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Questions about race expose the dark heart of French politics

WHEN a blonde female politician who is not Marine Le Pen appears live on television to describe her fellow citizens as a “white race”, you know France has a very serious problem.

One might have expected a Le Pen – a family firmly associated with racism and anti-Semitism – to articulate such an inflammatory view, but in fact it was Nadine Morano, once a minister and close ally of former president Nicolas Sarkozy. While the Le Pens and their Front National (FN) cronies are regularly described as extremists, Morano is a member of Sarkozy’s new Republican Party – France’s official opposition, and allegedly a government in waiting.

So it was that a mainstream politician defended an opinion that evoked memories of some of France’s darkest historical moments, not least of all Nazi Occupation, when race was a key factor in pretty much every aspect of day-to-day life. Morano said last week: “France is a Judeo-Christian country … of white race, which is attracting foreigners. I want France to remain France. I don’t want France to become Muslim.”

Ms Morano has since insisted that she has received “thousands of emails and phone calls” supporting her. She says she is the victim of a “media lynching”, and has even suggested that Charles de Gaulle, the founding father of the Fifth Republic and France’s wartime leader, spoke about “race” in the same way as she did. “Nicolas Sarkozy must stop exploiting my comments” said Morano, adding that a “cabal” of “local political centrists” had sided with Mr Sarkozy to “kick me out of the Republicans”.

Sarkozy initially remained silent about what was said, but in the face of widespread anger (for which read negative voter reaction), finally turned on his previously loyal hatchet woman. In a carefully prepared statement released after four days, Sarkozy said that Morano’s words “do not correspond to what France is or to the values supported by The Republicans.” He proceeded to evict Morano from the party’s election ticket, humiliating his colleague. She, in turn, pledged to “finish off” Sarkozy, not specifying exactly how.

In fact, Sarkozy, who comes from a Hungarian immigrant background and whose third wife is an Italian who only applied for a French passport in order to vote for him, had spent most of the past few weeks calling for a reduction in the number of foreigners settling in France. Those he complained about included refugees – almost all of them brown or black skinned, and many of them Muslim – who should have their welfare benefits cuts, he said. Sarkozy has likened the influx from war-torn countries such as Syria as a “huge water leak”, not acknowledging that it was his scandalous decision to start bombing countries like Libya that contributed so much to the instability in the first place.

Lowlights of Sarkozy’s far from distinguished career (he is still at the centre of numerous corruption enquiries) also involved stigmatising ethnic minorities with a divisive “national identity” debate. He treated deprived communities on out-of-town housing estates as a problem that only heavily armed police were qualified to deal with, calling young troublemakers “scum” who needed to be “blown away with a power hose”. Sarkozy’s burka ban was a master class in how to use a small group of women who covered their faces in public to make out that all of France’s six million plus Muslims were a threat to civilisation.

Last weekend, Mr Sarkozy proceeded to try to play down the argument, saying: “My role is not to take part in polemic arguments with members of my own political family”.

It’s all about power in the end, and politicians like Sarkozy and Morano are desperate to win over FN voters. Never mind that there are millions of French citizens who are non-white, both on the mainland, and in its overseas territories, and that many follow religions other than Judaism and Christianity. The politics of racial prejudice are deeply imbedded in the French psyche, and it is during trying times like these that manipulative politicians do their level best to exploit it.

Claude Bartolone, president of the ruling Socialist Party in the national assembly, used live media soundbites of his own to highlight the utter “stupidity” of Morano as she “chased after the National Front”. His most scornful words were saved for Sarkozy himself, however: he said the return of the diminutive rabble rouser after he was overwhelmingly rejected during the 2012 presidential election had inevitably been accompanied by a race to the bottom.

Bartolone cited Sarkozy’s “constant stigmatisation of Muslims” and “ethnic minorities in the banlieues”, and his preference for “Christian refugees over Muslims ones”. The politician added that the only difference was that Morano was caught out, while Sarkozy continues to try and disguise his prejudice behind slick PR and weasel words.

Morano firmly belongs to the “Sarkozy clan”, as Bartolone put it. During the 2012 parliamentary

elections, Morano appealed to FN voters who shared “our values” to support them, while Sarkozy

said that the FN was “compatible with the Republic”. Morano also faithfully stood by Sarkozy’s hateful public pronouncements: his “Grenoble Speech” – one which linked anti-social behaviour to immigration – and his “Dakar Speech” in which he stated that “the African man had not quite entered history yet”.

The reality is that all major parties in France – including the ruling Socialists – have stirred up fear and prejudice about newcomers. The Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, infamously described Roma travellers from Romania and Bulgaria – all EU citizens – as undesirables who “cannot integrate” and ergo should be deported. His authoritarian policies have seen thousands of would-be asylum seekers kicked out of the country. Little wonder that Valls is often described as a left-wing version of Sarko.

Given its history, it is extraordinary that France is still using race as a political issue in 2015. Beyond its collaboration with the Nazis, France’s violent attempts to suppress nationalist movements in former colonies such as Algeria is just one more example of why it should have moved on from its reactionary past.

The FN is the legacy of this Nazi-style repression of Arabs by the French – many of its members are former colonialists who utterly resented handing stolen lands back. That the allegedly more moderate Republicans are now championing this odious form of “white race” supremacism is a national disgrace, and an indication of the moral bankruptcy of so many members of France’s political class.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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