Algeria fans supporting their team in Marseilles. Photo: Getty
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New attacks on French-Algerian citizens resurrect old, subtle forms of racism

The World Cup is just the latest political football to be kicked by the Front National’s Marine Le Pen, who suggested that “You are either French or Algerian”.

Algeria’s historic qualifying match for the 2014 World Cup was the source of mass celebrations and joy across France where spontaneous parties erupted across the Hexagon, from Paris to Marseilles. Broadly jovial in nature, a number of these celebrations required police intervention, and despite a heavy security presence, 74 arrests were reported and dozens of cars set ablaze, as acts of violence marred the festivities. Prime Minister Manuel Valls condemned the violence as “unacceptable” and warned of repercussions against those who were spoiling the festivities for those who are both “French and Algerian”.

As further matches ensued, Algeria vs South Korea and more recently Algeria vs Germany, security provisions were increased to counter a further number of disturbances. Recollections of a 2001 France vs Algeria match in which the game had to be interrupted 76 minutes in due to fans invading the pitch were raised as a warning of possible chaos which could follow a France-Algeria confrontation in the World Cup quarter finals. As it turns out, France vs Algeria won’t be happening, but the football-fuelled disorder was seized upon by the ever resourceful Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, to steer national discussions towards some of her party’s most regressive policies. On this occasion, the unrest was used as an opportunity to resurrect the FN’s battle cry since 1989, for an end to dual nationality. “You are either French or Algerian”, declared Le Pen, qualifying the violence as reflecting the “refusal by binationals to assimilate”. Designating the motivation of some troublemakers as a “spirit of revenge”, Le Pen sought to frame the tensions as part of a historic struggle between France and Algeria, while others within her party suggested binational delinquents should be stripped of their French nationality, which when unpicked is only a short step from demanding the expulsion of French Arabs who may break the law. 

According to the National Institute for Democraphic Studies (INED), a mere 5 per cent of France’s metropolitan population is binational, of whom 90 per cent are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Among dual nationals, attachment to country of origin is actually linked to a strong national identity, contradicting the FN’s claim of an inherent tension between them. What’s more, many French citizens who hold dual nationality do so for reasons of necessity. Morocco, for example, does not allow its citizens to relinquish national identity and others may have foreign parents and wish to hold on to their heritage.

But the truth is that many of those who will have been active in the violence were not dual nationalist, but French citizens, some of whom will be of Algerian heritage. Le Pen’s rhetoric, although on the face of it about immigration, actually resurrects subtle forms of racism which confuse those of north African heritage with immigrants and in so doing, deny them full equality as citizens. This latest invective, which seeks to draw the boundaries of national identity according to loyalties to football teams, represents Le Pen’s appropriation of domestic disturbances linked to alienation, poverty and in some cases straight-forward misbehaving, for exclusivist claims concerning national identity. In so doing, the mask of propriety adopted by the far right in recent years as it has sought to rebrand itself as a “moderate” nationalist movement focused on immigration and the EU, but not avowedly racist, slips. Apparent beneath it is a presumed incompatibility between Algerian and French identities, a belief in their intrinsic difference and distinctiveness and a reassertion of white French superiority as the legitimate designator of the boundary of identities. And this in a country where 70 per cent believe there are too many foreigners. Despite immigrants only making up 11 per cent of the French population, a figure not drastically different to elsewhere in Europe, a recent poll found that 55 per cent of the French believe immigrants don’t make an effort to integrate. This figure speaks to the persistence of national debates which question the integration of what are predominantly French citizens of foreign heritage, but whose identity continues to be discussed within the context of immigration.

Football allows for the unbridled expression of nationalist fervour, but it also offers an insight into the complex nature of identity, politics and belonging in diverse societies in which coexisting identities have historical tensions and contemporary complexities. Le Pen cares little about football, but she does value the opportunities popular expressions of nationalist zeal offer her in terms of advancing a narrow vision of French belonging. Her statement was rightly condemned by anti-racism campaign group SOS Racisme as “hate-filled and stigmatising”, but it is actually the broader debates which spin off from her bombastic declarations which pose the greater concern. Despite a recognition of the absurdity of her demand, within hours a poll had been set up to establish whether there was popular support for her demand, while commentators and personalities debated the issue which she’d successfully established as worthy of concern. On this occasion, as in others where the Far-Right have led the national debate, the political weakness of both the Left and the Right, the former discredited for successive failures and the later embroiled in the latest corruption scandal,  leaves the way wide open for Le Pen and her divisive project.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist and broadcaster (France, Middle East and North Africa, Islam) and a DPhil candidate in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.

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The polls are bad, but Jeremy Corbyn’s office has a secret weapon

How a shake-up of the leadership team has steadied nerves at the top of Labour. 

If polling had existed back in 1906, Jeremy Corbyn quipped at one recent strategy meeting, the Labour Party would never have got started.

As far as Labour’s direction is concerned, it is that meeting at four o’clock every Monday afternoon that matters. The people who attend it regularly are the Labour leader, his aides, the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as well as the party’s election co-ordinator, and their respective aides.

In recent weeks, the meetings have been stormy affairs, and not only because the numbers from the party’s own pollsters, BMG Research, mirror the uniformly bleak picture from the public polls. There is also concern over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager. Murphy is highly rated by Corbyn for having brought increased intensity and efficiency to the leader’s office. Corbyn often struggles to deliver bad news in person and appreciates that Murphy will intervene on his behalf.

Her intensity is not uniformly welcomed. “She could start a fight with her own reflection,” in the wry words of one friend. An argument with Jon Trickett – the Hemsworth MP whose unusual career trajectory took him from being a parliamentary aide to Peter Mandelson to the inner sanctum of Ed Miliband’s leadership and finally to the role of election co-ordinator for Corbyn – led to Trickett going on a two-week strike, recusing himself from vital meetings and avoiding any contact with Murphy.

That row eventually led to Trickett being stripped of his role and banished from the Monday meeting. Murphy had a similar turf war with the campaigns director, Simon Fletcher, which culminated in Fletcher resigning on 17 February. In a letter to staffers, he called on the party to “keep the promise” of Corbyn’s first leadership bid, a period when Fletcher was central and Murphy had yet to start working for the Labour leader.

All of which, in better political weather, would simply be part of the back-and-forth of office politics. However, set against the backdrop of unease about by-elections in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland, and a series of unhelpful leaks, it adds to a sense of vulnerability around the leadership. One loyalist shadow cabinet minister calls it “the most dangerous time” for Corbyn since he was first elected leader.

Why the danger? Contrary to popular myth, the backbone of Jeremy Corbyn’s successive landslide victories was not a hard-pressed twentysomething, struggling to find a fixed job or to get a foot on the housing ladder. The shock troops of Corbynism, at least as far as the internal battle in the Labour Party went, were baby boomers. Many of them were either working in, or on early retirement from, a charity or the public sector, deeply concerned about the rightward drift of British politics and worried about the next generation.

Corbyn’s decision to whip Labour MPs in support of triggering Article 50 – the process whereby Britain will begin its exit from the European Union – was, in their eyes, a double heresy. The vote signalled acceptance that the forces of the Eurosceptic right had won on 23 June, and it conceded that visa-free travel, membership of the single market and freedom of movement are over.

None of this is automatically great news for Corbyn’s internal critics – not least because the vote on Article 50 is rare in being an issue that unites Corbyn with most Labour MPs. Yet it adds to the sense that his leadership has passed its best-before date.

Adding to the general malaise is a series of unhelpful leaks. There was a story in the Sunday Times on 12 February claiming that the leadership was road-testing possible replacements for Corbyn, and on 20 February the Mirror claimed that the Labour leadership had commissioned a poll to find out whether or not the leader should quit his post. These stories are hotly denied by the leader’s office. Some in Corbyn’s inner circle believe they are the work of Trickett, embittered at his demotion.

It is true that Corbyn is not enjoying the job as much as he once did. However, if the conversation shifts from the minutiae of Brexit to his natural terrain of the NHS and the continuing consequences of government cuts on education and the prisons service, he could quickly find himself relishing the role once more.

Corbyn retains two powerful cards. His newly energised office, under Karie Murphy, is one. Although her brisk approach has generated some public rows, the feeling in the leader’s office is that a chief of staff was needed, and Murphy has assumed that role. The media team has also grown sharper with the addition of David Prescott (son of John), Matt Zarb-Cousin and the former Momentum spokesman James Schneider.

Corbyn’s second asset is more unexpected. His rivals inside the party now fear rather than relish an immediate end to his leadership. A former shadow cabinet member splits his supporters into two groups: “idealists and ideologues – the first we can inspire and win over, the second have to be got rid of”. In their view, the idealists have not yet moved away from Corbyn enough to guarantee victory; the ideologues, for their part, will slink off as Corbyn puts the demands of his office above their interests, as he did over Article 50.

Although self-defeating panic has never been a rare commodity in the Labour Party, the settled view of Labour MPs is that their leader must be given time and space rather than hustled out of the door. There is an awareness, too, that MPs who are united in opposition to Corbyn are divided over many other issues.

So, while the inner circle’s Monday meetings might be fraught, and Labour’s current polling would have given Keir Hardie pause, Jeremy Corbyn is safe. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit