The murders of three children and a teacher at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, last week were horrific acts. They followed the shooting of three soldiers, two of them Muslims, in Toulouse and nearby Montauban the week before.
The first of the killings took place on 11 March, the same day that US soldier Robert Bales murdered eight adults and nine children in Afghanistan.
The media tried to comprehend what Bales did by reference to a breakdown brought on by injuries and trauma.
But few have tried to do the same in the case of Mohamed Merah, the man identified as the Toulouse killer.
Virtually no coverage has been given to claims by Merah’s lawyer that racism had bred his hatred of a “society where he had no place”.
Instead the press seized upon reports of Merah’s own explanations for the killings—which used the deaths of Palestinian children as a grotesque justification for murdering Jewish children. This was used to warn of a terrorist threat posed by Islamist ideologies.
Le Figaro newspaper responded to news of Merah’s death with the headline “Mission accomplished”—echoing George Bush’s triumphant declaration after his invasion of Iraq.
Le Point magazine ran a front page about “Allah’s French madman”. Le Monde newspaper published an article calling Merah “a monster stemming from the sickness of Islam”.
Such responses are part of an ongoing and relentless identification of Islam as a major problem in French society. Islam is supposedly undermining “French values” and preventing young people from immigrant backgrounds from “integrating” into wider society.
Figures from across the political spectrum have called for national unity in the wake of the killings. France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy stressed the need to refrain from “discrimination or revenge” against “our Muslim compatriots”.
Behind such words, however, is an escalating problem of racism in French society. And at its core lies a vicious Islamophobia promoted by the right.
Last autumn France’s government banned Muslims from praying in the streets—an issue Marine Le Pen, leader of the fascist Front National (FN), had been agitating around.
Le Pen has also tried to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment by alleging that all meat in the Paris area was halal. Sarkozy responded by claiming that this issue was the main preoccupation of French voters.
Sarkozy’s interior minister Claude Guéant then raised the prospect of halal meat becoming obligatory in canteens were foreigners to be given the right to vote. “Foreigners must accept our rules,” he said. “It’s down to them to adapt. Everyone understands that if we have fewer immigrants, things will go better.”
The president backed him up, saying, “Our system of integration is getting worse and worse because we have too many foreigners on our territory.”
Such rhetoric is partly about politicians trying to win votes from the FN. By focusing on personal responsibility and cultural practices, the mainstream right is attempting to divert attention from the way in which racism creates and justifies inequalities.
Sarkozy has form on this question. In 2005 as interior minister he labelled young people in France’s impoverished urban fringes—many of them from North African backgrounds—as a “rabble”. He boasted that he would drive them out with power hoses.
He was talking about France’s most deprived areas, where up to a third of the population lives below the poverty line and one in five are unemployed.
But right wing politicians blame cultural and ethnic differences, rather than racism and discrimination, for this state of affairs.
One minister claimed the family backgrounds of ethnic minority children meant that they were prone to anti-social behaviour, making them less attractive to employers.
This is not just about blaming the victims of racism for their situation. It is part of a wider agenda of fostering the impression that French values are under threat and must be protected from corrupting “foreign” influences.
This makes it easier to focus on enforcing law and order rather than social provision.
Racism and Islamophobia thus dovetail with the government’s wider neoliberal agenda.
The rhetoric of the mainstream right is now hardening. Last month Guéant argued that not all civilisations have the same value.
“Those which defend liberty, equality and fraternity seem to us superior to those which accept tyranny, a lesser role for women, social or ethnic hatred,” he said. “In any case, we must protect our civilisation.”
The idea that a “clash of civilisations” is taking place taps into France’s colonial past. The notion that “French values” were superior to Islam was frequently peddled as a justification for imperialism.
Unfortunately in recent years sections of the French left have backed laws banning the hijab in schools and the niqab full-face veil in public places.
This has helped make racism respectable and accelerated a general shift to the right on this issue.
But the “civilisation” Guéant and others extol is deeply flawed. When it comes to education, housing and employment, people from non-European backgrounds in France face profound discrimination.
The children of North African or sub-Saharan African parents are twice as likely to leave school with no qualifications as the children of parents born in France.
Those with the same qualifications are twice as likely to be unemployed.
It is racism and inequality, not Islam, which make France a dysfunctional society. Mainstream politicians have a vested interest in obscuring this reality. This is what drives the targeting of France’s Muslim population—the largest in Europe.
The injustices they suffer are magnified internationally by the imperialist adventures of the West in Afghanistan and Iraq—and the rhetoric of humanitarianism used to justify them.
We live in a world grossly distorted by war, injustice, discrimination, inequality and poverty.
The atrocities in Toulouse cannot be understood by reference to this context alone—but it is here, not with Islam, that sickness lies. Racism and scapegoating only serve to perpetuate it.