‘The Islamic Perii’

A right-wing crackdown targets France’s Muslim immigrants

November 28 1994

‘The Islamic Perii’

A right-wing crackdown targets France’s Muslim immigrants

November 28 1994

‘The Islamic Perii’


A right-wing crackdown targets France’s Muslim immigrants

In the best Gallic tradition, Charles Pasqua has coined an expression to explain his rising political popularity. “They love me when I hit hard,” he says, his blunt populism evident even in translation. The far-rightwing minister in charge of France’s police and public security believes he knows exactly what his countrymen want: a streak of authoritarianism, a little law and order applied with a closed fist. So he throws political punches at his enemies in flurries—a few jabs, an uppercut and, of course, his specialty, the right cross.

Examples? A year ago, a foreign-bom imam living in the eastern French city of Nantua declared that Islamic law should take precedence over French law. Pasqua had him hustled aboard a plane and sent home to Turkey the next day. When Islamic extremists in Algiers killed five Frenchmen in August, Pasqua ordered police to place 22 suspected fundamentalist sympathizers in France under


house arrest, and to set up checkpoints in Muslim neighborhoods in an effort to catch illegal immigrants. But his most audacious act came days later when Pasqua, in a blaze of publicity, announced that his police forces had captured Illich Ramírez Sánchez—better known as Carlos the Jackal, once the world’s most notorious terrorist. Although admittedly a dormant force, Carlos had been snatched from his retirement haven in Sudan and whisked back to Paris for trial on 20-year-old murder charges.

To Pasqua, Islamic terrorists are the true threat to the Republic. He hits the same note, over and over. This month, in a series of

dawn raids in Paris and its suburbs, police arrested 95 Muslims and uncovered a small but impressive cache of explosives and AK-47 machine guns. Charges were later filed against 78 of the suspects. Pasqua then summoned the media to show off the seized weapons and declared that he had just “dismantled a terrorist network” with links to four other European countries—and Canada. The show of force solidified the reputation of a politician whose pugnacious style has given him enormous power, made him a potential kingmaker in next year’s presidential elections and, some even whisper, a possible candidate for president himself.

But to his critics—and there are still some— Pasqua represents an increasingly intolerant and xenophobic face of French politics. In the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, Muslim leaders protest that Pasqua and his allies in the conservative government of Edouard Balladur are making them the scapegoats for France’s social and economic troubles. “During the Cold War, politicians always talked about the Red Peril, but now it’s the Islamic Peril,” says Abdallah Ben Mansour, secretary general of the Union of Islamic Organizations in France, springing angrily off the couch of his Paris office. ‘The high deficit, unemployment, crime, all seem to have just one cause: Muslims. The politicians need an enemy and sadly, we are the victims.”

It is not just the fear of Islamic extremism that drives Pasqua and his conservative colleagues. They are also determined to halt the drift towards multiculturalism in France, which they contend is an Anglo-Saxon concept that inevitably results in social disorder and division. In September, they acted to end a nasty five-year-old national debate by banning Muslim girls from wearing the traditional hijab, or head scarf, to school. The decision has provoked street demonstrations by Muslims, who claim they are the targets of discrimination and point out that neither Jewish skullcaps nor Christian crosses are banned. And more than 800 Muslim girls have chosen to study by correspon-

dence rather than attend school bareheaded. Many French do not see the issue as a matter of religious expression. They argue that wearing scarves smacks of an orchestrated campaign by fundamentalists—and that the girls are merely pawns in a game of political provocation. For their part, of course, Muslims reject that interpretation. “The younger generation of Muslim kids is different from their parents, who preferred to hide their Islamism,” says Sadek Sellam, an Algerian writer living in France. “These kids aren’t looking to live in a fundamentalist state. They want to live in France, but as Muslims.”

Pasqua’s message—that France’s cultural homogeneity must be preserved, even at the expense of individual liberties—has angered many of the country’s 3.5 million Muslims, a larger religious group than either Protestants or Jews in a total population of 57 million. “It is a pathological, irrational fear of Islam that

gives rise to this policy of intimidation,” says Sellam, who warns that there will be a backlash. And some predict it will be violent. “They are criminalizing Islam,” says Rashid Beniaissa, 50, an Algerian employee of the United Nations who has lived in France for 24 years and who has infuriated French officials by taking to the airwaves and issuing provocative warnings of violence. “If you are violent to people,” he says with the kind of emotion and force that has angered the French, “don’t be surprised if they are violent to you in return.” The French pride themselves on belonging to a secular society. Now, they argue that secularism requires immigrants to assimilate into the existing French culture. Tolerating cultural and religious differences only creates ghettos, they say, and that is what fosters racism. It is multiculturalism that is to blame for the social decay and violence in AngloSaxon countries, including the United States. Barring Muslim girls from wearing veils “is the opposite of racism,” argues anthropologist Emmanuel Todd in an interview with the French magazine L’Express this month. He says that the message to Muslim girls must be: “We want you to become French like the rest, so you can marry our sons. We must tell the children of immigrants that it is good to

become French.” That view pervades French politics, crossing the left-right political divide. ‘The French always want to know: Is your first allegiance to Islam, or is it to France?” the ambassador of one large Islamic nation said in his Paris office last week. “They are always suspicious of our loyalty.”

But the dispute over how to treat minority cultures comes at a tense time for France’s Catholics and Muslims. Many Muslims are furious that Paris is aiding the military regime of Algeria, a former French colony, in its twoyear-old civil war against Islamic fundamentalists, just across the Mediterranean Sea in North Africa. The war began in January, 1992, when Algeria’s secular government suspended elections that seemed certain to bring the fundamentalists to power. Western governments, alarmed at the prospect of another fundamentalist regime like Iran taking power so close to Europe, backed the military’s decision to suspend democracy.

Claiming that they were victims of Western hypocrisy, Islamic extremists launched a wave of murder in Algeria. They have killed hundreds of middle-class intellectuals and professionals, even targeting young girls who dare to wear Western clothes on the streets. And they have warned foreigners to leave Algeria, pressing their point with violence. Sixty-nine foreigners have been killed this year, including 21 French nationals. In response, the military government has unleashed a brutal campaign of repression. Some observers estimate the dead on both sides may total as high as 10,000.

French politicians dread the creation of a fundamentalist state in Algeria. Not only would it incite radicalism in France’s Muslim community, they warn, but it would bring a wave of refugees to French shores. To avert such a disaster, France has sent night-vision equipment and helicopters to bolster the Algerian military in its fight against the rural-

based extremists. But 10,000 Algerians are believed to have already fled to France, either by overstaying their tourist visas or slipping illegally across the border from other European countries. The flow of refugees rankles Pasqua, who is the author of his country’s new immigration policy. His department has stepped up the hunt for illegal immigrants, immediately expelling those it catches. His policy is simple: it aims for zero immigration. Pasqua’s name comes up often in the twilight of the François Mitterrand era France’s president is 78 and dying of cancer. His face resembling a death mask, his

skin the pallor of a November Paris sky, Mitterrand has acknowledged that the illness may force him from office before next May’s scheduled presidential election. French politics is now almost consumed by the power vacuum at the centre. In that atmosphere, every act—especially Pasqua’s attacks on immigrants in general and fundamentalists in particular—is filtered through the prism of presidential politics.

“It’s all politics,” sneers Mourad Oussedik, one of two lawyers representing Carlos the Jackal. “Pasqua creates fear,” says Oussedik. “He tells people that they might become victims of terrorism and then, poof, here’s Pasqua to save us all, saying: ‘Look, I caught Carlos for you.’ ” To Oussedik, who pounds his wooden desk to make the point that Pasqua’s true goal is nothing less than the presidential Elysée Palace itself, the anti-Muslim jihad is nothing more than a political stunt. “The Muslims are not a threat to French security, and Carlos was gone for 15 years until Pasqua brought him back,” says Oussedik from behind his thick glasses, sitting in his Spartan office on Paris’s Left Bank. “But to Pasqua, politics is about repression. He is selling the concept of total security, and his popularity is

rising because of security fears.” Oussedik’s eyes narrow. “Pasqua uses fear the way a navigator uses the wind,” he says.

That is, admittedly, the view of Carlos’s lawyer. But it is telling that Pasqua has offered so little evidence for the grand international plot he claimed to have unearthed during last week’s raids. The possibility of a Canadian connection mystified Canadian officials in Paris, who said the only evidence appeared to be a letter with a Canadian address on it, found in one of the 40 raided apartments. Nor was the prospect of a Canadian link discussed at the highest political levels between the two countries in Paris.

Many Muslims, in fact, argued that the raid was a setup by French and Algerian secret services, designed to intimidate French Muslims and impress the French electorate.

“That’s nonsense,” says Alain Chevalérias, a Paris-based freelance journalist who has spent two decades covering Islamic fundamentalism. “For one thing, there is evidence: the weapons they seized were weapons of war. The Algerian extremists have cells in France, just as they did during the war of independence in the 1950s and ’60s.” Chevalérias himself strongly supports the government’s approach. “These are familiar tactics, and the only way to stop the extremists is to hit them hard, the way Pasqua is doing, before they grow stronger,” he says. “It is not very democratic, I know,” he adds with a smile and a shrug, “but stick-and-carrot politics is what the fundamentalists understand.”

Still, if he wants to avoid a backlash, Pasqua’s strikes against fundamentalists will have to be more surgical than they have been up to now. Too much collateral damage, too much willingness to equate veils with violence, might instead radicalize the Islamic community. “Extremists are a very, very small minority in our community,” says Ben Mansour. “They cannot count on the complicity of other Muslims. But the danger is that the French will push us into radicalism. If this treatment keeps up, in three or four years you will have lots of fundamentalists in France.”

Unrest among French Muslims is clearly on the rise. There were small but spirited clashes between police and Muslim youths in the French suburb of Amiens last week after a police raid on a noisy party. The incidents underscored the fact that there are economic, as well as religious, reasons for the current social tension. Muslims make up a large proportion of the French | underclass. Many of them live in uninviting, windswept housing blocks in Paris suburbs, far from the well-heeled Parisian crowds who slip into Left Bank cafés to sip $5 demitasses of espresso. “These

kids don’t have the means or the opportunities to enjoy the French way of life,” says writer Sellam, enjoying a coffee of his own in a smoky brasserie. “They can’t even come to town for movies because the buses don’t go to the suburbs late at night.”

Sellam predicted that tempers would cool once France had a new president and the politicians could stop trying to impress the electorate by talking tough about immigrants. “But you know,” he added, “young Muslims see what France has done to their

parents, they see the bad housing, and they see that France is not interested in helping them make a better life, and they discover radicalism. Their parents said: ‘We are Muslims, why not?’ But these kids are saying: We are Muslims. Now what?’ ” □