Incidences of what could be termed ethnic or racial violence in modern France can be traced back to the larger French framework of identity and belonging. As discussed in other sections, French notions of citizenship rely upon individual assertions of French identity, and the individual’s ability to successfully assimilate into French society. Those whose asserted or assigned racial/ethnic identities fall outside that which is accepted as “French,” then, have historically been targeted.
More recently, racial and xenophobic violence in France is generally understood as an instrument of the far right, used to attack those of immigrant, non-French background. Some trace this trend back to French legacies of colonial rule and European persecution of Jews, arguing that France has still not fully owned up to their regrettable history (EUMC, 26: 2002). Accordingly, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia identifies violence against Jews and Muslims as by far the most prominent strains of racially/ethnically motivated violence within France (EUMC, 3: 2002). Rather than looking at these two variations of separately, the Centre notes that French academics “observe that they derive from convergent social and cultural factors, and that they may both illustrate a rejection of the Oriental, now the ‘Other’ par excellence in France” (EUMC, 3: 2002).
In recent years, however, media attention has been paid largely to another strain of violence originating from within the Muslim, largely North African community. This development complicates the EUMC and other French peoples’ assertions regarding the right wing’s monopoly on violence.
The following discussion will look at general trends in anti-Semitic violence (used in the report to describe violence against both Jews and Muslims), and then at several recent incidences of violence originating from with the Muslim community (though, in some incidences, incited from without).
Against the “Other”: Trends in Anti-Semitic Violence
The EUMC’s report highlights several trends in racial/ethnic violence in France, beginning with the rise in popularity of the far-right National Front in the 1990’s and concluding with the post-9/11 2002 report. In particular, it notes the large differences in number and type of racial incidences reported in each year, tracing these disparities back to geopolitical events and subsequent reactions (EUMC, 9-10: 2002).
The racial/ethnic violence documented in the 2002 was, then, predictably higher than in previous years, given the previous year’s unusual series of political occurrences. The report highlights 9/11 and the Al-Aqsa Intifada as particularly instrumental in the record levels of anti-Semitic violence. In total, 62% of racially/ethnically motivated attacks in 2002 were anti-Semitic in nature, compared to 80% in 2000 an 45% in 2001 (EUMC, 9: 2002).
Deviating from common French perceptions, however, are statistics regarding the perpetrators of violence. Only 9% of the violent attacks documented in 2002 were committed by people affiliated with far-right movements (EUMC, 9: 2002). Giry notes that the French increasingly perceived the Muslim community as being behind anti-Semitic attacks against Jews, though the EUMC report does not address this speculation (Giry: 2006).
The French government has taken the prevalence of anti-Semitic violence into account, and has responded by increasing punitive measures against perpetrators (increasing sentences, etc). This legislation is consistent with previously discussed French conceptions of race and ethnicity: it attempts to combat racism via negative incentives, dealing with criminal cases on an individual level rather than taking positive steps to protect clearly targeted minority groups (EUMC, 10-13: 2002).
Disenfranchisement and Fundamentalism: New Strains of Violence
In 1995, the Algerian Armed Islamic Group planted a series of bombs within the Paris metro system. In 2005, North African youths in the banlieues of Paris rioted, garnering global media attention. And in 2012, Mohammed Merah, born in France to an Algerian family, walked into a Jewish school in Toulouse and gunned down seven people, including several children.
How are the three related, if at all–and what does that relationship mean for France? The common thread running through these incidences is, of course, that the central actors were of North African descent–primarily from former French colonies. More relevantly, however, each event marks a distinct manifestation of the uneasy relationship between France and its Muslim community.
Giry argues that the 1995 metro bombings were a culmination of several decades’ worth of transformation of attitudes toward the Muslim community in France. Even as late as the 1960’s and 70’s, Muslims were considered “workers,” under the assumption that they had arrived recently as part of the immigration wave. After immigration was largely shut down in 1973, perceptions of that community began to shift; by the 1980’s, they were “Arabs,” and, shortly thereafter, Muslims, first and foremost (Giry: 2006).
The French began a policy of accommodation toward various aspects of the Muslim faith–veiling, mosque construction, and other practices–in the 1980’s, in an attempt to quell the fundamentalist strain of Islam beginning to crop up in other areas of the world. The 1995 bombings, Giry notes, revealed to France that it, too, had become a target. Subsequent, less conciliatory policies toward expressions of Muslim faith–such as the previously discussed banning of the hijab in public schools–have become more commonplace (Giry: 2006).
The 2005 Parisian riots began when two teenagers, of Malian and Tunisian descent, were electrocuted and killed after reportedly running from police. Over the next few weeks, thousands of vehicles were destroyed, and several were injured and killed throughout nearly thirty different pre-dominantly North African communities in France (Cornell and Hartmann, 153: 2007). The rioters themselves, Cornell and Hartmann note, were not actually immigrants, but rather the second-generation, French-born children of those migrants from North Africa, predominantly former French colonies. They argue that “the riots were replete with racial undertones that prompted some comparisons to the urban unrest in the US in the late 1960’s.” (Cornell, Hartmann, 153: 2007).
The rioters in 2005 had no specific demands, nor any defined methods of protest. Rather, Giry describes their agitation as one of pure rage: a senseless reaction to a seemingly senseless crime, inflicted upon an already aggrieved community (Giry: 2006). Yet France has, since these occurrences, not fundamentally altered its policy of approaching individual, and not communal, grievances (see Institutions).
Lastly, the Toulouse shootings of April 2012 leave a number of unanswered questions as to the future of the Muslim community in France. Chief among the questions asked by Frenchmen was whether shooter Merah’s beliefs were a product of radical outside influences, or of isolation imposed from within, by French society itself. “It was not Al-Qaeda who created Mohammed Merah,” a friend of the shooter asserted. “It was France” (Meyer: 2012). Recently ousted, center-right President Sarkosy, meanwhile, issued a statement disowning Merah, claiming that the only thing French about Merah “was his identity papers” (Meyer: 2012). How the Merah incident is dealt with in France, and whether the nation chooses to alter its unique method of addressing racial tension and inequality, may resolve such tensions–for better or worse.