At the heart of French foreign policy, there exists a glaring and fundamental contradiction that threatens to undermine the mission in Libya. Certainly, Nicolas Sarkozy and those that surround him should be praised and applauded for coming out in front on this issue: recognising the Transitional National Council; co-sponsoring UN Resolution 1973; leading the air strikes against Gaddafi.
Sarkozy’s progressive, Atlanticist foreign policy doctrine is certainly refreshing when compared his predecessor’s outlook on the world. Jacques Chirac’s petty, pathetic and obstructionist neo-Gaullist agenda was reactionary in the worst sense. He withdrew France, like so many others before him, from the family of nations, and sat booing and heckling from the sidelines as the United States and United Kingdom led the world in fashioning out free states.
The liberating mission in Libya, though, risks being degraded by France’s treatment of the Muslims which live within its own borders. For, as French jets attempt to stave off Gaddafi’s advancement toward Benghazi, thus saving the fate of a revolution conducted using an anti-totalitarian tongue, the police back home have formally begun ticketing women for what they choose to wear.
The ban in the burqa – or more accurately the niqab – is a law as repressive and as hysterical as the fatawa issued by the ulama of Saudi Arabia or Iran, or the edicts put forth by Colonel Gaddafi during his maddest moments. In seeking to control what its Muslim citizenry wear, France is making itself indistinguishable from the worst elements of Arab autocracy – the very sort they are seeking to remove in Libya.
More widely, France’s attitude towards its Arab population in cities throughout the mainland continues to differ sharply from the image it attempts to project across the Maghreb. Anti-immigrant sentiment began to ferment during the period of deindustrialisation in the 1980s, and subsequently exploded in the 1990s and 2000s, as expressed through electoral support for the Front National.
Politicians in the mainstream played up to this anti-Arab feeling. Chirac made a famously bigoted speech in June 1991 which held up a bogeyman image of a ‘typical’ Maghrebi, a man with “three or four wives, and some twenty children who gets 50,000 francs from Social Security without having to work”. The government of the age also instituted a number of anti-foreigner laws, in particular the loi Pasqua, which amongst other things increased the waiting period for family reunification to two years and prohibited foreign graduates from accepting job offers by French employers.
The cumulative effect of years of discrimination and maltreatment blew up in 2005 via a succession of riots in the suburbs of Paris and other municipalities. The lingering sentiments which ignited these storms in places like Clichy-sous-Bois – unemployment, poor housing, crime, underinvestment, social isolation – are still yet to be dealt with effectively.
Anti-Arab discrimination continues up to the present. When Italy gave 26,000 Tunisian and Libyan refugees of war six-month residence permits, France threatened to withdraw from the Schengen Agreement and shut down its borders. French authorities refused to allow trains carrying the migrants to cross its border with Italy at Ventimiglia, though backed down only after Rome lodged a formal diplomatic complaint.
France’s turnabout from a navel-gazing isolationist backwater to the throbbing heart of continent’s humanitarian agenda must be welcomed. Those that continue to support the advancement of freedom and liberty around the world have figures like Bernard Henri-Lévy to thank for such a volte-face. But at the same time, France’s friends and allies must be weary of how it looks when Super Sarko blasts Gaddafi into next week in the name of democracy and human rights, but then treats Arabs as second-class citizens and plucks Muslim women of the street and detains them for their choice of attire.
A NEWSWEEK cartoon said it all far more tersely. A gendarme, complete with a de Gaulle-like schnauzer, is leading a veiled woman into a cell. “Because mademoiselle,” he tells her, “we are leading the fight for freedom in Libya… not here!” France is doing the right thing, with its defiant and morally righteous stand against barbarism and butchery in Libya. But the rhetoric abroad must match the policy at home, before this liberal intervention becomes une mission contradictoires.