Robin Yassin-Kassab


with 12 comments

Segolene Royal has been much criticised for warning that the French ‘banlieu’ will riot if Sarkozy, the interior minister who called banlieu inhabitants ‘racaille’ (‘scum’), is elected president. The banlieu is prone to riot anyway. Why?

Well, here are a few personal anecdotes. The stories are 15 years old, so are not directly relevant to Sarkozy, but they explain something of the racist background to France’s social problems.

One: One evening in Paris I was walking with an upper-middle class English friend whose mother is Malaysian. I’m an English Arab, but white-skinned and blue-eyed. Out of nowhere arrived two policemen. With no warning they grabbed my friend, threw him against a wall, then pushed a truncheon against his throat until he was choking and weeping. They took me round the corner and asked why I was walking with him.

Two: I had a French girlfriend of Algerian origin, also white and not noticeably Arab, who was being harassed by an insane neighbour. She was scared, so we went to the police station to inform them of the situation. The police were polite and concerned. They wrote everything down. But when they asked my girlfriend’s name, their tone changed radically. They scrumpled up the report sheet, told us no offence had been committed, and advised us to get out immediately.

That girlfriend remembered her old maths teacher ordering her to the back of the classroom with the rest of the Arabs and Africans because, as the teacher explained, “I’m employed by the French state to teach French children.”

Her father had escaped from the extreme poverty of his (French-occupied) Algerian childhood to France, where he spent a lifetime as a migrant labourer, suffering casual and brutal violence from foremen and police – and then inflicting some himself, in his impotence, on his own family. When they finally settled in an industrial town, he found work in a factory where he would train white teenagers to do his dangerous, lowest-of-the-low job, and then watch them promoted after a couple of months to brighter and better things.

In Paris I had an African friend who for a time lived in a slum building with other African families. One day a skinhead threw a teargas canister into the corridor where children were playing. The police weren’t interested. They clearly had more important things to do with their time. The same friend was stopped almost every day by police on his way to work, insulted, and ordered to show his papers.

These scorned and abused French citizens, the blacks and beurs who work in the worst jobs for the lowest pay, who live in the ‘rabbit cages’ of the urban wasteland, who constitute 70% of the prison population, who have the least representation, whose voices are not heard, are supposedly the omnipotent Islamic fiends who threaten to destroy French secularism, the whole French way of life, and whose clothing choices must therefore, for the sake of freedom, be sanctioned by the state. (To his credit, Sarkozy did not support the ban on hijab in schools. Update: he has since identified the niqab or face veil as a pressing danger to France, although only 367 French women wear it – that precise number was provided by French intelligence.)

The fact that the French were still using torture and prison camps for civilians in Algeria in the 60s, and that an ex-Vichy police chief (Maurice Papon) at the same time dealt with demonstrating pro-independence Algerians in Paris by tying their feet and throwing them into the Seine, suggests that France has got savage racial prejudice to blame, primarily, for its social problems. The bodies-in-the-Seine incident happened in October 1961. At least 200 civilians were murdered, a crime in which the French media collaborated by its silence and concealment.

It’s certainly the case that many young French Arabs and Africans are somewhat raggamuffin, but extreme alienation and marginalisation tends to do that to you. Besides, if white men in France have a couple of years off the rails they are not in danger of being shot by the police. When I was there, beurs and blacks were shot in the back every couple of months. This was considered normal. It certainly didn’t result in soul-searching by the white population.

It is the complex of racism and class oppression which has made the French innercities unbearable. The real ‘racaille’ are those who blame the victims.


Update August 2016: Now – after a serious of ISIS-linked atrocities and the continuing rise of the far right, things are becoming much, much worse. See the ‘burkini’ controversy. ‘Mainstream’ politicians and state officials describe the burkini as ‘a symbol of the groups attacking France’. This is a bit like saying beards should be banned because terrorists have beards, except this is directly targeted at Muslims (though, so I read, it isn’t only Muslim women who wear the burkini. Women with easily burnable skin use it too). Armed men forcibly undressing women, snarly whites cheering the while. I fear this is a sign of things to come. The West’s liberal age is over – the ‘left’ as likely as the right to indulge in racist sterotyping and conspiracy theories. We are heading into incredibly dangerous territory.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

May 6, 2007 at 10:09 am

Posted in France, North Africa

Tagged with ,

12 Responses

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  1. Many thanks for this. Most of us who have not visited France are unable to appreciate the level of acceptable racism that has permeated many French institutions. It is only through anecdotal evidence like this that a more accurate picture of the french reality could be gleaned.

    The Fanonite

    May 7, 2007 at 6:29 pm

  2. Qunfuz,

    Those are powerful anecdotes. It is much easier on the French conscience to forget these inconvenient truths and blame Islamic fundamentalism,the boogieman du jour.

    Abu Kareem

    May 8, 2007 at 3:17 am

  3. Qunfuz

    What goes round comes round. The French and Belgians were particularly bad colonialists. They abused the “natives” for decades, exploited their wealth and severely damaged their chances of building strong independent nations. The long-term social and economic problems that they left behind have come back to haunt them.

    But, rather than live up to their responsibilities toward their former colonies, they persist in abusing migrants and denying them equal rights as French citizens.

    Philip I

    May 8, 2007 at 9:47 pm

  4. Thanks Qunfuz,

    An excellent article as usual. An Algerian friend of mine who lived in France for some years put the poisonous anti-Arab environment there down to the lingering attitudes brought there following the return of the French pied-noir settlers after the Algerian war of independence. The relatively recent return of a million returned settlers is a situation unparalleled in any English-speaking country, at least with regard to the Arab colonial experience. Apparently these people still bitterly claim Algeria to be a part of France, and did pretty ghastly things to the natives when they were there. Not a pleasant bunch of people to be around if you are Arab or Muslim from what I have heard.

    Aussie dreamer

    May 12, 2007 at 6:50 pm

  5. The French have never gotten over the fact they are no longer a world power. They continue to foster relations with naive natives in countries such as Lebanon, citing their very own “special” relationship with the region. These “Francophones” tend to subscribe to the same racist view as the French, giving Morrocans, Algerians (in particular) and Arabs in general the category of subhumans. This is an excellent article for a topic I’ve always wanted to know more about!


    May 15, 2007 at 1:12 pm

  6. France has always been a racist country. Their cry foul after the Second World War ended doesn’t make us forget the fact that, apart from the Communist resistance, they actually surrendered their country to the Nazis. However, as soon as the War ended, they started playing the victim, saying they are doing justice by killing some prostitutes who laid with Nazi soldiers.

    Sarkozy is just a historical consequence. For me, neither chirac nor Mitterrand was different at all. Ask Jacques Attali, he would have told you the same.


    June 5, 2007 at 12:54 pm

  7. I remember this post. This line stuck in my mind: “I’m employed by the French state to teach French children.”

    It makes me realise how far Britain (well, London at least) has come. So many people in France and America still don’t shy away from overt racism.


    December 16, 2008 at 3:12 pm

  8. On our honeymoon, we checked in a hotel in Paris, the lady (she’s French) with a side glance at me (I’m an Arab), asked my husband (he’s American) if he wanted to register “her” (that’s me)


    August 24, 2016 at 2:27 pm

  9. […] with 8 comments […]

  10. Plain awful

    annie goossens

    August 25, 2016 at 7:26 am

  11. Very well written article as usual Qunfez. I didn’t know they had that kind of prejudice, its sounds like the Deep South in the 50s. However I was a bit confused when you said “I had a French girlfriend of Algerian origin, also white and not noticeably Arab,”. What does that mean exactly? Was she an albino? Or is she mixed race but more French than Algerian? At school there where two sisters who Grandparents where Algerian no their mother’s side by Scottish on their dad’s, and they where quite pale. Or was she an ethnic Berber, who’s family comes from Algeria, who’s now a French citizen who happened to have pale skin?

    I notice they never seem to pick on you very much in these stories, do you think because you have an English accent could be part of the reason?


    August 28, 2016 at 12:29 pm

    • in france I personally have experienced nothing worse than occasional funny looks. I think it’s probably because, if I havent been in the sun, I can easily pass for a Mediterranean-type Frenchman. The girlfriend was a kabyle Berber, yes, though Arab Algerians too can be very light-skinned.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      August 28, 2016 at 12:39 pm

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