Monday 30 November 2015

How to help the French living under Terror and their own Terreur

Posted by Perig Gouanvic

"Inside a Revolutionary Committee under Terreur (1793-1794)"
Finger pointing and cleansing the public discourse is not new In France
In France, there are very old beliefs, reminiscent of the Terreur era, about religion and minorities that should never be questioned. Multiculturalism is considered a danger. Let's consider, for instance, the fact that the Paris attacks terrorists, who were born an raised in France or Belgium have more in common with the skinheads of the 1980s than with the fundamentalists we see on TV. They drink alcohol, smoke pot, play murder rampage video games, and really have the "no future" belief system of other teenagers 20 years ago. Several observers witted that religion would actually be a pacifying, structuring, influence for these young people. In other words, supporting the strength of religious communities, not just stopping humiliating them, might actually prevent terrorism. At the present moment, the orthodoxy says that we should not limit "free speech" - especially the Charlie* kind - and even that we should celebrate humiliation of religion as the most exquisite mark of French Freedom and Rationality.

A French anti-terrorism judge also lamented that, as the laïcité laws became more rigid, the whole Muslim community felt so alienated they stopped collaborating with the police to denounce potential terrorism suspects. But, again, don't try to convince the authorities and intellectuals that supporting communities, especially the Muslim community, as such (not as a community with socioeconomical problems, but as a community whose customs and religion are positive contributions to France) is a positive step towards the elimination of terrorism. Supporting ethnic, religious or cultural minorities, in France, is called "communautarism". Another word for multiculturalism? Yes, except that it must be said with a grin of disgust. The French feminist sociologist Christine Delphy, who has been widely vilified for her opposition to the French scarf-banning laws, offers the rest of us a definition :
The French definition of communautarism is the fact that people who are discriminated, who are assigned with prejudices, to whom equal chances are denied, etc. these people – who have often been parked in the same neighborhoods – these people hang out and talk to each other. This is communautarism, it's bad, it means that they want to part from the rest of society and, instead of looking for well seen people, people who have privileges, for example, for Blacks and Arabs instead of reaching out for Whites and beg them to come and talk with them, they talk to each other. That would be communautarism.
Yet the fact remains that cultivating friendly and respectful relationships with communities, acknowledging their contribution to civil society, is one of the time-tested ways to prevent ostracism and extremism.​ Yet in france, too often individual members of minorities talking to each other are considered potential enemies of the state. Just imagine how dangerous it would be for the French State if it decided to approach these communities and recognize them as such!

I don't think most people are aware of the mental straightjacket in which the French have placed themselves for the last 30 years. It encompasses more than the issue of ethno-religious groups. Some probably know that the French have some very strange philosophers such as Finkelkraut and BHL**, and some very despicable intellectuals such as Michel Houellebecq, who recently wrote a book describing France becoming an Islamic republic, and became a National obsession in the wake of the Charlie attacks. These public figures pretend to be victims of political correctness, although they occupy most of the media. One thing that might not be as well known is that there also exists, in parallel, a whole swamp of dissident intellectuals that are actively maintained in the margins of the French discourse. In France, they are called the "confusionnists", "cryptofascists", and so on, so forth.

The slippery slope argument and guilt by association have become commonplace in France. In this mixed bag, you will find true far right people, but also anarchists, radical critics of NATO, Israel, etc. As an example, France has been able to outlaw the boycott campaign against Israel, which makes it more repressive of boycott calls than Israel itself. Don't try to protest: if you are not called an anti-Semite you will be called an objective supporter of anti-Semites. There is no way out. These kinds of large-scale paranoid delusions are reminiscent of the arbitrary denunciations of French Revolution's Terreur, described in the above 1797 illustration.

Finally, journalism too is constrained in this straightjacket. There are only a few journalists left who analyze the terror events in depth. They have pointed out in the past the same thing that was pointed out about the Bush administration (foreknowledge, and the presence of elements in the intelligence services who rather preferred terrorist attacks to happen, for instance to impose mass surveillance (of course these theses are not mainstream but they are still more audible in the anglophone world than in France)). But they are marginalized, and quickly become part of this "cryptofascist", "conspiracy theorizing" swamp I was talking about. The result is that compelling elements of inquiry are missed not only in France but abroad. For example, Hicham Hamza, a French journalist, has investigated the local ramifications of a Times of Israel article covering a warning by "officials" to France's "Jewish community", on the morning of the attacks. His resources are thin,  his site is regularly under cyberattacks and of course most would not approach him with a tad pole, because of the usual name-calling.

The same could be said of the Charlie Hebdo attacks - and further in the past --  of Rwanda, about which the BBC aired a documentary that would be swiftly thrown in the holocaust denying, cryptofasisct swamp in France. These elements do circulate in the French blogosphere. But guess what: France now has the right to shut down any website it judges problematic. What might be judged problematic is quite broad:

[It’s] a heterogeneous movement, heavily entangled with the Holocaust denial movement, and which combines admirers of Hugo Chavez and fans of Vladimir Putin. An underworld that consist of former left-wing activists or extreme leftists, former "malcontents", sovereignists, revolutionary nationalists, ultra-nationalists, nostalgists of the Third Reich, anti-vaccination activists, supporters of drawing straws, September 11th revisionists, anti-Zionists, Afrocentricists, survivalists, followers of "alternative medicine", agents of influence of the Iranian regime, Bacharists, Catholic or Islamic fundamentalists. « Conspirationnisme : un état des lieux », par Rudy Reichstadt, Observatoire des radicalités politiques, Fondation Jean-Jaurès, Parti socialiste, 24 février 2015.

(Welcome to the conspiracy theorist movement.)

Even so, of course, it cannot prevent us from thinking and inquiring. The French population really needs a breath of fresh air right now. They need fresh insights, serious journalism, and the freedom to discuss outside of their mentally and legally censored world. I don't have specific suggestions to solve those issues. I just think that the rest of the world should be aware that the French prison of ideas is not always self imposed and that there are many people who just wish they could escape. Many do: I can see that in Quebec.

*The Charlie Hebdo satiricial magazine whose cartoonists were murdered in January.
** Bernard Henri Levy, a self-styled philosophe.


docmartincohen said...

"A French anti-terrorism judge also lamented that, as the laïcité laws became more rigid, the whole Muslim community felt so alienated they stopped collaborating with the police to denounce potential terrorism suspects. "

Hegel did point out one useful thing, that is humiliation, not economic factors, that push people to both revolutionary political violence and nihilist political violence (yes, I agree, like the skinheads) that France has just seen. The whole French State appartatus with its random stops and CRS thugs is an insult to the much cited ideals of the original French revolution

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Perig, for a fascinating article.

In my own way, I needed to set a course on multiculturalism in a Church which had no majority group. What to do? 1. Deliberately celebrate cultural differences? 2. Level the Church to the same cultural norms? 3. Erase culture as an issue in the Church? 4. Dialogue? 5. Separate cultural groups out under the "homogeneous principle"? I chose 3, on the basis that all differences may be subsumed under a higher calling (although I have second thoughts). Is there anything high enough, in France? One of my professors (Charles van Engen) reduced it all to the question of an over-emphasis on particularity or universality.

Then, you observe that the French need "the freedom to discuss outside of their mentally and legally censored world". Does this not open a Pandora's box? Gay rights, corporal punishment, nuclear testing and so on would all seem to fall under the same ban as you have described.

Unknown said...

I can see that such “mental straightjacket” and “prison of ideas” are developed as much in the UK as in France through the last decade. It seems that, with the Western paranoid response to terror, terrorism is winning the war by achieving division and hostility.

docmartincohen said...

Isn't the issue really about the boundaries between private beliefs and public policy? The French state has indeed trampled on private beliefs. In schools, it tires to force children to eat pork, or in ded stuffed goose livers! My son, being vegetarian, has almost no food he can eat and is thus obliged to leave school every lunchtime. (The French do not permit you to take in lunchboxes either - control over everything.) But I agree with the policy that schools shoudl not 'pmader' ot every religous editct - about halal meat for example. TBut there shculd be a reasonable option that gives everyone their right to exercise their personal view (belief)

In workplaces it is unreasonable to stop peole having breaks for prayer, if it does not exceed what 'everyone' might be entitled to in terms of breaks. It i unreasonable to object to head scareves... but I think it reasonable to draw a line at face-obscuring garments - in schools, hospitals and courts for example.

I suppose what I'm thinking is that differences should be accepted and acknowledged, but within an overarching set of sared values. Of course there are problems when this set of values does not exist.

Perig Gouanvic said...

So interesting! There's a movie about the art of humiliating in France, which, again, is based on events in the XVIIIth century but resonates with today. It is called Ridicule. It won some awards (Cannes, César, Academy Award)

Having been raised in a French education system, but surrounded by the protective environment of Quebec's warmer culture, I can say with some confidence that humiliation is constitutive of this culture, and that it starts right at the first years of development.

But I suppose that it is not something exceptional in Europe. We all know The Wall, for instance.

But this intervention of yours, Martin, reminds me of the usefulness of wikis. A few words on humiliation would be a good addition to this article.

Perig Gouanvic said...

Yes, Chengde, I immediately thought about UK when wondering about that. I don't know at all about other European countries.

Perig Gouanvic said...

Thomas, 3. seems the best choice, but perhaps the issue is how. People will eventually show cultural differences of opinions and ways that might lead to conflict; what do we do then?

Perig Gouanvic said...

Then, you observe that the French need "the freedom to discuss outside of their mentally and legally censored world". Does this not open a Pandora's box? Gay rights, corporal punishment, nuclear testing and so on would all seem to fall under the same ban as you have described.

I don't fully understand this. Are you saying that gay rights, corporal punishment, nuclear testing as they are in France today are alright as better remain un-discussed?

Perig Gouanvic said...

I agree on all points.

Those are the ritualistic aspects of religion. And it is true that these governmental edicts all contribute to humiliating minorities.

What I'm expecting from an open society is not only to give some room to the peculiarities of members of society, but to remain open to discourses emananating from religious cultures, especially those that are minoritarian. It makes no sense, for example, that Tariq Ramadan is labelled a radical Muslim with a false air of modernity, a hypocrite agent of the Muslim Brotherhood and so forth, while this Oxford scholar is widely recognized as a voice of progress in most other countries.

It is unacceptable to conflate laïcité with atheism. The French created a law about the neutrality of the State, in 1905, that was not designed to promote religious traditions that are more discreet (this elusive "judeochristian tradition", which is constituted of atheist jews and christians), to the detriment of more visible religions (islam, as it is today). This law focused on peace between believers, and between believer and non-believers.

French ideologs of laïcité, and the French conservative ideologs that dominate the media (that I mentioned above), want us to believe that this judeochistian tradition has created this "pinnacle of progress" that is human rights-based atheism and that this is the natural evolution of all religions.

The specialist of secularism Jean Baubérot has explained this better than i do.
The right-wing ‘new secularism,’ from Baroin to Sarkozy, has been actually ‘new’ in relation to French historical secularism. It’s more a cultural aspect of the age-old patrimonial French identity, than an issue to arbitrate and pacify the political and religious conflicts, to ban religious domination over the State, to guarantee freedom of conscience for all citizens and to put an end to the discriminations against the minorities.
“It is, in fact, a ‘positive Christendom’ more than a positive secularism!’ The lack of any mention of antagonisms or intolerances in the past gives a subliminal message to French people: How happy we were in France before Islam became the second religion in our country!’ ‘Life was much easier in those days!’
“The new secularism imposes on Muslims much more than respect of secular State’s laws and civil toleration; it requires them to conform to a peaceful cultural identity, something which never existed! In such a perspective the Muslims and Islam will always appear to be lacking secularism.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

The French would not seem to be known for ready adaptation to the real world. No major French publisher would publish Victor Kravchenko in 1946. Finally 400 000 copies sold in French.

Perig Gouanvic said...

Is it because I'm of French origins? I don't even know him... ;-)

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