2006-09-08 Hannah Godfrey
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Re-thinking Attitudes to Muslims in France

While governments have tightened security measures and anti-terror laws since September 11th 2001, and after subsequent bomb attacks in Spain and Britain carried out by Islamist miliant extremists, and close to al-Qaeda, France already had a range of such measures in place.

Radio France Internationale's Hannah Godfrey reports that France's terror attack preparedness could not contain a feeling of mistrust of Muslims that sprouted from a part of the population.

France was not only aware of the risk of terrorist attacks, it had been the victim of lethal bombings by Islamic extremists from Algeria in 1995.

Alain Richard, defense minister in Lionel Jospin's government at the time of the September 11 attacks.

The impression of being protected by both oceans has neve existed in Europe. We had waves of terrorist attacks of different kinds, every decade or every two decades throughout the 20th century.

This meant it had protection systems  in place..... and was already tough on Islamic extremists, unlike its friend across the water...  Farhad Khosrokhavar, specialist in European Islam at the EHESS social science institute in Paris:

I think nowadays in Britain lots of people put into question the wisdom of the English tolerance and multiculturalism. Some people believe that the French model is better for the intergration of Muslims and for the prevention of what might be called Jihadi terrorism.

The riots which took place in many of France's more deprived suburbs last autumn were arguably a sign that the country's efforts to integrate its immigrant population have not been a roaring success. At the time some members of the government accused Islamic extremists of coordinating the unrest. Farhad Khosrokhavar vehemently disagrees that Islam had anything to do with the events of last autumn.

Riots in ParisRiots in Paris
It was a purely social movement, of course without any kind of motto, without any kind of positive identity, but still there was no jihadi side to it, no Islamic side to it, no radical, religious side to it, and the secret services here acknowledged it publicly. In some of the poor suburbs in France we saw young Muslims wearing T-shirts with pictures of Bin Laden on it, or writing on the walls, ‘Bin Laden will win the war’, b ut they didn’t know any things about those things you know. It’s a kind of reaction. It’s a kind of imaginary way of constructing a bipolar world where Muslims are repressed by the non-Muslims.

Few would deny that the 11 september attacks radicalised a section of the French Muslim population, with the ban on the Islamic veil in schools three years later compounding this. One of the most deep reaching effects in France of the terrorist attacks in America has been the reinforcement of prejudice towards people of Muslim culture. Bruno Jeanbart, specialist in politics for the pollster "Opinion Way":

In all the surveys we saw that there was an increasing part of the French who declared they were racist. There was a kind of radicalisation of a small part of the French public opinon. It has changed also the way all the political parties are talking about these programmes, even the socialist party for example, has another discourse on immigration and tries to find a kind of agreement between being very strict on illegal immigration and also helping the immigrants to find their way in the French society. So there was a soft radicalisation of all the political parties except for the far-left.

When I asked former socialist minister Alain Richard whether he thinks the fallout of the September 11 attacks has made the French political scene more hostile to immigrants he replied :

Demonstration against the ban of headscarves in schoolsDemonstration against the ban of headscarves in schools
ITV: There is no global discrimination against Muslims in this country. There can be real concerns about immigration wherever it comes from because our labour market is in difficult condition and of course we are all concerned with real integration of migrants of different cultures. So I wouldn’t say there is a strong association between the issue of immigration and the problem of terrorism in this country and in our society.

In the sea of hyperbole in which both sides in the so called "war on terror" bathe, it is important to get a bit of perspective. Farhad Khosrokovar again.

People say we are at war, you know. September 11th meant a kind of deep break-down I mean a breaking point with the past. I don’t think so. There are of course some major changes in the world, but on the whole, we are not at war. Lots of things have changed but cannot be compared to the Second World War or the First World War. In your daily life, you don’t feel any major change. So I would say September 11th is a major turning point but one should not exaggerate its’ meaning: social, political, cultural and economic. It has made the world much more complicated. Human rights issues have suffered a lot but that hasn’t changed the nature of democracies or of daily life in Western countries as far as I can see.

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