Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Some Background on the Situation in France

Here is a guest posting from a correspondent, giving an overview of French history in connection with freedom, and explaining some of the background which laid down a fertile soil for disaffected jihadists.

Guest Posting - Some Background on the Situation in France
We have all been caught up in the moment over the Charlie Hebdo shootings, and now is in many ways the time of greatest danger. For in the wake of the dreadful events of the last few days, it would be easy to make decisions which impact widely – and badly – on our future prospects. So let us try and anchor ourselves in history.

The shootings at the office actually provide us with one important clue: they are, as the recorders remind us, the worst such event since 1961. As we shall see, this is a somewhat misleading comparison, because what happened in 1961 was an entirely different sort of massacre.

For the many people who are unaware of the history, the French empire collapsed between about 1945 and 1962 as its various territories gained independence. It was a traumatic process: the French were first defeated by General Giap in Vietnam, then forced out of India. Tunisia and Morocco gained independence in 1956, then following the democratic coup d’etat which installed De Gaulle as President in 1958, the process accelerated – no fewer than 13 new states came into being in 1960. But there remained one sticking point, and that was Algeria.

The Mediterranean coastal strip of Algeria had, since 1848, been treated as part of the French republic – it was as French as Paris or Marseille. As part of this, a large number of Europeans had settled there (the natives called them pieds-noirs – black feet, because they wore leather shoes), and by 1950 they were as much a settled part of the local community as the native population.

When the rising levels of discontent among the native Arab population rose and unrest started (just after the French had been defeated in Vietnam), popular opinion in France responded: you may take Indochina, but Algeria is French. The French military were garrisoned in Algeria in large numbers, and the unrest escalated into civil war. As we have seen ever since, and never learned, it was a battle that no army could win. The hit-and-run tactics of the local terrorists/freedom fighters meant that every strike was a win: the French army could not stop them all, any more than security services now can hope to stop every terrorist plot. The only ways to beat the terrorists were to play them at their own game, or to attempt to negotiate.

The French did both. Reprisals were noted for their brutality – not only was torture used widely, but both old and young were picked up and detained in barbaric conditions. When the campaign of violence came to metropolitan France, the man put in charge of operations was Maurice Papon, the chief of police in Bordeaux during the occupation and responsible for the round-up and deportation of Jews to Auschwitz.

Papon was largely responsible for the events of 17 October 1961. Police attacked a large pro-independence demonstration, beating many people unconscious and then throwing them into the Seine where they drowned. Others were beaten to death in the courtyard of the Paris Police HQ and their bodies dumped in the Seine (but not before the police had removed wallets and watches). No figures for the actual number of those killed exist: best estimates are between 70 and 200 killed. For his actions Papon received not censure but a medal.

De Gaulle eventually negotiated Algerian independence, only to find now that he had a large number of army officers and pied-noirs furious at having been sold down the river. If you have read Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal you will find in the book’s first chapter a fictionalised account of a genuine attempt on De Gaulle’s life in August 1962. A continuing low-level campaign of violence went on for several years.

Honest discussion of these events has been limited in France. Contemporary accounts of what was happening in Algeria were censored by the government; the participants in criminal acts on both sides were granted general amnesty and historical papers were put under 30 years’ prohibition, extensible to 60 where the authorities thought it expedient.

For a country whose version of the social contract includes a commitment to provide liberty, equality and fraternity, it’s not a good record to start from.

All terrorism starts with two things. One is a sense of grievance, a sense that things could be better. The other is a sense that the existing methods of trying to reach that better state are unavailable or ineffective.

While these are required precursors to terrorism, they are not always indicators that terrorism will follow. The existence of movements like the non-violent resistance promoted by Gandhi and Martin Luther King is one example: the existence of satire, or “unofficial media” is another. It is worth noting in this connection that the original Charlie Hebdo came into being after its immediate predecessor was banned by the French Minister of the Interior in 1970.

The great problem of terrorism is that when we dissect it, we find that in some cases the grievance is difficult to resolve. Algeria was relatively simple in some regards: what people wanted was independence, which was in the gift of the French government.

The situation running up to Charlie Hebdo is, by contrast, not in the gift of the government, but to a large extent in the gift of the people of France. The biggest grievance is that France does not practice equality and fraternity. The opportunities for a young person of Arab descent living in the Paris suburbs fall far short of those for those of native French descent. Tests have been done: identical CV and application forms submitted with an Arab and a French name repeatedly come back with a rejection for the former and a job offer for the latter.

(An aside: France is not only institutionally racist. Attitudes to people with learning disabilities are decades behind those in Britain, as are those towards people with mental health issues.)

It is here that the grievance has to be dealt with, however, for the more specific grievances raised by radical Islam are not in the gift of any French person. The majority of them are unrealistic.

As far as means of change go, the problem is equally in the gift of the French people. But the long and half-buried memories of the era of decolonisation (and indeed of the occupation before that) remain unaddressed. People remain shackled to their past and the fears that went with it. Principal among these is the fear of weak government: remember that De Gaulle came back to power in 1958 on the basis that he was given power to sweep away the constitution of the Fourth Republic (which had seen 21 administrations in 12 years) to create a more stable political environment. The French electorate, remembering that the pre-war Third Republic’s instability had led to defeat and Nazi occupation, acquiesced – a decision that has been reinforced over time.

So the precursors for terrorism – grievance and lack of remedy – exist in France. The alternative of non-violence has little root there, and satire – at least in the way that Charlie Hebdo practices it – is not an effectual means of change.

And yet – there is some precedent for non-violence. In secular France, where Charlie Hebdo spends much of its time attacking the follies of organised religion in all its forms, for many decades the single most popular figure was a man called Henri Groues, better known as the Abbe Pierre. His career was a roller coaster ride – monk, then priest, then member of the Resistance, then MP, then organiser of a charitable initiative (all this before he was 40 years old), funded in part by his willingness to play a radio version of Double or quits. At a time when there were severe shortages of housing in Paris and when homeless people were literally freezing to death in the streets, Abbe Pierre was the nation’s conscience.

It’s a bitter irony that many of the tough housing estates now home to putative jihadists were created as a step forward from the shanty towns – the so-called bidonvilles - that they replaced; but what got lost in the rebuilding was that it was not about bricks and mortar, but about human dignity. Abbe Pierre’s view of charity was that it existed to right injustices, not to treat their symptoms, and his modus operandi was very often to take the person who an hour before had been the recipient of charity and turn him into an agent of charity to someone in greater need.

Human dignity is something that the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo clearly don’t understand, any more than do those who write for the British tabloid press, with their all-too visible contempt for all immigrants and their writing-off of the poor as benefit scroungers. For that reason alone we might pause before whipping out the Je Suis Charlie banner. I suspect I am not alone in feeling vaguely nauseated by the tone of some of the front page headlines I have read since the shooting.

But we might equally ask what gives us the right to associate ourselves with Charlie Hebdo. For all of its gratuitous offensiveness on occasions Charlie Hebdo lives by its principles. Its cartoonists refuse to be silenced, and it takes the right to freedom of expression seriously. Dare we say that we measure up to that?

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