So France, flying the flag for secularism, equality and modernity, has bravely banned an item of clothing worn by an estimated 2,000 women – the veil properly known as the niqab, though often referred to as the burqa. Before we congratulate the French for this bold move, let’s explore some background.
Anecdote: A Mauritian friend, a light-skinned, mixed-race guy, was in Paris recently visiting family. Walking down the road with his blonde wife and their toddler, they passed a respectable-looking guy… who racially abused them and spat on their child.
Anecdote: A French friend of mine, “N”, grew up in the notorious estates (projects) in the Paris banlieues (suburbs). His mother was French, father was an Indian Muslim immigrant, and so in French terms, he’s foreign. He grew up along with other excluded sections of French society: Arabs, North Africans, Jews, Sub-Saharan Africans. Racial harassment from police was a daily part of life. He became a gifted graphic designer, but no company in Paris would hire him. He moved to London and quickly found a well-paid job. He still sees France as home, but without employment, couldn’t live there.
Anecdote: A French friend of mine lives in London. She’s white, “native” French. She visits family regularly. She tells me that racist talk is now openly accepted among white French people, with no shame or stigma attached.
Anecdote: The black British journalist Gary Younge studied for some time in Paris. He’s written of his experiences during that time, when he faced regular racial abuse and police harassment, to the point where he began to feel hatred for white people.
Anecdotes are interesting but don’t prove anything: But what about the UN report that advised on a “significant resurgence of racism” in France? The 1998 poll showing France to be the most racist country in Europe, where 38% of French people described themselves as racist? The 2005 uprisings by poor North Africans who had finally had enough? My friend N’s experience wasn’t unusual: in 2005, 5% of white graduates were unemployed, compared to 26.5% of graduates of North African origin.
Outside of football, non-white faces are barely seen in public French life. France applauded itself when its first black newsreader appeared on TV. In the 70s? 80s? 90s? Actually, it happened in 2006.
The picture at the top of this article is of a yellow Star Of David with Juif written on it (“Jew” in French). In Nazi Germany and occupied Poland, Jews were forced to wear stars saying Jude – “Jew” in German. But in Vichy France, the French carried out the persecution of Jews, and they did it the French way. While some European countries resisted German demands to hand over their Jewish citizens, France sent over 75,000 French Jews, Jewish refugees and other French citizens to the death camps. After World War 2, Germany was forced to live up to the horror of what it had perpetrated; but France was not. The willingness with which the French turned on their own Jewish population was buried, and the myth of the French Resistance was amplified instead, to present France as a heroic nation under occupation.
This is the France that banned niqabsyesterday. Europe’s most racist country, a segregated state that has never allowed equality or integration for its minorities, a country where people of Muslim origin have trouble finding employment or good housing, and face routine harassment and brutality from the police. Those who believed that this is about women’s rights or promoting secularism have been fooled – this is simply France doing what it does so well: bullying powerless minority groups that can’t hit back.