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Friday, 31 August 2012

Hollande’s Promise of Change


Hollande’s Promise of Change: 
Waiting for the Fight against Racism

(Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood)


The small shops along the city quays are unusually quiet, their shutters pulled down early. These épiceries, or convenience shops, can be found across Bordeaux, often tucked away in the tiny backstreets, offering fruit and veg, toilet paper and toiletries, rotisserie chicken and spirits. Beside the shuttered shop fronts, light spills out onto the street from nearby restaurants where people are drinking on the terraces and the street.


The reason for the new closing hours: a recent spate of fatal accidents after several young men, in the early hours after a night of drinking, have fallen victim to the river Garonne which runs through city centre. In response to these incidents, Mayor Alain Juppé insisted that actions would be taken to control the “hyper-alcoholism” of young people in Bordeaux, targeting all alcohol retailers including shops, bars and pubs. So far, two months later, the only retailers on whom any sanctions have been imposed are the épiseries, largely owned by French citizens of North African origin, who have been ordered to close their doors at 10pm, four hours earlier than usual.

Shop owner Radhouane Ben Yarou stated in an interview with the newspaper Sud Ouest, “it’s discriminatory compared with other establishments like bars and clubs which will continue to serve alcohol.” The new rules are particularly perplexing in light of police reports that have stated accidents as having taken place immediately following a night out, often listing the names of numerous clubs where the young men had been drinking. Bordeaux, a word synonymous with alcohol, is host to many pubs, clubs, even companies which provide home deliveries of spirits and wines until 3am, making the source of the problem difficult to locate. As if to illustrate this, a sixth man has been reported missing after having been spotted in the river on Thursday 28th June, the first night of Bordeaux’s biennial Wine Festival which takes place on the quays. However, this will not help the case of shop owners as the new law will not be reviewed until the 15th November, by which time it will already have taken a financial toil on business; according to Ben Yarou the sale of alcohol alone after 10pm represents a minimum of 30% of their total sales.

As a result, many shop owners feel unjustly targeted by new rules, a feeling that is echoed by many citizens and councillors, some of whom suggest that this, and the planned redevelopment and hike in rent of one of the city’s predominantly Arab areas, reveal a growing trend to push Arabs from the city centre.

France, long known for its reputation for racial prejudice, has done little to dispel its negative image in recent years. It has been nearly three months since the controversial rise in popularity of the National Front, France’s far-right political party, threatened to make a greater impact on the 2012 presidential elections. However even less extreme parties have made headlines for prejudiced comments; the centre-right UMP have often come under scathing attacks from critics, most notably due to Nicolas Sarkozy who has been accused of inciting Islamophobia on many occasions, and recently due to the comments of the previous Minister of the Interior and UMP member Claude Guéant, who at a student conference earlier this year claimed that “all civilisations are not equal”.

In comparison, after his election as president, François Hollande vowed to “fight racism, anti-Semitism and all other forms of discrimination” during his inauguration speech in May. He has even proposed giving non-EU residents of France the right to vote in local elections (currently the law allows EU citizens this right). So far we have seen little evidence of this from the man who, three months after elections, is still trying to establish his presidency. Although Hollande has made a reputation for himself as being ‘close’ to the people of France, reports published last week by newspaper Le Figaro suggest voters are now sceptical about his promises, with a poll suggesting 51% of people are already unhappy with the new president.

There are more issues behind the problem of racism in France than just voting rights and immigration. For many second generation immigrants identity, or a lack thereof, plays an important role. While most have grown up entirely in France and have no real link with the country of their parents’ birth, neither are they ever fully accepted by French society and are often referred to, particularly in the media, by their origins rather than their French nationality. Integration is difficult for many, especially for those from poorer backgrounds, and laws like the 2011 ban on the burqa, coupled with the continued reluctance of some French employers to recruit minorities and rampant racism within the police forces, have sparked resentment with many non-white citizens rejecting their own nationality in a country they feel has rejected them.

Problems such as these have caused friction even within Arab communities. Prior to the presidential elections in May, France 24 interviewed three French citizens of Arab descent, all of whom intended to vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front. One stated: “My vote is an expression of my rejection of certain Muslim Arabs [in France], whom I personally consider ‘thugs’.” According to France 24, she went on to add that she was “furious at French-born citizens of North African origin who show no consideration for their country.”

While some people point to improved integration of minority citizens, signalled by a growing presence in organisations such as the French Armed Forces, others like Socialist Party spokesperson Benoit Hamon claim that the stance of politicians on racism and immigration, often used to sway voters, has lead to a France that is “perhaps more racist now than 5 years ago.” Despite the change in some attitudes and an increased acceptance in the public, French citizens of North African decent continue to be let down and disappointed by authorities. As summed up in an interview with Bordeaux7 after the creation of new laws for épiseries, one such disillusioned citizen comments: “The impression that this gives me is that they want to make us disappear, us the ‘local Arabs’.”

BY: Bryony Cottam

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