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.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses