La Haine Redux

With the French presidential elections only weeks away, it is becoming increasingly clear that the shootings committed in Toulouse by 23-year-old Mohammed Merah have dramatically boosted President Nicolas Sarkozy flagging campaign. Having long warned about the dangers of unrestricted immigration and the continuing threat of Islamic terrorism, Sarkozy has been able to present the deaths of eight innocent victims as a tragic illustration of the merits of his platform. By the same token, the “untested” Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande has been left looking increasingly un-statesmanlike in comparison with the image of dignified and professional efficiency that Sarkozy has been so careful to project. A poll published by LH2 on April 1 gave Francois Hollande a paper-thin 1% lead over Sarkozy, while surveys conducted by CSA and TNS-sofres only a few days before showed the President eking out a narrow, but statistically significant, advantage. A victory – however small – in the first round of voting could give Sarkozy the momentum he needs to earn a second term in a run-off against Hollande.

As so often with tragic events, however, the political impact of the Toulouse shootings has not corresponded with the real implications of the tragic events of mid-March. Rather than being an endorsement of Sarkozy’s increasingly right-wing platform, the atrocities committed by Mohammed Merah are an indictment of his political programme and reveal deep-rooted social problems which Hollande’s campaign has sought most assiduously – if ineffectually – to address.

Despite Sarkozy’s rhetoric, Mohammed Merah’s attacks on March 11-19 actually have comparatively little to do either with immigration or with terrorism. This is, in a sense, paradoxical. His choice of victims, his purported links with al-Qaeda, and his claim to have sought “revenge on behalf of Palestinian children” all seem to point towards a personality lost to Islamic extremism and at war with France itself. Yet such evidence is deceptive. Although he is indeed of North African descent, Merah is a French citizen, and was born and raised in Toulouse. As French police have acknowledged, he had no contact with al-Qaeda, and despite travelling to Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent years, he seems to have had no links with Islamist networks. Instead, his undoubted extremism was the result of a more personal journey. As Francois Molins – the prosecutor acting against Merah – observed, his was a case of “atypical…self-radicalisation”.

But if Merah radicalised himself – apparently in isolation from the support networks which are so commonly associated with such atrocities – why did he do it? Why did this isolated, French-born young man turn to Islamic extremism with such violence and rage? The answer is in the question itself: he did it because he was isolated, atomised, and cut off.

Raised by a single mother in Les Izards, a depressed, low-income suburb of Toulouse with a large North-African population, Merah had little education and few prospects in life. Even after his broken family moved to a marginally quieter housing estate, his horizons were limited. Although he later trained as a mechanic and appears to have had a passion for mopeds, he was a juvenile delinquent and before he reached maturity, had been reported on no fewer than 15 occasions for violent disorder. Described as “a waster” and “a loser” by one acquaintance, he soon became accustomed to crime, and served two short prison sentences in 2007 and 2009. It was apparently while in prison that Merah turned to religion and set on the course that would lead him on fruitless, almost pathetic, journeys half way around the world, and – ultimately – to murder.

Although the conclusion of his sorry tale is tragic beyond words, the broad outlines of Merah’s early life are actually depressingly familiar. Indeed, the poverty and crime that form the prelude to his descent into self-radicalisation are also typical of the lives of hundreds of thousands of other young men and women in the banlieues of France’s major cities. What’s more, the conditions into which Merah was born have been steadily worsening for almost twenty years.

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A good illustration of this fact is provided by Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film La Haine. Depicting a France rent asunder by conflict through the experiences of three under-privileged, ethnically diverse youths from the depressed suburbs of Paris, the film was a vivid depiction of the socio-economic circumstances which had led to appalling street violence only two years before. Following the shooting by police of Makomé M’Bowole, a Zairian immigrant, in February 1993, the ensuing riots revealed the social afflictions and political divisions within the banlieues. Just as Kassovitz’s protagonists – all French, but all of different origins – found themselves without work, without education, and without prospects, so M’Bowole and those who took to the streets following his death struggled against gaping social inequalities, and found themselves alienated from an increasingly materialistic French society and from increasingly distant state institutions. M’Bowole’s death was merely the spark that lit the fires of frustration.

La Haine was intended as a warning and was, indeed, taken as such by France’s political elites. But amazingly, little was done to arrest the deterioration of conditions in the banlieues. Barely ten years later, la crise des banlieues burst forth into violence once again as the result of the deaths of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore on October 27, 2005. Two North African immigrants living in Clichy-sous-Bois, a run-down suburb of Paris, they suffered the extremes of first-world poverty. Without the security of a stable income, possessed of very little education, and with almost nothing to do, they had turned to crime. Inevitably, their paths crossed with the police. Chased through the back-streets by gendarmes, they dived into an electrical substation. Before they had time to look around, they had both been electrocuted.

To those who lived in the forgotten world of the banlieues, where poverty and crime are a way of life, and where state authorities are distant and threatening, the deaths of Zyed and Bouna encapsulated their frustrations. For almost three weeks, rioting fanned across France, and the suburbs of Paris, Bordeaux, Lille, Lyons, and countless other cities were lit only by the fires of burning cars and petrol bombs. The huge, anonymous tower-blocks which presided over these forgotten banlieues peered down at vicious pitched battles between multi-ethnic crowds of disaffected youths and lines of heavily-armed police. The then-Minister of the Interior, the rising Nicolas Sarkozy, decried the rioters as a “rabble” and “hoodlums”, and announced his intention of “clearing out” the banlieues with tough new immigration policies.

Since then, the message of La Haine – and of the riots of 1993 and 2005 – has continued to be overlooked. As economic conditions have continued to worsen, the banlieues have almost inevitably borne the brunt of the suffering. Standards of living have fallen yet further, job prospects have diminished, and public spending on outreach programmes and social care has been progressively reduced. At the same time, President Sarkozy has persisted with his earlier contempt for the banlieues, and has seemed to offer disdain in place of hope, and harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric in place of conciliatory calls for social cohesion. The atmosphere of socio-economic depression, youth unemployment, social disintegration, and alienation from the state has only grown worse.

Mohammed Merah is the product of France’s failure to address la crise des banlieues and to solve the deep-rooted problems which led to the riots of 1993 and 2005. He suffered from the same disadvantages, frustrations, and anger which were experienced by Makomé M’Bowole, Zyed Benna, Bouna Traore, and all those who took to the streets after their deaths. His sense of isolation from and rage against France itself was fuelled by precisely the same socio-economic conditions which set the country alight in the past. And while his decision to turn from petty crime to radical Islamic violence in undoubtedly atypical, that most violence form of extremism did little more than provide a framework for understanding his alienation, and a vehicle for his resentments. Set in the context of his own background and the recent history of the banlieues, Merah was merely an extreme form of the passions which underpinned La Haine.

It is clear that far from being the panacea to France’s recent sorrows, Nicolas Sarkozy is at least indirectly responsible for helping to perpetuate the social problems which set Merah on the course to extremism and murder. Consistently reducing the opportunities and welfare options available to the lowest socio-economic groups, and continually expressing his disregard for the culturally and ethnically diverse banlieues, Sarkozy’s actions both as Minister of the Interior and as President have, in fact, effectively pushed the young, the disaffected, and the unemployed in France’s poorest areas further away from society and the state, and have made an enemy of the most vulnerable section of French society. Indeed, in failing to learn the lessons of the past, Sarkozy has arguably made it easier and more attractive for those like Merah to look to more dangerous and violent sources for a sense of identity and hope.

Concentrating on precisely the problems faced by the banlieues, Francois Hollande should theoretically be perfectly positioned to point out the socio-economic issues revealed by the atrocities in Toulouse. Tragic though Merah’s crimes may be, they are a powerful illustration of the merit of Hollande’s welfare programme and social platform, and are a demonstration of the urgency with which France needs a new, centre-left president. His apparent inability to do this is thus not merely a sign of the extent to which he is allowing Sarkozy to dictate the character of debate, but is also potentially damaging to France itself. The murder of eight innocent victims in Toulouse has demonstrated that Hollande is the only candidate capable of healing France’s wounds: it is now up to Hollande to seize the opportunity before la crise des banlieues becomes worse. Should he fail, Merah could be a precursor of much worse things to come.

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