What Should French People Do about “post Charlie” National Unity ?

Interview with Saïd Bouamama

In 2010, Saïd Bouamama co-writed the book Fuck France with Saidou from the ZEP group. After its release, an extreme right-wing association pressed charges for incitement to discrimination, hatred or violence. In January 2015, shortly after the freedom of speech defense “march,” Saïd Bouamama and Saidou appeared before the Court of First Instance. Saïd Bouamama, a sociologist specializing in discrimination towards the popular class’ immigrants, analyzes the context of the post Charlie French society.

Michel Collon: In which context did the book that lately brought you to the District Court of Paris did emerge? And for what reason?

Saïd Bouamama: The book Fuck France was written in a very particular context, at a moment in the history of the French society where the government, through the speech of Nicolas Sarkozy, initiated a whole debate on national identity. Such a debate has racist connotations, because it’s a debate that only defines identity around culture. And then some people, the citizens of immigrant origin – France’s Black and Arabic people who were born French and who grew up in France – are singled out as those who are posing a problem in the French society: a problem of integration, a problem regarding the Republic’s values and secularism… In short, such a debate is an attempt to create an intern enemy, designing a part of the French population as responsible of all the problems in their society.

The launching of such a debate will create a real hysteria: we will see a multiplication of openly racist speeches, stating that one cannot be French and Arabic, French and Muslim, French and Black, and that we had to choose. Therefore, in such a context, many young people from the working-class neighborhoods reacted. They didn’t especially do so using the usual form of political expression, writing texts, etc. But they responded in writing songs, they reacted in doing “slam”, in writing graffiti on walls, in which, in order to react to this racist conception of France under Sarkozy, they said: “Fuck France”. It’s in this context, that a rapper and myself have decided not to leave these young people alone, because of the impending repression against them, because they were introduced as savages, described as dangerous people, and so we decided to write a book that would explain how they came to say “Fuck France” in the first place, and which France they were questioning: the France of the ruling class, the France of the Rich, the racist France… Here is the France that was called into question, and we didn’t want to leave them alone facing these impending attacks. And we did the same thing with a cd. Saidous’ ZEP then produced a cd in which he was taking up their text’s content to put them into songs.

In every countries there has always been a fight between two conceptions of the nation: a fight between those who considered France in a colonial, imperial and racist way, and another France, which belongs to its people. A France in struggle, always trying to build herself in equality. And then, in this book, we are stating in clear that between the France of Versailles, who once put down the Commune of Paris, and the France of the Communards, who tried to set up an egalitarian society, our choice was made. That we were on the Resistance’s side and against the collaboration, and that we would always have to choose between two Frances: the reactionary France and the progressive France. And as far as we’re concerned, we are on the side of the progressive France.

MC: Could you come back on the events taking place after the attack against Charlie Hebdo?

SB: We had to deal with one of the biggest political manipulations of the last decades. After the attacks took place, after the massive emotion that seized of the French society, everyone was wondering what was hidden behind those attacks. How do these young people, who should be focused on their future and thinking of building up their lives, can reach the stage of adopting such nihilist behaviors and setting up bombs ? The whole France was in turmoil, and we saw on the side of the dominant class, with Hollande and Valls, the idea to manipulate, to exploit this emotion in order to hijack it in the frame of the setting up of their ultra-liberal security policy. And very soon, instead of having demonstrations against the attacks or protests condemning them, it degenerated in a “Je suis Charlie” demonstration.

Yet plenty of people who were against the attacks could not recognize themselves in Charlie. Even if it doesn’t mean that the attacks were justified, Charlie Hebdo is a newspaper which was on one side Islamophobic (many of its headlines and caricatures did hurt a wide range of Muslim countries’ inhabitants), but it was also sexist (the way in which women are represented inside the paper is a scandal with regard to gender equality), and eventually the newspaper openly despised the working-class: in Charlie Hebdo, the “bof” is a workman shown as alcoholic, stupid, only watching tv… And then, in terms of classes, and in terms of racial and sexual oppression, this newspaper was a reactionary one. It may be added that it supported every single war, like Nato’s wars, whether they were in Eastern Europe, in Iraq or in Afghanistan; Charlie Hebdo always took a stand for them. In brief, the newspaper was putting forward, through humor, the clash of civilizations advocated by the United States of America, and presented Arab and Muslim countries as the main danger. This is why so many people could not recognize themselves as Charlie. And by capturing the emotion to channel it towards “Je suis Charlie”, we were trying to build a national unity around those imperialist wars. For example, on the same night they unanimously sang “La Marseillaise” at the National Assembly, so as to symbolize this national unity, we voted for the continuation of the war in Iraq. This is proof that our government channeled and exploited an emotion for the benefit of its plan. And its current plan is the complete deregulation of economy, through ultra-liberalism, along with the wars engaged in the process of dividing up the planet around raw materials and oil resources.

This is the context in which this so-called national unity took place. Moreover, it didn’t take long (just like for the debate on national unity of which we were speaking earlier) to provoke reactions and open the floodgates to the development of Islamophobic actions. We registered more than 200 of them within fifteen days: we saw mosques being attacked, grenades thrown in praying centers, veiled women whose veil was snatched from them on the street… So to say that we had more Islamophobic acts in two weeks than during the whole year in 2014. Now we can clearly see that every time the dominant class tries to exploit a situation, it gives way to more racism, it opens the floodgates to quite some practices. This is the context of the national unity, which can only be reactionary ; because this unity is not built on a progressive political project, in which we can find debates like it is the case in South America where the national unities are the result of a struggle. It is not this national unity we’re talking about when the rulers of this world want us to forget the inconsistencies, that is to say that we should forget that the workers in this country cannot agree with the economical measures that are being taken.

We are requested to forget the inconsistencies in cross-border terms: so we should forget the French intervention in Mali or in the Central African Republic (CAR), and we should forget that France is still in Iraq… In brief, that the upper middle class is trying to put all the other classes behind her, by putting forward and exploiting one single element. This is what Chomsky described very well when he says: “One the first rules in propaganda is to make up a problem in order to suggest a solution”, and here we made up a problem, being the omnipresent terrorist danger so we can exploit it.

Given what France is doing around the world, there is indeed a risk of terrorist attack, but from that to saying that there is a hyper terrorist danger in order to justify the questioning of democratic freedoms and control over society it is truly a shame.

MC: What reflex should we adopt in front of this manipulation?

SB: First of all, a good reaction in the short run would be not to miss the immediate impact of this situation. A first consequence was to impose a minute silence in every school, around the slogan “Je suis Charlie”. Of course, a whole wide of pupils, not to say too many of them could not say “Je suis Charlie”, and then they expressed their opinion. They were told that it was a debate and that they could speak up, so they gave their opinion but then they were summoned to report to the police, some of them are now facing legal proceedings… We considered that not being Charlie implied an apology of terrorism. Eight-year old children were summoned to the police station to be audited on terrorism apology. The first reaction to have if we want to go further in the future, is first of all not to leave these children alone, and to organize solidarity so that this offense against freedom of speech comes to an end, since they say it’s about freedom of speech… These pupils express themselves, and instead of getting an educational answer, instead of getting an answer in terms of debate, we get an answer in terms of repression. This is really the first answer, when human beings are attacked you first have to defend them. On a longer term we have to build the popular unity to face the national unity. Which means that in front of the national unity we could put forward again those who share the same interests. And it is absolutely essential to fight everything that divides the popular circles. What divides them today is an Islamophobia secretly planned and broadcasted from the top.

The declarations of some ministers, journalists and so on have encouraged this Islamophobia. We must fight this. And secondly, we must understand the strategy of the dominant class in order to respond with a strategy strong enough to defeat it. For me the strategy of the dominant class comes down to unite those whose interests should divide and divide those whose interests should unite. Unite those whose interests should divide is to unite the white working class man to his boss, by saying: “Look, there is a terrorist danger in front of us, we must all stick together!” And dividing those who should be united is to divide the white workman and the non-white workman when they share the same interests. And then they are being divided, when it would be in their interest to join forces.

I think this is what we must put forward in the future elite: fight all the attacks threatening the rights of the minorities, the right of anyone and then fight Islamophobia. And on the other side build on the long term a popular unity that unites the French workers and immigrants ones and opposes to the dominant classes just as to its lackeys, because of course you’ll find some Black and Arabic people on the side of the dominant class…

  • Translated by Melissa Salvi for Investig’Action.
  • Michel Collon is a journalist, writer, and militant for peace. He can be reached at: webmaster@michelcollon.info. Read other articles by Michel, or visit Michel's website.