Mr. Vincent Peillon, former French Minister for Education recently denounced it courageously. Before him, and quite reluctantly, former French prime minister Manuel Valls was forced by President Hollande to acknowledge the existence of a ‘’territorial, ethnic and social apartheid’’ when refering to the French banlieues. Marine Le Pen’s National Front party is likely to succeed François Hollande’s Socialist Party at the next French presidential elections in May of this year, in the same way Adolf Hitler’s NSDAP succeeded the German democrats Weimar Republic in 1933. If one has indeed to be cautious when calling upon History to make a rapprochement with today’s troubled times, awkward similarities between the political, economical and societal situations of Nazi Germany and present-day France are but serious causes for concern.
I took part, slightly more than a year ago, in the marking of the 111th anniversary of the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and State, a law that established state secularism in France. The anniversary coincided with a second celebration; the annual nationwide anti-racism and anti-Semitism campaign organized by the French government through its ad-hoc department, the DILCRA (www.gouvernement.fr/dilcra), a questioned ministerial body overseeing the fight against racism and anti-Semitism in France.
During a week, throughout France and its 101 prefectures, different events had to be organized to raise awareness among the French population of the devastating effects of increasing racism and anti-Semitism on France national cohesion. In addition to the screening of Les Hommes Libres (Free Men), a 2011 French movie which recounts the largely untold story about the role that Algerian and other North African Muslims in Paris played in the French resistance as rescuers of Jews during the German occupation (1940-1944), a debate between Mr. Dominique Natanson, author of ‘’ A Jewish Voice Against Racism ‘’ (une parole juive contre le racisme, editions Syllepse) and myself was scheduled to discuss racism and anti-Semitism in France.
Reading Mr. Natanson’s book in preparation for the debate, I could not be but astonished by the offensive tone used by Mr. Natanson in his book to denounce a French institutional discrimination against French Muslims. Son and grandson of French Jews deported and assassinated in Auschwitz in 1942, Dominique Natanson explains in his book how the successive French governments have been applying, in turn, a double standard policy as far as racist and anti-Semite related acts are being dealt with; very firm and alert reactions for anti-Semitism acts, more lenient and permissive reactions for racism against French Muslims.
The crowd attending the debate was partly composed of French citizens of Arab background. Keeping the latter in mind during the debate, I did not want to let Mr. Natanson explain openly to our audience, a week only after terrorist attacks took place at Brussels airport (where 32 persons died and 340 injured), that the main responsible for the French Muslims to be ostracized in France was the very French institutions. Neither could I figure out during the debate whether the author was convinced by the ideas developed in his book.
This debate took place on 24th March 2016. We are today 29th March 2017. A year has just passed. Twelve months later, I still do not share all the views expressed by Mr. Natanson in his book. What I can confirm on the other hand, quite reluctantly but with a great deal of conviction, is a feeling for French Muslims of never having felt so close to a 1930’s German Jewish citizen than in today’s France. From an early age in France, kids are exposed to what the European Jews went through throughout the twentieth century. The memory of this part of Europe’s history has always been kept very vivid amongst us. Vivid to a point where an increasing number of French citizens of Muslim tradition have started today to draw an analogy between their own condition in France and the hardship experienced by the Jews during Nazi Germany and Vichy France. Something has undoubtedly and increasingly changed during the last decades in the way French people look at themselves. France national motto ''Liberty, Equality, Fraternity'' has become an illusion, if not a joke among the French Muslims.
Earlier this year, on 3rd January 2017, Vincent Peillon, former presidential candidate and Minister for Education (10 May 2012 – 2 April 2014) under François Hollande’s presidential term, compared the current situation of French Muslims with the situation of Jews under Vichy France (1). He exposed how a form of Republican and secularist fundamentalism has become a mask to hide a new form of virulent racism directed at French Muslims, stating very clearly and courageously that the French secular 1905 law on secularism was being instrumentalized by French politicians and intellectuals with a hidden agenda to ostracize French Muslims even further. This statement by Vincent Peillon during a TV program where he was invited to defend his presidential candidate program was faced with immediate and fierce condemnations, provoking very hostile reactions on the part of right-wing candidates and far-right organizations alike. While many French politicians like to boast publicly about their intellectual filiation with an historical figure such as Charles de Gaulle, why French Muslims would not be allowed to claim publicly a political and social lineage with Jews under Vichy France and Nazi Germany ?
"Territorial, ethnic and social apartheid"
Mr. Peillon is not the first public figure in France who dares to draw this comparison in public. Our French political elite, in its majority trained at the École Nationale d'Administration (ENA), knows only too well what were Vichy France’s responsibilities in the persecution, deportation, and annihilation of Jews between 1940 and 1944. Many among this elite would agree with Mr. Peillon's assertion. Some of them would even admit it in private. On 20th January 2015, less than two weeks after the Charlie Hebdo killings, France prime minister Manuel Valls, usually very harsh on French Muslims, was forced by president Hollande to acknowledge the existence of ‘’territorial, ethnic and social apartheid’’ (2) to refer to the French banlieues, adding that this denied reality ‘’poses a very serious threat to our country’’. Two years later, in 2017, the situation has worsened dramatically. As a matter of fact, French Muslims ended up accepting their conditions of second-class citizens. They have accepted the fact to be discriminated in the job and housing markets. President François Hollande and his prime minister Manual Valls clearly failed us while it is established that President Hollande would never had made it to the presidency without the slightly-less-than two millions votes casted in his favor by French Muslims at the 2012 presidential elections.
In the 1930’s, the Weimar Republic and the KPD’s policy unwillingly accelerated the access to power of Nazi Germany's regime on 30 January 1933 elections. In the same way, Manuel Valls’ Socialist government has paved the way for Marine Le Pen's National Front to win the next French presidential elections in May. Today, a frightening feeling shared by French Muslims is to realize that all the necessary conditions are gathered to experience a remake of one of the darkest chapters of Europe’s history. Many leaders within Marine Le Pen's organization, such as Frédéric Chatillon, publicly expressed their admiration and support for Adolph Hitler's actions and legacy. A not less worrying feeling shared by French Muslims has been to note quite helplessly that the red-flags raised and other warnings directed by the French civil society and anti-racism platforms to our political leaders are being surprisingly ignored.
This denial and disdain by our French political elite can explain why an important number of French Muslims have decided to express their frustrations by engaging in violent actions, to make themselves heard, if not out of desperation or vengeance. Is it necessary to recall that the Crystal Night (or the Night of Broken Glass) happened after Herschel Grynszpan, a young Polish-Jewish refugee born in Germany, expressed his frustration by carrying out the assassination of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath on 7th November 1938 in Paris ? Our French political leaders and our French media can keep on condemning, from their fancy offices and comfortable homes, the violence exerted by French Muslims living in the banlieues. They can alternatively try to understand why, like for Herschel Grynszpan in 1938, violence has eventually become a way of expression for them. The following lines were consigned in a letter sent by Herschel Grynszpan to his uncle. The content of this letter aimed at explaining the reason why Grynszpan decided to carry out the killing of the German diplomat in Paris: ‘’With God’s help. My dear parents, I could not do otherwise, God forgive me, my heart bleeds when I hear about your tragedy and 12 000 Jews. I must protest so that the whole world knows about my protest, and I will do it. Forgive me.’’ (3). As a matter of fact, I have absolutely no difficulty to imagine that these lines, written in 1930, could be written again in 2017 by a French citizen of Muslim in a attempt to explain the motivations that would led him to commit a murder or carry out a terrorist attack as a call for attention.
Germany Weimar Republic vs. France Fifth Republic
The failure of the Weimar Republic was that disunity among the democratic parties (SPD, The Catholic Center Party, etc.) ultimately allowed for the rise of Adolph Hitler. In present day France, the democratic parties of the Fifth Republic, the Republicans (former UMP), the Socialist Party (PS) and their affiliates (Jean-Luc Melanchon, Emmanuel Macron, etc.) seems to be dangerously engaged in the same path, leaving Marine Le Pen’s National Front ideas slowly but efficiently earning the French people’s hearts and minds. Her politics of hatred, fear and scapegoating is working because her political opponents are lacking courage to deal efficiently with the topics of immigration and national identity. It was as if the National Front has enjoyed so far an exclusive legitimacy to deal with these two critical topics. The normalization and acceptation of the National Front’s rhetoric if France was made possible by the Republicans and the Socialist Party's incapacity or unwillingness to have a clear take on these two subjects, leading as a matter of consequence scores of former socialist and center-right militants to enroll in Marine Le Pen's organization. Her far-right narrative of rejection, otherness and exclusion is but a variant of the 1930s, featuring deflationary economics, divide-and-rule politics and xenophobia.
Politics in France is undergoing a shake-up that Europe has not seen since the 1930s. New monsters can emerge during troubled times. The recent results of the last elections in the US and less recently in Europe have proved us that confusion, unpredictability and uncertainty are characteristics of today’s democratic election processes. Populism is everywhere. The specter of nationalism is upon us in France as well as in Europe. More worrying for the French Muslims is to realize that the only solutions provided by our leaders to oppose Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Germany’s AfD’s inflammatory speeches were limited to a mixture of condescension, panic and denial. Here again, it would be interesting to draw a parallel with the solutions the Weimar Republic thought to implement at the eve of Adolf Hitler's election as Chancellor in 1933. History reveals that the democratic parties of the unofficial Republic (1918-1933) were more interested in fighting each other to serve their respective political interests than to anticipate and prevent Hitler's rise to power and his dark ambitions to materialize.
Prior and during Nazi Germany, German Jews were considered as a group of individuals not willing to integrate into the German society. They were accused of planning to build a society within the society, owning and buying only from Kosher shops, preferring the use of Yiddish over the German language, reluctant to embrace the German culture, so on and so forth. In present day France, the same is said about French Muslims; they do not want to integrate, they live by their own rules, trying to impose their islamic culture onto the French society, they own and buy exclusively from Halal shops, they reject the French culture and its values, they keep on speaking Arabic and refuse the use of the French language, etc. Quite ironically, French Muslims are accused of isolating themselves from mainstream French society while the decision to live in the outskirts of France's main cities, the pejoratively famous and negatively connoted French banlieues, alleged No-Go Zones, where people look physically all the same (brown skinned), where they share the same country of origin (North Africa, Africa), where they keep on speaking Arabic, where they keep on reproducing their country of origin’s way of life, was not a choice of their. French Muslims were literally parked in these outskirts, at the periphery of the centre. How can the French government expect immigrants to integrate into the French society if they are kept at the margin, if we do not let them live at the centre with the autochtones, to learn at the center from the autochtones, to exchange at the center with autochtones, and eventually integrate into society.
In 1930s Vichy France and Nazi Germany, after the passing of the Nuremberg Laws, Jews were asked to wear a Yellow Badge to be more easily identified as Jews. In present day France, there is no need to ask Muslims to wear a Yellow Crescent or any other distinctive symbol to be identified as French Muslims, for Muslims are naturally recognizable; they are brown skinned, their bear Arabic names and all live in the outskirts. Yet, the Yellow Star is still very pregnant in French Muslims minds. It might be relevant and urgent for French Muslims to think of wearing a symbolic yellow star on their attire as a mere but urgent and needed wake up call.
In 1930s Germany, Jews were depicted as the enemy of the German nation, allegedly plotting for the benefit of an international organization and whose hidden objective was to control the world. In today’s France, French Muslims are also accused of being part of a similar plot, designed by an international Islamic organization with the aim to replace, through high birth rates and terrorist attacks, the ''native French'' by Muslim immigrants. Muslims are the new scapegoats, accused of being the main responsible for France current economic, cultural and identity crisis. On 12th October 2012, during a speech at the annual congress of one of France’s national police unions, Alliance Police Nationale, Manuel Valls, Minister of the Interior at the time, in an emotional post terrorist attack period, talked about ‘’enemies within (the nation)’’ (‘’ennemis de l'intérieur’’) to refer to young French Muslims living in the French banlieues potentially tempted by violent actions as a mode of expression. Nicolas Sarkozy before him, also as Minister of the Interior, used the same tone and aggressive rhetoric to refer to a marginalized youth of Arab descent living in the public housing projects.
No wonder an increasing majority of police officers and military men turned to cast their vote in favor of Marine Le Pen’s National Front over the past fifteen years. We should not be surprised either to see every two months riots erupting following the news of disputed conditions in which young inhabitants of these alleged ''lost territories of the French republic'' would die; after the Adama Traoré case in which French police officers were, again, accused of using excessive force ( and which in this case led to the death of 24 year-old Adama), another more recent and widely covered case occurred involving Theo, a 22 year-old youth worker with no criminal record, allegedly beaten and raped at the hands of four police officers in Aulnay-sous-Bois. In light of these recent cases, people can probably understand today why in 2005, at the eve of the French Riots, deceased Bouna Traore, 15, and Ziyad Benna, 17, ran away from the police while returning home, walking, from a football match; they merely did not want to go through the same humiliating bullying at the hands of the French police. Together with Adama, Theo, Ziyad and Bouna, there are scores of young French of Arab and African pedigree who died in disputed conditions at the hands of the French police. To name of few; Lamine Dieng, Ali Ziri, Wissam El Yamni, Amine Bentounsi, Amadou Koumé, so on and so forth.
The specific violent bahavior of the police towards the French Muslims living in the outskirts, which most of the time leads to alleged police blunders, has to be understood as the very consequence of an assumed and intended policy of blind repression decided at the French Ministry of the Interior. French police officers are, in most cases, victims of the decisions taken by their employers, these decisions being translated into orders to be obeyed. Former left wing prime minister Manuel Valls, former rightwing former president Nicolas Sarkozy and their aggressive management approach towards the French banlieues and its population reveals something deeper, historically rooted in the late French colonial empire and the treatment of its former Arab and African Muslim populations. Historian Zeev Sternell, one of the world's leading experts on fascism, graduated from Paris Institute of Political Studies, explained in his 1983 book, translated from French as Neither Right nor Left; Fascist Ideology in France, that fascism probably finds its roots on both the French Left and Right wing political parties. Considered by French newspaper Le Monde as one of the most substantial books published in France during the 1880s, this intellectually challenging work teaches us that Fascism did not only temporarily develop in Germany, in Mussolini’s Italy or during Pétain’s Vichy France. Zeev Sternhell asserts that fascism was a significant aspect of French culture. Neither right nor left, fascism in France united antibourgeois, antiliberal nationalism, and revolutionary syndicalist thought, each of which joined in reflecting the political culture inherited from eighteenth-century France. Sternhell's argument generated strong feelings among people who wished to forget the Vichy years. Georges Hollande, father of present day President of France François Holland, is known to be a former far-right political party militant and candidate.
In the 1930’s and 1940's, Nazi Germany and Vichy France thought of deporting the Jews to Madagascar as an alternative solution to the Final Solution. In 2014 France, acclaimed French political journalist and writer Eric Zemmour, during an interview given to Corriere della Sera on 30th October 2014, expressed his desire to see the deportation of his 5 millions fellow French Muslims to their countries of origin (4). He later defended himself saying that he did not utter the word ''deportatiton'' during the interview. I feel relieved.
Remake of a Democratic Catastrophe
Despite Vincent Peillon, Manuel Valls and Eric Zemmour’s public statements, opponents to this comparison between Vichy-France, German Jews and today’s French Muslims will argue that one can not compare the fate of ten millions of exterminated Jews under Nazi Germany with the condition of the five millions French Muslims living in a French secular democracy. We are not comparing here the fates but the processes and the circumstances that prepared the ground for the Nazi regim to access power. Other opponents to this analogy will argue that there was no widespread terrorist attacks committed in the name of Judaism in the 1930s. To challenge this simplistic association of responsibilities between terrorism and French Muslims would require longer explanations. We will not be surprised either to hear very few French Muslims condemning this comparison. These French Muslims, most of them actors, singers, entertainers or public figures will not be ready to speak their mind, scared to lose their privileged positions.
To prevent a democratic catastrophe to occur at the coming French presidential election, we French Muslims are sending an urgent warning cry to our europeans neighbors. The situation has become critical. It is urgent to remind our political leaders, Jean-Luc Mélanchon, Benoît Hamon and Emmanuel Macron above all, as well as our fellow French citizens, of the dangerous and awkward similarities between the political, economical and societal situations of Nazi Germany or Vichy France and present-day France. This call also aims at prompting a genuine debate within the French society in which French Muslims would be, at last, invited to share their views (as opposed to debates where French Muslims are often represented by a speaker with no legitimacy to do so) on their constantly questioned sense of belonging to the French nation.
In the 1930s, the democrats of the German Weimar Republic, intellectuals and journalists included, failed to reach out to other democrats in Europe to prevent the rise of Adolph Hitler to power. They did not see it coming. At best, they thought Adolf Hitler would do only as bad as any other politician of their time, maybe slightly worse. They did not imagine that he could turn into the monster he had become once given the power to manage Germany's affairs. They did not even suspect Adolf Hitler's ideas had become so popular among the German population. While in today's France, the results of the different opinion polls giving Marine Le Pen well ahead of her contendents are said to be presented intentionally with a lesser advantage, French Muslims do have serious reasons to fear for their future in France and in Europe. European have to succeed where the previous generations failed. The main raison d'être of Europe has always been to prevent another catastrophe to happen again. Do not fail us.