Monday, March 5, 2012
Evading reality in Sarkozy's playground for the rich
On a bright day in a Paris suburb, the first street sign I see carries me back to my childhood. Rue Bobby Sands, it reads. The student walking beside me does not know who Bobby Sands was, so I give her a quick history lesson about how the Irish republican prisoner died on hunger strike in 1981.
We are in Saint-Denis, a commune with a strong tradition of left-wing dissent and anti-colonial activism. A workers’ centre here is hosting a conference about Israeli apartheid that has been banned by the authorities in the nearby University of Paris 8 where it was originally scheduled to take place. Calling out Israel as a racist endeavour is taboo in France, where Zionist lobby groups habitually smear their critics with ludicrous accusations of anti-Semitism and have bullied several colleges into cancelling similar events. To illustrate the power of that lobby, both Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist Party rival François Hollande turned up at the annual dinner for CRIF (the purported representative council for French Jewish organisations) in February. Both men appear happy to swallow the myth about Israel being a model democracy (a “miracle”, according to Sarkozy).
The evasion of reality isn’t confined to foreign policy. Libération, the daily newspaper, has described the situation facing suburbs (les banlieues, as everyone calls them) like Saint-Denis the “great forgotten” aspect of French politics.
“There are eight million inhabitants in these areas,” Mohammed Mechmache from the social action group AcLeFeu has noted. “There are people who live in unhealthy conditions. Why must you wait until the suburbs burn before showing an interest in these people?”
Rather than properly tackling the social problems on the outskirts of Paris, Sarkozy’s government has been portraying les banlieues as synonymous with lawlessness. Claude Guéant, his interior minister, recently stated that the “concentration of social housing” in the greater Paris area explained why it was the part of France “most exposed” to gang violence. That phenomenon led to six killings over the course of 2011. Of course, that is six deaths too many. But it is a tiny number, compared to the thousands of civilians slain in the war Sarkozy helped to initiate in Libya. (To the best of my knowledge, France has not published data about the death toll resulting from state violence last year).
Guéant is an especially reactionary politician, who would not be out of place in the Front National. Having previously blamed immigrants for crime, he sailed closer to overt racism a few weeks ago by declaring “all civilizations are not created equal”.
His comments revealed that the French ruling class hasn’t abandoned the supremacist mentality that guided it when it lorded over an empire. The mentality has been largely unaltered since the 1950s when its toxic effects were brilliantly summarised by Frantz Fanon, himself born in the French colony of Martinique: “Every effort is made to bring the colonised person to admit the inferiority of his culture which has been transformed into instinctive patterns of behaviour, to recognise the unreality of his 'nation', and, in the last extreme, the confused and imperfect character of his own biological structure.”
Poverty is the worst form of violence, another agitator against imperialism, Mahatma Gandhi, observed. The worst form of violence is acute here in Seine Saint-Denis. The rate of tuberculosis in this area is almost four times the national average, according to data compiled by the country’s health monitoring institute. TB is a disease closely linked to hardship.
On both sides of the English Channel, pundits are keener to point fingers at the poor than examine why they are poor in the first place. “Saint-Denis, just outside the Paris Périphérique, used to be known for its basilica where French kings are buried,” a Daily Mail blog post noted in February. “Now it's known for French cars being burned. Most of the cars there are ready for the knacker's yard anyway (even in nicer areas the French tend to drive heaps that no self-respecting Brit would be caught dead in), but that's no excuse. The question is, how long before the fires, fanned by multi-culti sanctimoniousness, spread over into the nicer areas?”
I took a stroll around the basilica a few nights ago. Not only did I feel safe, I savoured the diversity offered by the surrounding streets by going for a Moroccan dinner. Contrary to what The Mail infers, the riots of seven years ago were not caused by santimoniousness. They were sparked by the deaths of two young men electrocuted in a power sub-station; among local residents it was widely believed they died while fleeing the police.
Those deaths occurred in Clichy-sous-Bois, an area that continues to suffer from extreme neglect. Nearly 70% of families in the tower blocks of Chêne-Pointu live below the poverty line. A recent addition to their problems was that their lifts stopped working.
In 2005, Sarkozy called the rioters in this area “scum”. Their grievances were never going to be addressed by his presidency. On the night of his election, he threw a party for some of France’s richest citizens in the 1,000 euros-a-night hotel Le Fouquet’s Barrière. He has championed the interests of his affluent pals consistently since then; one reason why they can still afford luxury accommodation is that he has lowered their tax bills dramatically. In the land of égalité, some citizens are far more equal than others.
●First published by New Europe, 4-10 March 2012.