French social activist Jean in conversation with Editor-in-chief Aarti Tikoo
France-based social activist Jean, discusses the impact of immigration on the French Working Class, July riots, and the demerits of French Immigration policy, in an interview with The New Indian Editor-in-Chief Aarti Tikoo.
Aarti Tikoo: In which environment did you grow up as a child ?
Jean: When I was a child I used to live in the suburbs of Paris, in the Hauts-de-Seine department. There was a lot of immigration from North Africa there, especially from Algeria. At a very early age, I was in contact with this population.
Tikoo: What does a ‘suburb’ mean in France ?
Jean: People there live in social housing, in tall buildings owned by the State. Immigrants as well as the French working class were living there and working in Paris. They couldn’t afford to live in the city centre. I was going to the school nearby and there I witnessed the immigration waves coming in during the 2000s. There were 80% immigrants and 20% White people in the classroom. In my building, there were few white people, but we were still close to each other at first.
Tikoo: The relationships were still good between the French white working class and the immigrants. But what happened then?
Jean: With the waves of immigrants that came afterward, things changed. You could say they were probably ‘more Muslim,’ more receptive to Islam. As a result, mosques started springing up all around my city. After that, things began to change even more. For instance, there was a parking area in my building, and I remember three white families’ cars being deliberately set on fire.
Tikoo: Why were these immigrants being violent ?
Jean: I guess they didn’t want to live with us. I’ve known this word since I was a child: ‘Kufar’ (Kaafir). It means not being a Muslim, but in a derogatory way. It wasn’t innocent; it had its origins. They were just calling white people that because their parents used to do it at home. That indicated something was brewing. I suppose they saw us as some kind of enemies. Even though they weren’t the most religious people and probably didn’t consider themselves ‘perfect Muslims,’ they employed certain verbal language and methods. They were drawing from somewhere, and that somewhere might have been influenced by Islam. Considering all the issues we’ve had since, I believe that was the case.
Tikoo: Why did the relationship between the French and the new immigrants change?
Jean: I have two thoughts on this matter. Firstly, there’s the issue of Algerians. France colonised Algeria, and there was a war for independence. The initial folly was opening immigration channels for Algerians. I mean, who would do that? After the Second World War, there was Polish and Italian immigration. While there were many challenges, people eventually learned to live together. Poland and Italy didn’t pose a significant issue for France. However, many Algerians still feel that France owes them something and harbour resentment towards France, nurturing this sentiment over time. Now, factor in the influence of Islam. It’s something distinct, akin to imperialism, and it’s not particularly known for its openness to dialogue with other faiths. Another problem is the sheer number of immigrants. On an individual level, people can communicate, but when masses collide, it often leads to conflict. One mass tends to overpower the other. Additionally, there’s a lack of affinity towards Jewish and Catholic communities. When you combine all these factors, you get the classic French suburban issues of the 2000s.
Tikoo: While growing up, did you notice there was a clear separation between the French and Muslim kids ?
Jean: I remember that we didn’t have the right, as White people, to talk to some girls in the tram. One day, I was talking to a black girl regarding a home assignment when two guys who appeared to be of Arab descent approached me, and asked me not to talk to their ‘sister’. She was obviously not their sister, but I was disallowed to talk to that girl because she was a black and muslim.
Aarti Tikoo: What was so French about you which made you see a clear difference between you and these immigrants ?
Jean: It was this subtle ‘love and hate relationship’ with Catholicism. My family was atheist, but they still held many Christian values. For instance, they had their weddings in the Church and celebrated Easter. Sometimes, they even visited the Church just to light a candle. It was also a place where people could gather. After their Church visits, they would head to a bar for some wine with their neighbours. This was all part of the French identity. They weren’t fanatics, nor did they strictly adhere to religious rules. I believe that’s what makes France special – it’s a delicate blend of religion, nation, and culture.
Aarti Tikoo: What happened to your family then ?
Jean: These circumstances were so difficult to live with that we ultimately had to leave that place. My mom had a great job in Paris, and she decided to quit. We relocated from the suburbs to the West of France, where we could afford a house. Many people made the same choice, even if it meant becoming poorer. I found myself living far from the nearest major city, Angers. Every morning, I had to take the train to get to school. We were isolated from most conveniences. When you live near Paris, you have access to medical care and hospitals at any time, as well as cultural amenities like cinemas, museums, and community associations. Living far from a big city means having access to basically nothing.
Tikoo: What was your motivation to join politics ?
Jean: I was close to many people on the Left, and I couldn’t believe how blinded they were by ideology. I couldn’t fathom the world they were living in. It seemed they were detached from the very things they spoke about, whereas I had witnessed those realities firsthand.
Tikoo: Do you think that the Left in France has betrayed its own secular values ?
Jean: Yes, absolutely. I think that 40 years ago, I would have been labelled a Republican-Leftist in many ways. I’m an atheist, I don’t define myself as conservative, and I’m not on the far right. So, I would probably have been considered a Leftist in the past. The Republic never negotiated with religion; it never made deals with religion. I can only imagine how the old leftist Republicans would react to Islam today; they would likely be quite perplexed. For instance, when Muslim girls attempt to attend school wearing the Burqa, it’s actually against the law and contrary to our values. School, especially in the French Republic, is meant to be a sanctuary of knowledge. Introducing religious attire into the school environment goes against the philosophical spirit and the law.
Tikoo: What is clashing between Islam and the French Republic?
Jean: I believe France and Islam are fundamentally at odds. France is often referred to as the country of Human Rights, where democracy is the authority of the people. In contrast, Islam is rooted in the authority of God, which takes precedence over the power of people. Philosophically, they stand in opposition to each other.
Aarti Tikoo: Recent riots have taken place in France. Some of those in support of these protests argue that there has been excessive discrimination against immigrants, that they are confined to ghettos lacking essential facilities, and that they do not have access to the financial resources, privileges, and comforts enjoyed by other French citizens. Do you agree with this perspective?
Jean: No, not only is it a lie, but they should be ashamed of making such claims. Take Nanterre, for instance, the city where I used to live. It’s arguably one of the wealthiest cities because it has numerous associations dedicated to assisting young immigrants. These associations work tirelessly to integrate them, believing that offering cultural experiences, like trips to the cinema, will encourage proper behaviour and prevent unrest. Meanwhile, many disadvantaged individuals who reside outside these areas face discrimination because they’ve been pushed out of major cities. In these smaller towns, you’ll find plenty of ‘bored’ young people loitering around. They lack access to such organisations, yet they aren’t resorting to violence, and no one seems to notice them. Just like my family, they remain quiet, go to work, and hope for change someday.
These riots aren’t purely a result of socioeconomic issues; they’re primarily about identity. I’m uncertain if this marks the beginning of something larger or if it’s merely another symptom. However, it was undeniably evident. Many people predict the possibility of a civil war. These aren’t mere riots. While some individuals talk about justice, the police officer responsible for Nahel’s death is currently behind bars—justice has been served. So it’s not solely about justice. They seem to be searching for a pretext to act out and target symbols of France. They attack priests, police officers, and even firefighters. Why firefighters? If you watch these videos, you can hear them proclaiming their opposition to France and chanting ‘Long live Algeria!’
Tikoo: Why aren’t young men from the working classes in France participating in politics ?
Jean: I believe many working-class White people tend to vote for right-wing parties, such as Rassemblement National (RN) or Reconquête!. However, a significant number of people have grown disillusioned. They no longer have faith in the system; they voted for someone in the elections and then felt betrayed. Many individuals simply accept this situation, as they’ve become accustomed to it. We’re accustomed to telling our girls, ‘Text me when you’re home’ when it’s late at night and potentially dangerous. We’re accustomed to avoiding certain areas and choosing alternate routes when a group of people approaches us. We’ve grown accustomed to these behaviours, but we shouldn’t.
Tikoo: Who is really representing the Working class in France today ? Are there any politicians or political parties who voice your sentiments, issues faced by your class ?
Jean: Right now, I don’t really know. I think it lies somewhere between Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour. The one who’s going to represent them the best is the one who’s going to get the votes, anyway. So, we will see.