France: Immigration, the long arm of colonialism and the recent ethnic conflict – A Malaysian point of view

I am not a student of French society and politics. I do not keep up with political, economic and socio-cultural developments in France. However, some fifty years ago, as an undergraduate student of an American college, I spent a semester in France studying the French language and culture and living with a French family.

Immersion in this manner was an excellent way to learn a language and the culture of the people quickly. I enjoyed my four to five months’ stay in France and gained a decent level of competence in French. I left with pleasant memories of places, peoples and lovely French patisserie.

Alas, France appears to be at war some 50 years later! No, it is not the war in Ukraine, fighting Vladimir Putin and defeating Russia that concerns us.

It’s the internal contradictions and strife in France and in the West generally that is the focus of attention of most of us in the South and, if one prefers, the ‘non-West’.

Most of us have lived in former colonies that were once considered satellites of the ‘metropolitan’ mother countries (such as the UK, France, Belgium, Holland, Spain and the US). We in the former colonies were instructed to adopt, if not fall in love with, the systems of government of these mother countries, their economy, education, literature and music, their sports and recreational games, indeed their values.

So, it is especially disconcerting when all that one has learnt begins to fall apart:

  • When the great US registers the highest number of Covid deaths per capita not least because many Americans, especially those from poorer backgrounds, fell victim because they are in poorer health, as there is no free universal healthcare in the US, and many of those who died did not have comprehensive health insurance
  • When there’s a disproportionate number of black and brown people who are stopped by police officers, killed while being arrested or while in custody, and incarcerated in prison for crimes committed in the US. The whole “Black Lives Matter” campaign has informed us about systemic racism among law enforcement officers in the US
  • When a defeated US president claims the election had been stolen from him, contrary to common sense, and then plays dalang (puppeteer) and orchestrates an assault on Congress, the country’s legislature, resulting in much destruction, mayhem and injury to others. I mean, this was the elected president of the US who hailed from the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, who gave us a memorable definition of what constitutes democracy
  • When a (now ousted) prime minister of the UK proclaims Covid lockdown protocols dos and don’ts for all, and then breaks his own rules; worse, he even lies when it is discovered and reported that he had done just that
  • and, in the UK again, when the ‘mother of all Westminster parliamentary democracies’ continues to be ruled uninterruptedly by one, and then a second prime minister who was essentially chosen by a bunch of mainly old white men belonging to the Tory party; definitely, the PMs have not been elected by all the citizens who – regardless of ethnicity, religion, region, class, gender, sexual orientation or age – have been given the franchise in any democracy worth its name. For we were taught “there is no democracy without elections”

I could go on, but I want to shift attention to a more serious problem. In France today – the nation which overthrew their monarch in 1789, revolted against the feudal order, gave us Voltaire and the French philosophers, and shared with the world the noble pursuit of “liberty, equality and fraternity” – that same France stands accused of discriminating against, marginalising and dispossessing a group of its own citizens in modern-day France 2023.

These are the citizens who live in the ghetto-like banlieues (suburbs) of Paris, Marseille, Lyons, Toulouse and other major cities. Nowadays, these banlieues are characterised by poverty, unemployment, poor health services, dysfunctional schools, and ‘third world’-like living conditions. Invariably, crime becomes widespread, gangs gather and drugs are pushed.

And who are these who live in the banlieues? They are, disproportionately, the citizens or the children of those citizens who originated from the French colonies in north and sub-Saharan Africa. They are mostly Muslims of Arab descent and black Africans. And they are poor.

Check out the video footage of what the banlieues of Paris look like in the video at the top titled: Ghettos in Paris – Poverty and Crime in the Banlieu | Max Cameo #HOOD

France at war with itself?

Following the fatal shooting of Nahel Marzouk, a 17-year-old French youth of Moroccan and Algerian descent at a traffic stop on 27 June by a white police officer in Nanterre, spontaneous protests broke out and swept through Paris. CCTV footage showed that the youth, unarmed, had been shot at point-blank range for no apparent reason.

In response to this senseless killing, confrontations between protesters and the police erupted not just in Paris but throughout the country.

An ad-hoc coalition of 90 different neighbourhood and anti-racist organisations also called for a mass protest on 8 July. The French government prohibited the gathering, but it went ahead all the same.

The interior minister deployed over 40,000 police officers to maintain law and order and to curb the violence. Over a thousand people were arrested and hundreds of police officers injured. Vehicles in the streets were set on fire, rows of shops broken into and looted. Much blood flowed on the streets.

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Initially, the global media showed these scenes of violence and arson, suggesting a France at war with itself. The ugly scenes were likened to the scenes of the ongoing violence in the Sudan, of ethnic conflict in Manipur, India, and of young revolutionaries in Myanmar fighting the military regime after the coup d’etat there in 2021.

Then, suddenly, all these pictures and footage of violence in the streets in France stopped being shown. “Nothing!” or “Rien!”, as the French say.

Apparently, pictures without the correct accompanying narrative can give the wrong message. (I suppose this is why Washington dislikes TikTok so much. Threat to ‘national security’, indeed!) So, suddenly no more videos.

Narrative of the right and the racists

For the right-wing supporters of Marine Le Pen and her National Rally Party (previously National Front Party), the current problem in Nanterre originated from the entry of increasing numbers of migrants into France, plain and simple. Too many migrants arrived too quickly, and they could not be assimilated into French society successfully.

Le Pen and her supporters argue that these migrants, now confident of themselves because of their large numbers, do not need or want to adopt the language, customs and laws of the host nation. Rather, they want to maintain their own identity and to live separately from the original French people.

For Le Pen, this reluctance to assimilate has led to “separatism” and “communalism”. Indeed, they live in their own neighbourhoods.

One video of Marine Le Pen “What have you done with France?” shows her criticising French president Emmanuel Macron. In fact, it is a critique of French and the EU’s policy on the migrants, especially those from Africa.

Significantly, the video carries extensive expressions of support of Le Pen by French and other European viewers. They praise her for her stance to restrict if not stop the arrival of migrants, both legal and undocumented. They support her speaking out and wish other European leaders would do the same.

(In fact, many European leaders in Italy, Belgium, the UK, Holland, Germany, Norway, Finland and Sweden have done just that. And they have been winning more and more seats in elections. Most recently, we witnessed a new anti-migrant prime minister elected to office in Italy. In Germany, an anti-immigration mayor has been elected to office for the first time. A right-wing anti-immigration party is also part of the new government in Finland.)

Another video that has gone viral among Le Pen supporters features the Muslim cleric Sheikh Abu Taqi Al-Din Al-Dan who, in a 2019 video, claims that France would become a Muslim country by 2050!

The same video also contains a clip of the foreign minister of the pro-West UAE, who (in a 2017 video) warns European leaders not to be lenient with the Muslim migrants, especially those who espouse extremist views. Give them an inch, and they will take a yard, he seems to say. He blames the leniency of the European governments as the reason for previous Muslim protests and mayhem in France and other countries. Learn from how we control the extremists, he tells the Europeans.

In a show of support, these right-wing Europeans raised 1.6m francs via crowdfunding for the family and apparently for the legal defence of the police officer currently under investigation for committing voluntary homicide.

The anti-racists

From the point of view of the anti-racist groups who were involved in the protests, the latest outburst – some might even say rebellion – has been building up over the years. For them, police brutality and bullying against the country’s Muslim, African and Arab population is deep-rooted and endemic.

A French human rights activist Yasser Louati, head of the Committee for Justice and Liberties in France, states that in 2022 alone, there were 138 documented incidents of French police firing shots at moving cars, while 13 people died in shootings that took place during traffic stops.

As mentioned earlier, these minorities live in the ghetto-like banlieues, characterised by dysfunctional schools, widespread unemployment among the youth, unkempt neighbourhoods. And yes, crime syndicates also operate in these neighbourhoods – which then becomes the excuse for the police to raid homes and harass the residents.

But the real backdrop to all these contradictions and to the current conflict between the unemployed youth and the French state, is, of course, the fightback of the migrant communities – Arabs from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia on the one hand, and black Africans from the former 14 French colonies in sub-Saharan central and west Africa: Senegal, Benin, Burundi, Burkina, Togo, Cote D’Ivoire, Mali, Chad, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Congo, Gabon, Guinea and Niger.

Reportedly, these migrant communities comprise 10% of the entire French population today. Another statistic states that Arab Muslims from the Maghreb total about two million.

From the poorest African countries

These former French colonies in sub-Saharan Central and West Africa are also among the poorest and least developed of the African countries. They may be classic cases of how ‘economic dependency’ persists in the former colonies, even though they achieved independence decades ago.

Their economies continue to be dominated by the mining of natural resources (oil and gas, iron, bauxite, tin, copper, gold, rare metals) and agricultural production (coffee, cocoa, tea, millet, sorghum, maize, cashew, dairy, horticulture and animal husbandry).

About 60% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa comprise smallholders whose farms are less than five hectares each. Medium-sized farms (five to 100 hectares) are the exception. Plantation agriculture is even rarer.

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Unlike in East and Southeast Asia where we started “import-substitution industrialisation” from the 1960s or earlier, and “export-oriented industrialisation” (electronic components and electrical products, textile and garments) from the 1970s, Africa still imports most manufactured goods.

None of these countries produce their own Proton or Perodua, or their own computers like China and South Korea do. At best, the African countries produce consumer non-durables like shoes, processed food and drinks, and clothes.

In fact, any attempt to decolonise their economies and break away from the French was threatened by the compulsory payment of so-called ‘colonial debt’.

When Guinea under Sekou Toure decided not to pay the debt, the French resorted to what could be considered the scorched-earth destruction of the immovable ‘assets’ they were leaving behind – administration buildings, schools, hospitals, medicine, cows. This was done to forewarn the other nations not to following Sekou Toure’s example of defiance.

Another handicap was the requirement that the former 14 colonies continue to be part of the CFA francs currency system. Under this arrangement, the local currency was tied to the French one and guaranteed by the French treasury at a fixed rate.

However, the French government also laid claim to these countries’ national reserves by requiring them to deposit 50% of CFA franc reserves into the French central bank, effectively giving France control over the country’s resources.

Whereas Malaysia got out of the pegging of the local dollar to sterling not long after independence from the British, many of the former French colonies have been tied to the CFA francs currency system (which has since been broken into two effectively interchangeable currencies) decades after independence.

Post-independence political repression 

These former colonies’ struggle towards building strong and independent countries was often been marred by the assassination of their revolutionary and nationalist leaders.

Among those killed:

  • Patrice Lumumba, the Prime Minister of Congo, who was ousted by the pro-West military and other rivals who had him killed by firing squad in January 1961
  • Sylvanus Olympio of Togo, assassinated in 1963 – as Prime Minister, he had rejected the French demand for 800m francs as compensation for leaving behind the French colonial administration
  • Dr Felix Moumie, regarded as “the Patrice Lumumba of the Cameroons”, apparently poisoned in Geneva by French secret agents
  • Ruben Um Nyobe, likened to Gandhi and to Nelson Mandela, slained by the French army in 1958
  • El Mehdi ben Barka, “Morocco’s Che Guevera”, who organised a tri-continental gathering of Afro-Asian and Latin American socialists, kidnapped in Paris in 1963 and tortured to death subsequently

Significantly, most of these leaders were pan-Africanists and socialist in persuasion. During the Cold War, African leaders of such orientation were identified as unfriendly to Western interests and conveniently got rid of – in Africa, in the Middle East, Latin America, as in East and Southeast Asia. Wikipedia estimates about 400,000 African nationalists were deported, tortured and executed.

(Although not previously a French colony, mention should also be made of the well-respected and charismatic Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, previously known as the Gold Coast. He was overthrown in a coup in 1966, while he was on a state visit to Vietnam and China. It was acknowledged later that the CIA had been involved in his ouster.)

A book by Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, documents the oppression and exploitation of the continent by the French, the Belgians and the British.

Two major books by the great anti-colonial theorist Franz Fanon – The Wretched of the Earth, and Black Skins, White Masks – describe how the colonialists educated and influenced the Africans not only to look down on themselves but also to hate their fellow Africans, instead of uniting and working with one another. (This is why the revolutionary leaders who advocated pan-Africanism, as mentioned above, had to be killed).

With such repression of attempts to become independent politically and economically, it is no surprise that many, if not most, of the sub-Saharan African states have not developed much. Nor have their political systems turned stable and reassuring. In fact, inter-state and intra-state struggles persist unendingly.

Today, with climate change upon us, these former French colonies alternate between worsening drought and worsening floods. Small wonder that many Africans desire to leave their countries to a distant, cold and alien France.

This, then, is the long backdrop to the plight of the African migrants.

The final point is that decades ago, when the French and European economies were growing and in need of cheap labour, these migrants were recruited in large numbers, and rapidly too.

Significantly, the French (and European) economy is no longer growing. It has been contracting and will probably sink into recession. Consequently, few jobs are available for the young people living in the banlieue ghettos.

Even more so than their parents, these young people do not identify with French political institutions. They don’t belong to any of the traditional parties like the Socialist Party or the Republican Party. Nor with Macron’s new party. They probably don’t vote either.

As many of the young people are unemployed, they don’t join trade unions, which, in any event, only represent some 10% of the workforce today (about the same as in Malaysia). (In a webinar I attended, I also learnt that many of the people involved in the traditional unions closely identify with Le Pen’s National Rally party, which many consider “racist”.) No, the traditional unions did not come out in support of the recent protests.

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Instead, the politics of these migrants is spontaneous, informal and associated with their neighbourhoods. Marine Le Pen is not wrong when she asserts that the migrants have not been assimilated and the result is “separatism”. However, she is completely short-sighted in two senses.

First, she has not related the protests of the youths in the ghettos to the breakdown of French institutions themselves – that they are dysfunctional; that French laws need reviewing for they do not acknowledge that there are ‘others’ of a different race, religion and culture in French society in the 21st Century.

The existing law on separation of church and state asserts a secularism that disallows Muslims and minorities of a non-Christian faith from expressing or even practising their faith in the public space.

There is also no neutral body (outside of the police) that can be tasked to investigate the problem of police brutality and “systemic racism” within the force. Indeed, the UN has uncharacteristically called upon the French government to address its problems with the Arabs, blacks and Muslims.

Second, she is also short-sighted for not acknowledging the historical roots and origins of African migration into France, which goes back to colonialism and continued French exploitation of its former colonies. In fact, many French people still regret that Algeria is no longer part of France and do not acknowledge the violence used by the French government to prevent the liberation of Algeria.

Perhaps it is time for the French to compensate its former colonies by helping them to develop their economies, build their civil societies and stabilise their politics.

In this regard, France and the rest of the West should appreciate how China has been helping the African countries to develop their infrastructure – something that the West during their centuries of colonialism in Africa failed to do.

And if one recall’s Rostow’s old-fashioned theory of economic development, it is the infrastructure, both physical and social, he stresses, that must first be developed before other sectors can take off.

Ironically, working with China and the Africans themselves to develop the countries of the sub-Sahara might be the best way to resolve the problem of African migration into Europe, including France, over the longer term.

However, it does not appear that the French or Western political leaders are looking in this direction. It appears, from our vantage point in Malaysia, that they are all consumed by the Ukraine war, and when they think of China, it is viewed as an even greater threat than that posed by Russia. At least, this is what the communique issued by Western leaders at the end of their recent Nato summit states categorically.

What minorities want

There is enough evidence from extant literature that there are three related contributing factors involved – regardless of whether the countries concerned are developing countries, Western industrialised countries or former communist ones – if one desires to build a stable, democratic and peaceful multi-ethnic multi-religious country.

First, the minority ethnic groups or ethnic nations usually reject attempts by the majority groups to assimilate them into the dominant culture.

Instead, minorities demand the right to practise and develop their own cultures. They demand that cultural pluralism be upheld and that governments put into place some policy of multiculturalism.

This is not to say they will not learn and accept a common or national language. Nor does it mean they will not accept universal civic values. It simply means they also want to learn, develop and promote their own language, culture and religion.

Second, the minority groups also reject political domination by majority groups that results in their marginalisation.

Allowing political participation of minorities through the policies of decentralisation and the establishment of federal systems down to the local government level would go some way towards creating opportunities for minorities to be involved in decision-making in their own local areas, and over questions related to their own cultural and/or religious identity. (In this regard, the French system of government is too centralised compared to the German, Austrian and Swiss ones.)

And third, the minority groups reject unequal economic development of the regions.

Instead, they demand that the regions where they are domiciled, just like the regions where the majority groups are concentrated, be accorded a just share of the economic cake. Clearly, the banlieues must be made over and upgraded in all aspects.

Put another way, the discourse about such conflicts and how they might be resolved should acknowledge that such problems will persist unless all the people of any country are accorded similar citizenship rights, regardless of whether they belong to the majority or minority groups.

Do we include all or discriminate against ‘the others’ in our policies and political actions? Indeed, it is within our capacity to decide whether we want to be inclusive or exclusive.

Francis Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
26 July 2023

Some videos to watch:

Permanent Damage! How France Condemned Guinea, Haiti and other African Countries to Poverty

France on Fire: the Killing of Nahel Marzouk & Long Shadow of Colonialism

The French Riots: Europe on the Brink? | David Woo

UN Calls on France to Address Deep Issues of Racism

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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Khoo Soo Hay
Khoo Soo Hay
27 Jul 2023 9.00am

The old ‘mother’ countries of the colonials are no longer ‘mother’ anymore. Forget about migrating there. You are no longer welcome as colonialists returning home! Those days are over. They cannot afford to feed you or house you. So you end up on the streets exposed to the inclement weather and the non-compassionate residents.