Language still a barrier in the banlieue

The Guardian - 16 December 2009

When Rachida Dati, the most senior Muslim member of France’s ruling UMP party, was electioneering in the Paris housing projects in 2007, she reprimanded a teenager for wearing a baseball cap back to front. Why, she asked, would anyone sport such provocative headgear in front of one Nicolas Sarkozy, the then interior minister and presidential candidate? Not waiting for an answer, the highly ambitious Dati knocked the offending cap off the lad’s head, telling him that if he had anything to say about it he should use proper French and not verlan, the imaginative street slang favoured by youngsters from the banlieue.

Little surprise that the adolescent in question was a Muslim, and that his image should have been evoked again on Monday by another politician as she stirred up the already hugely divisive national identity debatepreoccupying France. This time around Nadine Morano, junior secretary of state for family and (don’t laugh) social unity, said she wanted any youngster from a Muslim background to “love France when he lives here, to find a job, not speak verlan and not wear his cap back to front“.

Forget the Polish plumber, the reasoning went: youthful Muslim malcontents are the real threat to the cohesion of the Fifth Republic and we should be doing all we can to change their presentational skills. Just as eastern European handymen want to steal French jobs, so verlan is a language originally cultivated by common street thugs to prevent outsiders, and especially les flics (the police), from understanding their conspiratorial small talk. Now alienated youth frequently invert syllables so as to express the angst they feel towards a smooth-tongued Sarkozy establishment that is, of course, doing all it can to sort out unemployment, discrimination and disunity in the troubled suburbs.

You don’t have to be ouf (verlan for fou, or mad) to buy this kind of reasoning, but it certainly helps. In fact, all the French government is doing is stigmatising minority communities by associating allegedly antisocial habits with religious belief. So it is that those intensely provocative women who cover their heads in public are always Muslim, and those deeply offensive architectural features called minarets always seem to pop up on mosques.

As she tried to explain her divisive comments, Morano offered a positive spin, saying a “double” culture could be a good thing. What she did not say was that increasingly Americanised French young people from every social and religious background use verlan and think nothing of wearing baseball caps either. Foremost among them is Sarkozy’s blond, blue-eyed, 24-year-old son, Pierre, who is also a self-styled rap producer called “Mosey“.

According to Morano and Dati’s caricature, Sarko junior is as likely to fit the image of the unpatriotic, disaffected youngster as any young Muslim, yet he avoids being targeted simply because he is a white Christian. It’s absurd reasoning, but just the kind that is informing Sarkozy’s national identity debate – originally presented as an attempt to define core values and strengthen ties between communities. But it has developed into a small-minded diatribe aimed at attracting Islamophobic voters to the UMP before forthcoming regional elections. The language coming out of it should shame all politicians, and especially Muslims like Dati. The former justice minister is, incidentally, invariably referred to by Sarkozy and his cronies as a beuretteverlan for “little Arab girl”. If she does not find that offensive, then there is clearly a deep problem at the heart of her country.

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