When Algeria qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1986 in their match against Egypt, the violence that followed was not confined to Khartoum. Several thousand miles away, in the back streets of Marseilles and Paris, thousands of Algerians poured onto the streets chanting ‘Vive l’AlgÃ©rie’. Throwing bottles, stones, and fireworks at anyone or anything in their path, they were soon met by the CRS, the French riot Police; by the end of the night, another 200 cars had been burnt out, and the air was rancid with tear gas.
The casual observer might have thought that these were visiting football fans. The arrest of some 60 young men who proved to be second and third generation French born, has illuminated the ugly truth. Despite the best intentions of the French government, integration has been no more successful here than in multi-cultural Britain. Those with a cultural foothold in Algeria, albeit tales heard from a grandparent in their youth, still think of themselves as Algerians first and foremost, who happen to be living in France. Even Zidane, a national footballing hero, is constantly referred to as an ‘Algerian born in Marseille’.
With regional elections looming in March, the French government has set in train a national navel gazing fest to divine ‘what it means to be French’ that will be conducted on TV and is intended to involve the entire population. This, predictably, has divided ‘left and right’ political parties. A number of left wing politicians and Trade Union figures have refused to take part. Sarkozy is not to be dissuaded.
Viewed from across the channel in the UK, France is seen (and taught in the schools) as a homogeneous entity. Far from it, the ‘French’ referred to in English school text books, amounted to little more than the greater Parisian area, allied with Normandy. Visitors to this part of France are amazed when I tell them that this used to be ‘England’, and take them to the home of Richard I. Little more than 100 years ago, there were 192 separate ‘languages’ spoken in different regions of France, rarely French. You can move 50 miles from one commune to another, and find that the French you had carefully learnt is unintelligible to the elderly – they still speak a mixture of Parisian French, when they have to, and their own local dialect amongst themselves.
The Algerian problem of non-integration and repressed anger is only a small part of the story. Two world wars created divisions between Frenchmen that have barely been laid to rest.
An American firm with a division in Northern France, mindful of the Enron scandal when employees were too frightened to whistle blow, set up a web site to enable its French staff to join American employees in informing the management anonymously of wrong doings by their colleagues.
‘An example of transparency and openess’ said the American.
‘Denunciation and a return to the days of the Vichy’ said the Unions – and many employees.
A court in Caen was asked to rule in the matter, and they agreed that in France, at the heart of the issue were raw memories of life during the second World War when neighbour was required to inform on neighbour, and they have forced the company to close the web site.
Multi-culturalism, Integration, are ideals that play well in the media, any opposition to them is denounced as racism, but the above example shows that it is not just a matter of race, or of colour, more a case of not being able to erase from people’s memories the history they grew up with within their family. Those beliefs, those values, those allegiances, stubbornly rise to the surface under pressure. No amount of window dressing is going to change that.
The result of this national debate on identity will be interesting; the country itself is so vast that the regional differences – Provence closer to Italy than Paris, the Basque region, closer to Spain than Paris, Alsace, still confused as to whether it is Germany or France, make it a ‘mini-Europe’ in its own right, and will probably be indicative as to whether Europe can ever forge a ‘European identity’.
One thing is already clear, forcing a uniform language on the population and separating Church and State hasn’t worked.