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  Opinion   Columnists  04 Jul 2023  Syed Ata Hasnain | Europe at a crossroads: Why France is burning

Syed Ata Hasnain | Europe at a crossroads: Why France is burning

Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired lieutenant-general, is a former commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps. He is also associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
Published : Jul 5, 2023, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Jul 5, 2023, 12:00 am IST

Continued immigration has led to France having over four million immigrants in a population of 67 million

An independent human rights watchdog in France found that young men perceived to be Black or Arab were 20 times more likely to be stopped by the police than their peers. (Image: PTI)
 An independent human rights watchdog in France found that young men perceived to be Black or Arab were 20 times more likely to be stopped by the police than their peers. (Image: PTI)

Many are wondering just what has gone wrong with French society. An advanced country, one of the leading Western powers and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, as well as a former colonial power, is burning with internal riots and street fires. It’s also not the first time it’s happening. A few years ago, the Yellow Vest movement engulfed France when fuel prices were increased by the government on the pretext of imposing a green tax. Being from rural areas, they said they couldn’t afford the hike in fuel prices. Violent protests erupted in Paris, where rioters defaced the Arc de Triomphe and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, looted shops and vandalised buildings. That seems to have become a norm every few years in France, exemplifying the underlying tensions of living there.

This time it’s about the wholly unnecessary killing of a 17-year-old boy of Algerian descent who was detained by two police officers apparently for a traffic offence in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. One of the officers fired at the young man because he feared that he would run over someone with his car.  It put a blotch on traditional French patience, finesse and rationale. The incident sparked off large-scale rioting. Successive nights of violence across France and its overseas territories have prompted French officials to launch a crackdown. Over 40,000 police personnel were mobilised to patrol cities across the country. More than 2,000 people have been detained and more than 500 police personnel have been injured. There has been unprecedented destruction of public and private property. Malls and high-profile branded stores have been the target, making this out to be intra-society vengeance against the better- heeled and upper crust society.

We know that France is no stranger to revolution and violence in the streets. In fact, it is the cradle of protest against discrimination: the Bastille bears testimony to that. And it’s not just France, the rioting has also spread to French-speaking Switzerland and Belgium. If not adequately capped, the protests could spread to many other European countries. There is an explanation for all this.

If you have ever ridden the Eurostar from London’s iconic Waterloo Station, through the Chunnel, and enjoyed views of the great French countryside as one speeds past northern France and enters Paris’ Gare du Nord railway station, you would understand this better. The first time I did it I was not sure I had entered the heart of one of the most sophisticated civilisations. To me the railway station and everything around it projected a struggling humanity of people from all over Francophonic nations in Africa and elsewhere. Mixed with them were Asians and many others. The walls were scrawled with graffiti and garbage spewed out of overfilled trash cans. It wasn’t the Europe that I had expected, not the least France, which only throws up images of the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, fashion and film, art and fine dining.

However, what is not realised is that after the Second World War, while much of Europe reeled under the effect of monumental casualties which laid waste almost a full generation, a need arose for immigration from many of the colonies which were dominated by European powers. Many made the journey to Europe to be absorbed in the rebuilding efforts and the manning of lower-end jobs which Europeans themselves were loath to perform. Continued immigration has led to France having over four million immigrants in a population of 67 million. The original generation of immigrants were grateful for what they got; sustenance in a world where poverty had made survival in the post-war world almost impossible. The subsequent generation may have grown in the shadow of their parents and continued to remain loyal and grateful to the colonial masters. The next and the next generations thereafter had no such compulsion, and now they were loath to doing anything below their dignity. This resulted in lack of employment and a consequent rise in societal tension as discrimination became rife.  It’s amazing that in a nation considered so stable and developed that it gets as many tourists as its total population, there is discrimination of such proportions against segments of its own society which has in many ways helped France to get over the ravaging effects of World War II. Travelling through Europe, one finds this phenomenon in many other places. An evening I spent in Brussels at the famous La Grande Place, the central square of the city, was partially upset by the presence of noisy, hooting and badly behaved immigrants who tended to presume that Belgium was first their country and only then belonged to its original inhabitants.

All this came to a head during the immigration crisis as Syria imploded and almost four million refugees poured into Europe. The spectre of the Islamic State forced a crisis, with some European nations readily accepting and others refusing entry. Immigrants from North Africa and illegal migrants from afar also attempt illegal migration into Europe through different channels. The frequency of France’s racial issues coming to a head is likely to spread to other nations too, and one could then have a full-blown crisis on Europe’s hands. This along with the already major security concerns over Ukraine’s displaced people is likely to create challenges for Europe’s political leaderships. It will need a European solution and not just a French or Belgian one. The chances of low-lying terrorists exploiting the social turbulence cannot be ruled out either.

An independent human rights watchdog in France found that young men perceived to be Black or Arab were 20 times more likely to be stopped by the police than their peers. The tragedy has turned the spotlight again on the so-called “banlieues” -- the suburbs of French cities -- which have been hit by another wave of riots across France. About 57 per cent of children living in those communities live in poverty, against 21 per cent for France’s population as a whole. But the problem is best exemplified by the fact that a crowd sourcing funds for the family of Nahel M, the victim of the current tragedy, drew less money than the fund set up by Jean Messiha, a former adviser to French far-right politician Marine Le Pen, for the family of the accused policeman who had shot Nahel.

Obviously, President Emmanuel Macron’s journey to the next election is strewn with obstacles, but that is so for most ruling elements in Europe.

The writer, a retired lieutenant-general, is a former GOC of the Srinagar-based 15 (“Chinar”) Corps

Tags: france president emmanuel macron, human rights, france riots, european crisis