As France burns, the far-Right rises

As France burns, the far-Right rises. By David Bell.

They followed many other waves of foreign immigrants to the country: of Italians, Jews, Poles, Spaniards, Portuguese and others. It is often forgotten, but between the wars France was the leading country of immigration in the Western world, and by the Eighties fully a quarter of the French population could count at least one grandparent born elsewhere. …

After the war their story gradually turned into a French success story, as assimilation took its course. The process was aided by the state’s heavy-handed insistence, implemented above all through an authoritarian school system, that groups could only gain acceptance if they wholly abandoned their earlier national identities and embraced a French one. Today, it is not unusual to find people with Italian, Polish, Jewish or Iberian surnames in the wealthiest and most visible strata of French society.

But then the source, the religion, and the numbers of immigrants changed dramatically:

But this process has, so far, happened far more slowly and less completely with the newer immigrant groups, especially those from North Africa.

Cultural differences have been greater than with the earlier groups, while the schools lost much of their earlier zeal for turning students into model French citizens after the uprising of 1968 led to a massive overhaul of the French educational system.

Most importantly, the new groups have been shunted away into suburban housing projects — the so-called cités — out of sight and out of mind of the country’s ruling elites. Numbers are hard to come by, because the French state, in the name of treating all its citizens equally, refuses to keep statistics on the relative economic performance of different ethnic and religious groups (or even their numbers).

But every major French city is ringed by cités where people of North African and black African descent dominate, and where rates of unemployment, poverty and crime far exceed national averages. The government does admit that nearly six million people, or a tenth of the country’s population, inhabit so-called “urban policy priority districts”. …

The horrific Islamist terror attacks of 2015, which killed hundreds, led the state to grant expanded powers to the police — in particular, loosening the restrictions in use of fatal force when officers feel threatened — which did nothing to reduce social tension …

The continuing threat of Islamism — as seen notably in the 2020 beheading of a suburban schoolteacher after he had shown a class cartoons of the prophet Mohammed — reinforced the vision that much of the French white population already had of the cités as occupied territory in need of “reconquest” by the Republic (Prime Minister Manuel Valls already used the word, redolent of Spanish crusades against the Moors, in 2015).

Further strengthening this vision has been the growing influence of the conservative cable news channel CNEWS — France’s equivalent of Fox News. … It bolstered the presidential campaign of hardline journalist, and former CNEWS commentator Éric Zemmour, who founded a political party called “Reconquest”, committed to ending immigration, expelling existing immigrants who supposedly resist assimilation, and placing Muslim houses of worship under strict state surveillance.

When his Zemmour’s performance faltered, his supporters moved over to Marine Le Pen of the National Rally, who won over 41% in the second-round presidential vote against Macron — the greatest for any far-Right candidate in the history of the Fifth Republic. Then, in the legislative elections in June, the National Rally gained 89 seats in the National Assembly, the most for any far-Right party since the 1880’s.

The effects of these victories can be seen in the reactions to the killing of Nahel in Nanterre. While the Left-wing party La France Insoumise has condemned the police violence … National Rally politicians and police unions have called the rioters “savage hordes” and even “vermin”. In comparison with 2005, there are more public figures ready to speak in these terms, and to dismiss both police violence and the condition of the cités as irrelevant to the principal task of restoring public order.

And that position is gaining traction in the population at large. In a poll conducted on June 28-29, the politician whose reaction to the crisis received the most positive score was Marine Le Pen with 39%, compared to Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin with 34%, and Macron with 33%. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise, scored only 20%. …

No reforms will be enacted that might alleviate the frustrations and anger of the car-burners. On Friday, Marion Maréchal, Le Pen’s niece, and the vice-president of Reconquest described the riots as “civil war” and warned Macron’s government against any such measures. She characterised them as a form of “appeasement of the cités”, as if these parts of France were indeed the redoubts of foreign enemies, and the year was 1938. But as she knows very well, the more that violence consumes the French streets, the closer the far-Right comes to power.

As a percentage of population, France has more Muslims of any European country.