France: A monstrous massacre, a dangerous”national unity” and a possible alternative
14 January 2015. A World to Win News Service. The monstrous massacre of the Charlie Hebdo magazine staff by Islamic fundamentalists, like the wanton murder of four hostages at a kosher supermarket two days later, rightly shocked many millions of people. Much of France seems to be united by the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie). But these words are being used by different classes with different and opposed interests. They cover very different perspectives on what happened and what should happen now.
In the hours following the massacre and on the following nights many thousands of middle class young people and others gathered to express their stunned outrage and comfort each other. Whether they had ever read the magazine or not, they carried signs saying “Je suis Charlie” to express solidarity with what they viewed as a symbol of a critical spirit they wanted to defend. They also chanted “Pas d’amalgame” (Don’t mix things up), meaning don’t use this to attack Muslims in general. The strong fear that it would – and that the future would be much worse than the present – heightened the tragic atmosphere.
But regardless of these concerns, the official response has had nothing to do with defending freedom of expression or any other kind of real freedom. President Francois Hollande staged two major public ceremonies following the Islamist attacks. One was a symbolic march from Place de la Republique in which 44 heads of state and government, the people in charge of perpetrating and maintaining the intolerable world order, literally walked arm in arm. The other was to award the highest rank in the Legion of Honour to the three police killed in the attacks.
France’s moment of national unity comes down to this: more than a million people marched behind the procession of the world’s rulers and their associates and flunkies at Paris’s Place de la Republique. And in an extremely unusual phenomenon in France, said to be unique at that square best known for protests, people spontaneously and repeatedly applauded the police.
In the name of defending democracy against Islamism, parliament immediately voted to reaffirm French participation in the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the mission of the country’s 3,000 troops sent to re-establish French authority in its former colonies in west Africa. Leading politicians also united on the need to step up surveillance and control throughout society, establish France’s own vast databases on everyone instead of relying on the U.S., and vigorously police the Internet and public speech. “In France, certain positions are not an opinion – they are a crime,” warned Prime Minister Manuel Valls. He proclaimed that there will be a “before and after” the 7 January attack.
Between 9-13 January, at least six people were arrested, immediately tried under special procedures and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three months to four years for “public apology for terrorist act”. None were accused of any connection with jihadi groups or violent acts. Five were convicted of mouthing off to police while getting a ticket and/or in a state of extreme drunkenness, and one for comments on his Facebook page. It has been announced that police and prosecutors will pay special attention to rap videos, because they often express the kind of “hate speech” to be banned – hatred for the police and the unjust social order the police enforce. The police specialize in making life hell for youth in the country’s public housing ghettos long before Islamism (movements for an Islamic state) was very influential there, and the repression of this “dangerous class” has come to the top of the government’s agenda.
A large section of France’s lower classes (although far from all), and the most politically and socially oppressed, are the children of people from French colonies brought to work in the country’s assembly plants, construction sites and service industries. Because France has little or nothing to offer these youth but life-wasting unemployment punctuated by demeaning jobs, their very existence is considered a problem. Any impulse among them that could get out of control is considered a serious threat to the social order they are at the bottom of.
Today’ global collision between Western imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism is conditioning developments in these ghettos. Just as Islamism has wrongly come to be seen as a challenge to all that France and the West have inflicted on Africa and the Middle East, many French people whose origins lie in those countries (and even converts from among the poor of other origins) have wrongly come to see a reactionary, anti-people Islamic fundamentalism as a solution to the humiliation and misery inflicted upon them.
The concept of secularism (separation of church and state) arose out of the needs of the French bourgeoisie in its revolution against the feudal monarchy and a century of political battles against the Catholic Church, the chief representative of remnants of the old order. But in the mouths of the French ruling class today, it is little more than a code word for anti-Islamism, which in turn is driven not by disdain for religion but for the people who hold a particular set of religious beliefs, as if their religion were a sign of their inferiority and therefore a justification for their exclusion from certain privileges and their place in society. This is closely linked to France’s role in the broader Western imperialist effort to solidify control over the peoples and countries in the Middle East and North Africa where Islamic fundamentalism has been a major source of contention and opposition. It is not surprising that attacks on Islam are often seen as
not a purely religious question, but as an attack on people’s identity and dignity as human beings.
Now even pro-government Muslims and Islamic organizations are being asked to take a public stand against terrorism, at least that kind of terrorism that France’s ruling circles oppose. All are to be considered guilty unless they acknowledge their acquiescence to the French power structure and its so-called “values”. In contrast, it would be considered racist to demand that French Jews – as Jews – take a public position against Israeli state terrorism in exchange for their right to practice their religion and hold to their religious and ethnic identity.
Those who warn that the massacres will “feed the ambitions of the far right” are not wrong, but the necessities faced by French imperialism overall should also be taken into account. The conditions that help foster the rise of Islamic fundamentalism have been created by the workings of monopoly capital itself, in France and globally, and will not go away. Everything French imperialism has done in the name of combating Islamism, from repression at home to foreign invasions in partnership and competition with the U.S., has only exacerbated that dynamic. In this situation, it is not just the fascist enemies of the republican form of bourgeois rule who are alarmed by the “softness” of France’s middle classes and determined to shake them out of their passivity and make them more active accomplices for French imperialism.
In a way, the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the supermarket slaughter could be considered a godsend for the French ruling class. These events have galvanized much of its squabbling ranks and called them to attention, served as a pretext for ratcheting up long-standing repression and foreign invasions, and above all, enabled it to bring a far broader section of the middle classes into greater support for its reactionary projects. No matter what many people may think “national unity” means right now – whether free speech, no exclusion of minorities, defence of secularism or even a “republican unity” against the fascist right – in reality it means rallying around a system and state – and its armed enforcers at home and abroad – that causes terrible suffering around the world and in France itself.
The attack on Charlie Hebdo is being called the equivalent of 11 September 2001 in the U.S., both by people who fear that France will follow the American example and those who believe that France’s ambitions require catching up in repression and foreign aggression. But things have not worked out well for the U.S. since then. Defiant resistance and revolutionary work there has proved to be a major mood-creating factor in the development of events, especially insofar as a more positive dynamic between the most oppressed and some of the middle classes has begun to emerge.
The polarisation of the population in France today is very unfavourable. The most oppressed are effectively surrounded. The middle classes, with some exceptions, are now generally inclined to look to the state for the solution to their fears and unease. The status quo is little loved, yet opposition to it has been left to contending Islamic and Catholic fundamentalists, and fascists, all united in the view that women’s submission is the keystone for the society they want. But the possibility for a different and far more favourable kind of polarization can also be glimpsed in today’s situation.
An increasing number of people in France “have come to believe that the lives their parents had to lead are not worthy of living,” a commentator wrote. Neither France’s capitalist “values” and institutions nor any kind of religious fundamentalism can offer a real way out of the oppression and degradation that imprison people at the bottom of society and actually make a liberating life possible for the broad majority. A vision of a different kind of society and a plan for getting it that represented something real could become an increasingly powerful alternative. A movement whose goal is the emancipation of humanity, with the oppressed among those at the forefront, could start to break away a huge section of the middle classes who are now saying “I am Charlie” from the grip of the ruling class and open the way to much more positive and liberating perspectives.
(Based in part on a report from a reader in France.)
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