Is France Building an Apartheid State?

Ed. note: Watch the documentary at the bottom of the article.

In our documentary released earlier this year, Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie, Max Blumenthal and I surveyed the landscape of French society in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, interviewing representatives of French Muslim and Jewish communities, political activists, academics and average French citizens. The accounts we recorded told of long-exacerbating pressures on inter-communal relations that are rapidly approaching a state of low-level civil conflict. The minority citizens we spoke with were seething under a system that has given rise to daily encounters with discrimination and systematic exclusion from the public space.

In turn, French reality has been punctuated by seemingly random, spectacularly gruesome acts of violence carried out by individuals who come from the most excluded sections of French society. They are at once native-born citizens of France and the country’s ultimate outsiders. The main perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the atrocities this November were not a foreign presence which has disturbed a peaceful status quo in French society, but the unwanted, outcasted byproducts of the French Republic and its imperial legacy in the Middle East.

Whether or not we are willing to describe the situation in impoverished French banlieues (suburbs) as outright apartheid, as Prime Minister Manuel Valls did this year, the toxic combination of militaristic government policies abroad and draconian, discriminatory policies at home have unleashed an authoritarian mood among the general public. For French Muslims and other minorities, the situation increasingly resembles the plight blacks faced in apartheid South Africa and even that of the Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. Though French minorities confront only a shadow of the disproportionate violence that Israel has visited upon Palestinians, they have found themselves in a permanent state of exclusion enforced by a regime of increasingly brutal repression.

The racism that has always simmered just above the surface of mainstream French society has reached historic highs. In the month following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the Collective Against Islamophobia measured a 70% rise in Islamophobic incidents, 80% of which were directed against Muslim women usually targeted because they wore hijab. This includes Islamophobic language, verbal and physical assaults and property damage. Since the terrorist attacks of November 13, mosques, halal butchers, kebab restaurants and town halls have been attacked.

The scale of this racist tidal wave on Muslims can be gleaned from a statement made by a Parisian policeman, who said he is "overwhelmed with false accusations" made by civilians toward people perceived as Muslim. This goes hand in hand with the systemic use of racial profiling by France's security forces. This populist assault on France’s Muslim community has been incited by high-level Islamophobia from the country’s leadership, whose excesses include laws banning the Islamic veil, shuttering mosques, imposing state-friendly, puppet-like religious leadership, removing non-halal options for Muslim school children, and the anti-immigrant bile spewed by members of the far-right National Front and former President Nicholas Sarkozy's center-right "Republican" Party.

How does this situation mirror apartheid, or the Israeli regime of ethnic separation known as hafrada, and whose benefit does this state of affairs serve? Undoubtedly, France’s political class has been careful to avoid canonizing an overt ideology of ethno-supremacy, and yet the effects of state actions have clearly led to the same result. In our documentary, Houria Bouteldja, a founder of the leftist minority party known as the Indigenous Peoples of the Republic, claimed it was “the figure of the Christian, white, European person” who the state privileges with power and wealth in the society, who is legally positioned above “the black, the Arab, the Muslim and the Roma” person. It isn't a visible form of apartheid, but a regime of separation which is enacted through systemic, naturalized forms of domination and violence. As her fellow party leader Youssouf Boussouma described to us how the French authorities banned demonstrations against Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, then meted out harsh punishments to young Arab males who took to the streets, “this government behaves toward certain sections of its populations as if they really were citizens of an occupied country.”

The reality Bouteldja and Boussouma painted for us reflected the consequences of a long-term, generational process of exclusion and inequality that stemmed directly from the history of French colonialism in Africa and the Middle East, the treatment of French colonialists to the indigenous populations which it ruled over, and the actions of the French army in those colonies.

Ethnic separation is also maintained through the urban environment, where large numbers of Arab and African communities languish in a spiral of poverty, relegated to second-class citizenship and physically separated through deliberate planning. Ethnic divisions are most notable in Paris, where successive waves of immigration from France's African and Middle Eastern colonies were settled in underfunded, distant suburbs. Meanwhile, gentrification is pushing the remaining minority communities out of the socially engineered Parisian city center, relegating them to the immiseration and despair of the banlieues. The périphérique, the ring road encircling the 20 districts of Paris and elegantly buried underground in the genteel neighbourhoods of the West and South, functions as a concrete roadblock cutting off access to and from the lower-class neighbourhoods of Saint-Ouen, Saint-Denis, Aubervilliers and Montreuil to the North and East. What this leads to is a growing cultural and ethnic homogenization of the center, through turfing out the different Others to the periphery. As Boussouma, the minority rights activist, remarked, “We have the feeling that... this isn't the same country, that these aren't the same norms, not the same references, that [we] live in a sort of sub-humanity.”

Following the atrocities of November 13, President François Hollande launched a state of emergency across France, which has since been extended for the next three months. The emergency regulations represent a legal no-man’s land between peacetime common law and wartime state of siege that has allowed the French state to deploy a war without needing to call it one. This is a war of low intensity, whose main tools are legal and judicial rather than through physical offensives. The state of emergency allows local officials to impose curfews, limit the freedom of movement and enter residences in certain areas, forbid individuals from entering certain zones and place them under house arrest in arbitrary fashion. French citizens who remember the Vichy regime have made the connection between the expanded policy of house arrests, and the creation of concentration camps by the Vichy regime, who used the same expression of 'house arrest' to justify their draconian clampdowns. The state of emergency was also used during the Algerian war to imprison thousands of suspected nationalist sympathisers.

What sort of result can we expect when the widespread ethnic profiling by French security forces is armed with a state of emergency? At the very moment when the French army is beefing up its military presence in Syria, it is impossible to demonstrate against these military operations, just as it was illegal to gather in large crowds for the COP 21 climate change talks recently held in Paris. Indeed, 26 environmental activists have been placed under house arrest, preventing them from protesting against the climate talks.

The new rules have been applied most firmly against the minority banlieue dwellers who bear the figure of the "terrorist." The day after the November 13 attacks, police stormed through the impoverished St. Denis neighborhood where two of the assailants lived, stopping and frisking young Arab men in droves, and raiding homes indiscriminately. By early December, the authorities had closed at least three mosques, and arrested hundreds after more than 2,200 raids carried out under the premise of anti-terrorism. Laurent Wauqiuez, the number-three figure in Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republican Party, has even suggested placing French citizens under terror investigations in internment camps.

While dynamics in French society have come to resemble those in Israel-Palestine, with deep fractures along ethnic lines, suppression of civil liberties and racist incitement, the Israel-Palestine crisis has been simultaneously imported back into French society. The French government entertains an obsequious relationship toward the State of Israel, having invited Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to Paris following the attacks in January while slavishly supporting his successive assaults on Gaza. France's security and intelligence forces cooperate closely with their Israeli counterparts; the municipality of Paris even stoked controversy earlier this year by hosting the city of Tel Aviv for a one day event at the Paris Plage artificial beach, whitewashing the murder of children on the beaches of Gaza one year earlier. At the recent COP 21 climate summit, Parisian authorities deployed a surveillance balloon made by Israel and first tested on occupied Palestinians by the Israeli army.

France can also be considered as contiguous territory on the war on Palestine. The French government is assisting Israel’s strategic imperatives by acting as the only country in the world that has criminalized the boycott of the State of Israel. A memorandum issued in 2010 by then-Justice Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie demanded legal actions against BDS activists on the specious grounds that their political activities represented a form of anti-Semitic hate speech. In recent weeks dozens of activists of the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement have been taken to court under the so-called Lellouche law. This month, four more activists will stand trial in Toulouse for distributing pro-boycott material.

Omar Slaouti, a BDS activist who was summoned to trial under the Alliot-Marie directive, hears disturbing echoes of Israeli rhetoric in French political discourse. “The political language used to justify Western wars of foreign intervention is the same used by Israel to justify its occupation of Palestine,” Slaouti said, “and the same discourse wielded by the French political and security class towards the French underclasses.”

During a demonstration last year in protest of Israel’s war on the besieged Gaza Strip, the extremist Jewish Defense League instigated a scuffle with anti-war protesters, throwing projectiles at the demonstrators before fleeing for safety behind line of riot police. The French government reflexively took the side of JDL and its supporters, criminalizing all further demonstrations in support of Palestine. This suppression of Palestinian solidarity has been supplemented by attacks on anti-Zionist Jewish organisations, such as the the Union of French Jews for Peace (UJFP) and Juives et juifs révolutionnaires (Revolutionary Jews) by the JDL.

A French-Israeli hacker named Ulcan (real name Gregory Chelli) has taken refuge in Israeli-controlled territory, where he terrorizes activists from the leftist UJFP. A typical Ulcan prank caused riot police to rush to the home of UJFP president Jean Guy Greilsamer to respond to a false claim that Greilsamer had killed his entire family and would open fire on any police who approached his home. Ulcan is a former member of the JDL, which has appealed to French police for direct security coordinations, particularly in heavily Jewish areas like Sarcelles that also contain large Muslim and immigrant populations. A Jewish community leader from Sarcelles, David Haik, told us that this collaboration is already taking place below the radar.

“When the army is called in to protect some French citizens against others,” Haik remarked, “it's the beginning of a civil war.”

Kahina Rabahi assisted in the reporting of this article.

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