As France grieves for those whose lives have been so brutally taken, and more emergency and counter-radicalisation measures are discussed, the future for a peaceful Europe rests on how our leaders diagnose the problems that we collectively face.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but far from suffering from an excess of multiculturalism, European thought and culture are suffering from too much monoculturalism. And as Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus, Fanon and all the great intellectuals who once strode like giants over French culture knew, a Europe that does not understand ‘the Other’ does not understand itself.
Following the events of 9/11, all European countries re-aligned their ‘race’ policies towards an assimilationist, monocultural approach to integration. The ‘colour-blind’ approach to integration (in the UK, Eric Pickles calls it ‘mainstreaming’), was no approach at all, and, in France, where ethnic monitoring is illegal and assimilation is the norm, the problems of discrimination and police racism were simply ignored. As long as the youths fouled their own nest, and violence was turned inwards, the Socialists and the Union for a Popular Movement paid little attention. No French government of whatever political colour has ever acknowledged the structured racism faced by those living in the banlieues, nor attempted to check aggressive policing, particularly around identity checks. And this despite, year in year out, urban unrest and rioting.
The Front National leader Marine Le Pen has called for the reinstatement of the death penalty, but many young people have come to believe that French police, who are armed, already operate an undeclared policy of lethal neutralisation. Most of these ‘riots’ came in response to a police shooting or a death in police custody, of which there have been literally hundreds in France over the last three decades ( and at least 127 between 2000 and 2014, according to ‘Urgence notre police assassine’), for which no police officer has ever been held to account. These were spontaneous uprisings but in recent years no progressive movement has emerged to direct the anger. Gone are the national movements for social justice that once characterised the banlieues, such as the Marche des Beurs, or the more recent Social Forum of the Banlieues. As left politics was dissipated, angry youngsters, feeling both abandoned and/or manipulated by the ‘official’ anti-racist movements and constantly harassed and racially abused by the police (and by Sarkozy, who called them ‘scum’), found in street life and hustling, and then, in a kind of ghetto Salafism, a means of existence. Just look at all the profiles of the recent ‘terrorists’ in France – from Mohammed Merah to Amédy Coulibaly. They started out as juvenile delinquents, drug pushers and petty criminals, subsequently radicalised in prison. Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, whose French-Algerian parents died when they were 12 and 14, were subsequently raised in a French orphanage, hardly the Islamic upbringing of Nigel Farage’s nightmares. (Similarly, the British-Nigerian murderers of drummer Lee Rigby, also petty criminals, were both converts, having been brought up in a Christian household.) The profiles of all these young men are remarkably similar. Deprivation, criminality, a childhood scarred by racism and exclusion, ignorance, all these formative experiences made them all easy prey for, what David Cameron has now described as, ‘fanatical death cults’.
If Europe is to come out of its darkness, we need to name the problem for what it is. It is a problem of deprivation and alienation, and it affects many of our poor youngsters, whether neo-Nazis or jihadists. And naturally this deep and structured alienation has been made worse by the global violence, broadcast live every minute of the day, that has emanated from the war on terror and now through international fanatical movements, of whatever fundamentalist or ideological bent.
But we need to go further – Europe needs to come to terms with itself, with the violence and decay, the greed and corruption, the dissipation and anomie, at the heart of its political and intellectual life. Just as today there is a revolving door between politics and corporations, with former senior ministers and even prime ministers and Presidents sliding from office straight into lucrative jobs for themselves in the oil and security industry, journalists today are not always what they seem. Too many journalists have become ideologues. Robert Ménard, a founder and former head of Reporters Without Borders – which campaigns for press freedom – is now the FN-backed mayor of Beziers.
Nor is satire free from some of the most harmful ideologies of our times. Cartoonists serve a similar function in society to court jesters, a necessary antidote to hypocrisy, a way of laughing at ourselves. The poor massacred cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were indeed jesters, but jesters tragically blind to the Islamophobic current they served.