Tuesday 1 May 2012

Social Woes in Pre-Election France and Europe

Erik Edman

A European citizen should be able to maintain their cultural identity within their host nation. Just because someone is Muslim, does not mean there are not also French. Europe should not promote a system which has “second class citizens”. Reuters

French Issues
As France edges closer to a presidential election, the nation has come under the scrutiny of the political microscope. The examination has revealed scores of economic, administrational and cultural “tumours” within the government and society. Politicians claiming to possess the golden formula, believe they can cure them. They have some very difficult and delicate work ahead of them.
Most prominent among these issues has been the case of the French-Algerian gunman who shot and killed 3 soldiers, 3 children and a rabbi in the French city of Toulouse. Apart from being a significant case of racial hatred, this event revealed to the world an underlying social rift between France’s Muslim community and the rest of its society. Back in 1962, following a long and bloody struggle with France, Algeria’s independence was finally recognised and it was released from its former colonial status. The seed of animosity, however, was sown deep within the souls of Muslims living in France. Fifty years on and watered by a feeling of social exclusion, the seed has grown. When, following the shootings in Toulouse, New Statesman journalist Andrew Hussey asked some Muslim youth in the outskirts of Paris if what happened all those years ago in Algeria justified the killings, they answered “Who knows? Who knows anything? Maybe everything was a set-up to provoke the Muslims… We are Muslims. We hear things. France is our enemy.” An isolated incident? Indeed. Many Muslims voiced their concerns and condolences for this unreasonable violence and it is very possible that they constitute the majority. The fact remains, however, that a great number of these people feel alienated and trapped in a country that they feel does not respect them. This disdain leads them to crave revenge, and this revenge can take many forms. Important to also mention is the niqab (Muslim religious veil covering the face of women) ban that came into effect last April. And last year, the country spearheaded the military intervention in Libya. It is not too difficult to see how France might not be perceived as the most hospitable nation for Muslims.
And the Muslims are not the sole social group with a bone to pick with the French government. The Roma have been targeted by Sarkozy’s “immigrant clean-up”. Last summer saw many illegal Roma camps disbanded and people evicted from the country. Many of them, being citizens of Eastern European countries now members of the European Union, have the right to live and work in France as they would in their home-countries. The European Commission has warned the French government that it will face legal action if it does not respect EU legislation on freedom of movement. Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has maintained that France has not respected a 2004 EU directive on the matter and she will therefore suggest the launch an infringement process will be launched against the French government. People are left homeless and their means to make a living for their family and themselves is hampered by the social stigma that accompanies their people. On top of this, Sarkozy in one of his pre-election speeches has threatened to take France out of Schengen, Europe’s passport-free zone. 
The young are also restless. The “generation Y”, as those born after 1980 have been named, is reacting to the lack of jobs, the fact that their education and work is underappreciated, harsh economic measures (not only in their own country but others too, in a sign of European solidarity) and what they perceive as their marginalisation by the government.
A Pan-European Phenomenon
This is by no means a nation-specific case. The entire Union is showing signs of what one expert has called European Hypocrisy. For all its liberal ideas and outlooks, the nations of the EU are showing signs of neglect towards certain social groups, regardless of European legislation.
There are cases of EU citizens who should be able to live and work freely within any of the 27 country-members, but poor citizenship education and a lack of interest in these people has meant that they spend time and money trying to acquire papers which they do not need. About 2.5% of the European population (12 million people) consists of Europeans living outside their home countries and even the most educated of them can trip over administrative barriers. There have been initiatives, such as the European Commission-supported ECAS (European Citizen Action Service) to educate people working outside their country of origin and provide them with information regarding their civil rights.
As the economic crisis takes its toll in the continent, xenophobia has started raising its ugly head in nations around Europe, with the far-right gaining supporters in places traditionally seen as liberal, such as Sweden and the Netherlands. In search of scapegoats, people have come to blame immigrant workers for taking jobs which could have been filled by locals. Europe and its people have yet to accept a pan-European identity, which makes a “European citizenship” a very vague concept indeed. A united Europe is definitely the future but greater care needs to be given to how society perceives this integration. There is a great need for everyone to realise that they not just citizens of their respective countries but also of a greater institution; the European Union. That second identity must be strengthened, demystified and explained if Europe is ever to function as a unit.

An anti-Swedish Democrats (Swedish far-right party) rally in Sweden. The far-right managed to gain 19 seats in the country’s parliament. Bob Strong/Reuters.
The United Kingdom and “The Continent”
If one nation could be singled out of as the least European-minded among the 27 members, it would have to be the United Kingdom. Its foreign policy and economic outlook tends to follow independent paths and bypass the views of its European partners. Many Brits refuse to see themselves as Europeans. The “them” and “us” distinction is almost palpable in the UK’s conscience, whether the distinction applies to social classes, religious groups or simply British and European.
If British society is decisively distinct from those found in the rest of Europe, it has not managed to avoid many of its flaws and problems. From gaps in social identity and roles within society, to the treatment and perception of immigrant workers within the country, the UK is treading on a fine line. The Summer Riots of 2011 are an excellent example of how people from various social groups in the country have failed to become part of society or, depending on one’s view on the matter, the state has failed to integrate them into it. Muslims have voiced greater concerns in Britain than in any other European country on the future of their families within the country. People have an instinctive need to belong and when the state does not satisfy that need and appears to be neglecting them, the results, as the whole world saw, can be disastrous.

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