Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Fortress Europe: stuck in the colonial mindset

It’s the same all across Europe. France is battling with wide-spread rioting, Britain is quarrelling whether to bring back internment. Neither are on a winning ticket.

It was the Swiss author Max Frisch who summed the immigration dilemma up so succinctly: “Workers were called, but people came”. After the devastation of the second world war Europe needed the help of foreigner to rebuild her economies. They were brought in from Asia and Africa as hired slaves. There was not intention to give them any rights or to have them settle permanently.

Alas, they stayed. Yet, two or three generations later they are still treated as strangers by the establishment. If they become too visible there is soon talk of sending them all back home. Never mind that you couldn’t get hospital treatment or buy your basic conveniences if all the immigrants and children of immigrants suddenly left (or even went on a Sabbatical at the same time) – like children they should be seen but not heard.

Frisch was right, of course. The people who came had a sense of worth and dignity and aspirations of their own. They resent being treated as second class or even sub-human. By resorting to emergency powers first used in Algeria the French make it abundantly clear that they have learned nothing from their disastrous colonial past. If you keep beating people, you brutalise them. If you criminalise people, they will break the law. If you deny them their identity, they will come to reject the nation in which they live.

Interestingly, in all the discussions about what went wrong in France during the last two weeks of rioting, the voice of those communities who rebelled against being abused and stigmatised is nowhere to be heard. The media prefer to talk to members of the establishment. People who haven’t got a clue what it is like to live as an Algerian in Marseille rant about the causes and the cure of these unpredictable riots. In their petty minds French Muslims should be glad that the Republic liberated them and tore the scarves off the heads of their womenfolk.

Barring a complete U-turn it is too late for French race relations. Britain still stands a chance, but Tony Blair and his cronies want to squander it fast. Blair and Blair (the prime minister and the police chief) want to bring back internment. It doesn’t matter whether it is for 90 days, 60 days, 28 days or 14, what is at stake is the principle of due process. The new legislation will permit the law enforcement agencies to create outlaws at a whim. The signals sent to the minority communities will be clear: you could be next. The ensuing disquiet will not lead to compliance, it will erupt in anger.

When the French battled with furious resistance in Algeria they had to finally withdraw and give up control of the colony. When the British faced stiff opposition in India they had to give up on the Empire. Now the French and the British government are hell-bent on turning the very people who helped them rebuild after the war into enemies. They are drawing battle lines within their own countries. Should the attempt to keep those lesser citizens subjugated fail, where will they run this time?

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