Algeria fans supporting their team in Marseilles. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser