were not making enough efforts to integrate themselves in France, visibly Arab or pro-Arab public movements make many French citizens and politicians uncomfortable.

This xenophobic discomfort has come to a head with the Gaza protests, even though the vast majority of the demonstrations across France have gone smoothly. Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said that France “will not tolerate attempts to – with violence, words or acts – import the Israeli-Palestinian conflict onto its soil,” a call which has been repeated by Hollande and other major French figures.

This hand-wringing conveniently ignores Valls’ own outspoken pro-Israeli stance, as he once proclaimed that he was “linked in an eternal way to the Jewish community and Israel” through his marriage to a Jewish woman.

Hollande has also repeatedly supported Israel’s “right to self-defense” since the beginning of Operation “Protective Edge,” without addressing the legitimacy of Gaza’s own self-defense faced with a highly equipped military force – whose nuclear arsenal France has directly contributed to.

The relationship between France and the Israeli occupation goes further, as pointed out by Alain Gresh, the editor of Le Monde Diplo:

“When the Israeli army organized in May 2014 a meeting at the Victoire synagogue to extol its merits and to register recruits, who was creating the link between Israelis and Jews? […] When a gala is organized in support of the Israeli border police every year in Paris, who is importing the conflict in France? The French ambassador to Tel Aviv doesn’t forget to hail the ‘courageous engagement’ of young French in the Israeli army. What would the French government say if young French Muslims went to fight in Palestine? And yet it accepts that some participate today in the [Israeli] offensive against Gaza.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict takes on an even bigger significance in France, home of the third-largest Jewish population in the world and frequently accused by Israel of being rampant with anti-Semitism. In a joint press conference with Hollande in 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly called on French Jews to immigrate to Israel. This controversial position has been regularly trotted out by Zionist writers over the years, as they argue that France has become uninhabitable for Jews who should seek refuge in Israel.

While France has undisputably witnessed extremely troubling incidents of anti-Semitism in the past several years, including a 2012 shooting in front of a Jewish school which killed four people – not to mention French complicity in the Holocaust during World War II – the Zionist conflation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism has bled into French discourse in a troubling way; delegitimizing the pro-Palestinian movement by letting the actions of dozens speak louder than the political outcry of thousands.

The very public condemnation of the pro-Palestinian movement compared to the perceived leniency towards the LDJ has also tragically stoked the flames of anti-Jewish resentment for some, directly contributing to religious tensions in the country.

Pascal Boniface, director of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) and author of France ailing from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has called for a more frank discussion of Israel and Palestine in France:

”Forbidding demonstrations in solidarity with Palestinians, as has been suggested by the president of CRIF [Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France], would be a remedy worse than the wrongdoing itself. Or should we then also forbid events in support of Israel, which one would think includes CRIF’s annual dinner? Fear of dividing the public, of heightening tensions, of adding fuel to the fire, means that far too often we don’t tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict frankly. The will to not import it is often highlighted. Inasmuch as it is part of our daily lives and that things can only exacerbate it, this is not the good solution. We must to the contrary advocate so that we can discuss it completely freely without restriction.”

A protest in support of Gaza in Paris has been approved for Wednesday, a political recognition, perhaps, that the ban only served to create more national antagonism over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the situation has highlighted on an international scale the tensions within France and the country’s inability to face full-on its responsibility to its ostracized citizens, as well as the political complacency of the “country of human rights” (as France likes to call itself) with regards to Palestine.

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