Too many French willing to fit the xenophobic cliché

The Guardian - 02 June 2010

Those who perpetuate Gallic cliches about moody waiters, femmes fatales, and bolshie trade unionists will be delighted by the results of a new survey highlighting the enduringly xenophobic nature of the French. According to the influential research institute BVA, one in seven admits to being “at least a little bit racist“.

Don’t be fooled by the relaxed understatement, either. Just as a young woman who confesses to being “a little bit pregnant” is clearly being a touch disingenuous, what appears to be a mild dislike of those from minority ethnic backgrounds usually disguises a far deeper, ingrained prejudice. Arabs get a particularly vicious pasting in the survey, with almost 28% of those questioned – up from 12% last year – viewing them as “delinquents” who are, by the by, likely to be “thieves”.

Meanwhile, almost half of those who took part in the survey – 49% – thought that immigrant families were far better at exploiting the welfare system than native French people. Again, the figure has multiplied by two, with Arielle Schwab, who commissioned the latest research for an anti-racist Jewish group, saying: “After a year of heavy stigmatisation of Arab and Muslim populations, prejudice towards them has more than doubled compared with last year.”

Schwab, like many others, attributes this disturbing rise to Nicolas Sarkozy’s woefully uninspired “national identity” debate – one which prompted most of the adult population to start seething about the nominally Islamic veils worn by a tiny minority of French women. Intended to solidify old-fashioned republican values through a series of discourses in town halls and on the internet, Sarkozy’s debate, in fact, brought out the inner bigot in hundreds of thousands, making the country a far nastier, less inclusive place for all, and especially for Muslims.

But it takes more than misguided political expediency to get people to admit their basest tendencies. Unlike Britain, France still feels comfortable with the kind of popular racism exemplified by its Front National (FN), the far-right political party that won some 12% of the vote in regional elections earlier this year. Its anti-immigrant message was hammered home by its founder and leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen. During the campaign, he introduced a poster depicting an Algerian flag superimposed on a map of France, and a woman wearing a burqa, both underneath the legend “No to Islamism”.

The really worrying fact is that, since the birth of the FN 38 years ago, people such as Le Pen have largely been portrayed as plain-speaking, if a little rough-edged, representatives of the still beating heart of provincial France. Just as the villains in French TV soap operas and police series tend to be Arabs, so meaty-pawed old crooks from the sticks can express their hatred in a manner that is entirely mainstream.

Brice Hortefeux, then interior minister, summed up the problem last year when he was captured on film chatting with a Frenchman of Arab origin who was supporting his and Sarkozy’s ruling party, the UMP. Thinking he could not be heard, Hortefeux discussed the young man with a colleague, saying: “When there’s one, that’s OK – it’s when there are several that it becomes problematic.” When a government minister can get away with asides like that, it’s perhaps hardly surprising that ordinary French people have so few inhibitions about reinforcing well-worn cliches about themselves.

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