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In France September 11 and its aftermath have generally been perceived as an American affair, but the Charlie Hebdo attack has brought the fear of terrorism home. Le Monde described it as the French 9/11. Security is now at the forefront of the collective consciousness, and anti-Muslim sentiment is more salient than ever.
As John Bowen points out, the attack occurred against the background of strong tensions between France’s white middle- and working-class majority and its ethno-racial minorities. His analysis invokes the boundaries against Muslims that structure French society. But his piece tells only a part of the story. The rest—the mounting frustrations of not only minorities but also the white working class—suggests that crafting a solution will be more difficult than Bowen imagines.
White working-class resentment will likely slow progress.
France’s boundaries have been transformed over the last three decades. Working-class youth are increasingly excluded from the labor market, a downwardly mobile working class is now courted by the far-right National Front, symbolic borders encircling ethno-racial minorities have strengthened, and religion is a more powerful driver of social conflicts.
Muslims—predominantly North African immigrants and their offspring, who are often French citizens—are at the bottom of the societal pecking order, below blacks, who hail largely from Martinique, Guadeloupe, and West Africa. Indeed, blacks fare better on the index of tolerance, a longitudinal survey published in 2008, which tracks public opinion concerning acceptance of diversity. In the survey, blacks scored 76 percent compared to 63 percent for “Maghrebins” and 55 percent for Muslims. Thus, as was the case in the early 1990s, Muslims are the most stigmatized group. Islam continues to mark the frontier of what is foreign.
The events of January occurred amid multiplying social divisions. The historically strong and combative French working class experienced a breakdown of its collective identity at the very time when its prospects for upward mobility declined. As inequality grew in France, workers came to blame “others” for the ills they faced, often pointing the finger at Muslims for using more than their fair share of scarce government handouts. Thus the definition of those worthy of public assistance narrowed, and a popular notion of solidarity, which had previously softened boundaries toward the poor and ethno-racial minorities, began to dissolve. Universal social policies have progressively been replaced by a residual safety net and various types of “workfare” that require workers to demonstrate self-reliance.
While historically the far right had opposed the separation of church and state (since the church is allied with the right), the National Front now evokes this notion to counter the Muslim “invasion” of France, at the same time as it supports large state subsidies to Catholic schools. Recent massive demonstrations against granting LGBT people the right to adopt mobilized a powerful constellation of conservative Catholics who had been less visible in previous decades. Many Muslims believe that the French government favors Catholics over religious minorities.
Attempts by politicians to address the frustrations of the marginalized Muslim population are often framed by the media as a sign of weakness. In the aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, legal sanctions have multiplied against those who explain (thus “excuse” or “defend”) terror and the terrorists. Meanwhile, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a flashpoint, anti-Semitism is spreading among a fringe of young radicalized Muslims and deadly attacks on Jews have multiplied in recent years. This polarization is all the more problematic because France’s ethno-racial diversity and social insecurity will likely continue to increase.
France will have to defuse this potentially explosive situation by improving its economy and expanding job opportunities for young people. It should also engage in a broader conversation about the recognition of ethno-racial minorities or it risks their further marginalization and a new wave of protests. Finally, it needs a new model for a compromise between republicanism and the management of diversity. France must make room for its vibrant Muslim population without asking its members to sell their souls. Many of them are French and believe in republicanism, but they want it to reflect the diversity of the population.
The obstacles standing in the way of these goals are hugely challenging. For decades, the rather homogeneous elite has defined the rules of the vivre ensemble without paying much attention to minority demands for recognition, and the resentment of the white working class is likely to slow any progress. But the price of ignoring these demands, in France as elsewhere, could be enormous.
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