PODIUM

A plea to people of conscience

As the French elections near, race is the ugly new political football

Marci McDonald April 6 1981
PODIUM

A plea to people of conscience

As the French elections near, race is the ugly new political football

Marci McDonald April 6 1981

A plea to people of conscience

As the French elections near, race is the ugly new political football

PODIUM

Marci McDonald

Two years ago, on a visit to France, pop culture critic Susan Sontag lamented the casual anti-Semitic and xenophobic comments she heard drifting across dinner tables like so much small talk on the weather. “In the U.S., at least in the big cities,” she said, “people are not so shameless about expressing their feelings. The French have the courage of their bigotry.” Recoiling from racial generalizations of any kind, I quibbled then with her own casual summing-up of my adopted homeland, but events in France over recent months have unearthed her words to haunt me. As the presidential elections loom three weeks away, race is the ugly new French political football, lobbed onto the field by the Communist party. And in the process of vote-harvesting, the Communists seem unconcerned about the sinister spotlight into which they are drawing the whole country.

It began on Christmas Eve in the grim Paris workingclass suburb of Vitry-surSeine, where Communist Mayor Paul Mercieca and 50 party faithful chose to celebrate this Christian anniversary most fondly associated with earthly peace by rampaging through an immigrant workers’ dormitory where 300 laborers from the former West African colony of Mali had just been transferred. Ripping out wiring, sawing off water pipes and laying sack to staircases, they finally bulldozed the fruits of their spree into a mountain of rubble blockading the entrance. Just in case the Malians didn’t get their Yuletide greeting, they spelled it out: “We don’t want any more blacks in town.” But the nastiest part of the incident was that it was neither disowned nor did it turn out to be isolated.

Having once stoutly defended the immigrant workers, pugnacious French Communist leader Georges Marchais later approved it “without reservation,” and other Communist mayors of Paris’ working-class “red belt” rallied with their own protests against the number of immigrant workers being housed in their municipalities by the government. By mid-February, Mayor Robert Hue of Montigny-les-Cormeilles led a well-publicized demonstration under the windows of the home of a Moroccan family with eight children whom he accused of being local drug traffickers—not exactly the normal process of laying a charge. The same day Marchais was telling several thousand of his flock: “We don’t want new Harlems or new Sowetos in the Paris suburbs.”

This rhetoric flourishes just months after the country exploded in a national crise de conscience with the rightwing bombing of a Paris synagogue which left three dead and 10 maimed in a blast that shattered more than a peaceful Friday evening prayer service. It ripped through the 35 years of uneasy post-war silence to reveal the skele-

tons of the 75,000 French Jews, dispatched to Nazi concentration camps, still volubly rattling in the shadowy national closet. But on that occasion, the Communist party had noisily joined French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and the press in outraged protest against what he termed “the hideous games of intolerance, terrorism and racism.”

This sudden change of tune shows that Marchais has put his finger to the prevailing political winds and seen that in abandoning the immigrant workers he once championed he loses nothing: they have no votes. It is a platform of the seediest kind of political expediency—a crowd-pleaser for the cheap seats which, in their current discontent over the economic crisis, are delighted to find convenient scapegoats. A Paris newspaper poll in January reported that 71 per cent of the country supported an end to foreign immigration, just as a similar poll after the synagogue bombing revealed that one in eight Frenchmen felt the country had too many Jews. Neither attitude is likely to grow more liberal—or more rational— with the worsening of the economic weather.

Despite studies showing that the country’s 4.5 million foreign workers — mainly Africans, Algerians and Portuguese — do the menial jobs that most Frenchmen disdain, as the newsweekly l’Express m worried even before the synagogue blast: “anti-Semitism, i2like hostility to immigrant I workers, is being fostered by uthe economic crisis and by growing unemployment.” As nouveau philosophe André Glucksmann warns, “A crisis, unemployment and racism: the cocktail is explosive.” Indeed, in such an inflammable climate, the French Communist party has hitched its kite to an ill wind that blows nobody any good—not France, nor the rest of the West itself. When the lid of the Pandora’s box of racism is pried open and the subject made palatable by public debate in one country, the seeds of poison drift with a terrible swiftness.

In these days when a resurgence of racial hate from the extreme right is already stalking the streets—desecrating mosques and synagogues in the United States and Britain to the point where the Thatcher government has ordered an investigation, bombing innocent merrymakers in Bologna and Munich—it is all the more frightening to see the same dread spectre heading our way from the extreme left. In such an ominous ideological crunch, it is all the more imperative that this time in history the centre must hold— that people of conscience must stand up and be counted in their refusal to let racism be regarded as any sort of facile exit to the world’s current woes. It is a battle to be fought not only in France, but everywhere men’s notion of human dignity does not depend on the denigration of his brother.

Marci McDonald is Maclean’s Paris correspondent.