As the “Je suis Charlie, nous sommes tous Charlie” signs began to come down all over Paris, one thing remained: undeniable and palpable xenophobia. My flight from the States left the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack, and after eight hours of contemplating how the country I had studied in twice during high school may have changed, I arrived the day after just in time for a national moment of silence and unprecedented security checkpoints.
Over the course of the spring semester, I constantly had conversations with my host family, professors at both the Sorbonne and Vassar-Wesleyan’s Reid Hall, and French friends about Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia in France both before and after Charlie Hebdo. I also kept a close eye on French media coverage of the aftermath of the attack, reading the Libération, Figaro, and Le Monde as well as watching French news coverage on BFMTV, TF1, and even the satirical program Le Petit Journal, the French equivalent of the Daily Show. Recent articles, such as “The Other France” in the New Yorker have also informed my opinions on xenophobia in France.
Those who are French, and more importantly, those who live in France yet are not deemed to be French, are in a constant struggle that has only intensified since the terrorist attacks on January 7 and January 9, 2015. The struggle over who is really French reached its boiling point shortly after the infamous French comedian Dieudonné (née Dieudonné M’bala M’bala) was arrested for a Facebook post he wrote on January 10, the day of the “March Against Hatred” across France and in Paris where over 1.5 million were in attendance, stating that, “As far as I’m concerned, I feel I am Charlie Coulibaly,” mocking the trending #JeSuisCharlie movement by inserting the last name of the jihadist, Amedy Coulibaly, who had killed four Jews and one police officer in a kosher supermarket just the day before.
Percolating more than boiling recently, the French national dialogue over who is French, and specifically, whether Muslims, Arabs, and North African immigrants, regardless of their citizenship, are French, has turned toward Islamophobia in France after arguably the most famous and certainly the most controversial French author, Michel Houellebecq, disclosed that he is “probably [an Islamophobe]” in an interview with The Guardian’s Angelique Chrisafis last week.
What these two figures have in common is that they exemplify xenophobia that has deep roots in France on the surface of French culture, mostly because of their celebrity and their willingness to push the boundaries of protected free speech as far as possible. Dieudonné and Houellebecq are not at polar opposites of a spectrum of xenophobia in France, ranging from anti-Semitism to Islamophobia. Instead, they find themselves at the ends of a horseshoe where the more radical beliefs about those who are not white French Catholics with traditional French names are in fact closer together than the moderate viewpoints of each side. However, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in France have very different histories that have led to different treatments of each group.
Going back to Vichy France and even beyond to the Dreyfus Affair—a 12-year political scandal that resulted in a Jewish French military officer being sentenced to the abhorrent Devil’s Island, where he spent nearly five tortuous years for treason that he in fact didn’t commit—France has long struggled with anti-Semitism at an institutional level. Although there were statues during World War II that explicitly discriminated against Jews and took away their citizenship under the Vichy regime, France did pass a law in 1905 officially separating church and state. This law introduced the concept of “laïcité,” a more absolute form of secularism that provides freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion.
The most extreme form of laïcité came in 2010 when the French Government banned the wearing of all face-covering headwear, including hijabs, in all public places, with very few exceptions. The rationale behind the ban was that it was dangerous to French society to have people concealing their identities in public, and religious headwear such as hijabs—the headwear that prompted debate over this law in the first place—imposes religion upon other members of a secular or laïc society. The argument against this law, which it is important to note did not only come from the Muslim community in France, argued that it was an infringement upon personal liberties regardless of religion. Furthermore, opponents of the bill continue to argue that this law was specifically intended to eliminate hijabs and to curtail the growth of Islam in the French public sphere; any wording in the law describing other sorts of headwear such as balaclavas was only a distraction from the true intent of the legislation.
Judaism in France is by no means flourishing in the 21st century, despite the redaction of the abhorrent Vichy policies and legislation specifically relating to the institutional discrimination of Jews. Although Jews only account for roughly three percent of France’s population, they make up more than 50 percent of the victims of all reported hate crimes, and that margin has gone up dramatically since the January attacks. There is significant debate as to whether the Muslim or Jewish community suffers more attacks that are not reported, with some French scholars arguing that perhaps hate crimes against Jews are more likely to be reported because of the guilt that remains in France over the Vichy regime and the Dreyfus affair.
I will not repeat any of Dieudonné’s comedy or the premise of Houellebecq’s latest book, for they are readily available online in detailed profiles in The New York Times as well as The Guardian, respectively. It is shocking that this kind of xenophobia is espoused by household names in a country that prides itself on having arguably the richest and most cultivated culture in the world. What is unclear in 21st century France is how much more acceptable Islamophobia is than anti-Semitism. Certainly the major disparity in security between Jewish and Muslim schools after Charlie Hebdo is an indicator that when it comes down to the allocation of resources, combatting anti-Semitism is more of a priority for the French government. Nonetheless, reported hate crimes against members of both religions are on the rise, and while one may be higher than the other, both groups are worse off in the current climate of xenophobia in France. Changing century-old national policies such as the prevention of recording any racial or ethnic statistics or laïcité itself will not solve the problem of xenophobia in France.
What is necessary in France, as well as the United States for that matter, is a grassroots cosmopolitan effort to not only raise awareness but to confront citizens and institutions that perpetuate xenophobia at the polls. As long as there are nationalist parties in office that make their constituents nostalgic for an era that never existed and fearful of foreigners, xenophobia will only get worse when it should be crumbling during an era of globalization.
Jake Lahut is a member of the Class of 2017.