One, two, three viva l’Algerie

Algeria is not a country that has had much to celebrate recently.   In the 1990s, the Algerian government’s refusal to accept an imminent Islamist victory in national elections prompted a savage conflict between the ruling FLN and an array of Islamist groups.

An estimated 150, 000 Algerians died in a war of massacres and counter-massacres, state-sponsored ‘disappearances’ and extra-judicial killings that traumatized Algerian society, which the government eventually won, with the tacit support of an ‘international community’ that was more concerned with the flow of gas than it was with democracy, legality or human rights.

Since then the mafia-like structures that Algerians call ‘le pouvoir’ have retained their deathly grip at the upper echelons of Algerian society,  and the terrible violence of the 1990s has largely left Algeria untouched by the ‘Arab spring’, under the rule of the sclerotic Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a politician who has long since passed his sell-by date and has ruled the country for 15 years.

In April the wheel-chair bound Bouteflika was re-elected with more than 80 percent of the vote – a majority that many Algerians regard as a government-managed fiction, but Bouteflika is the system’s man, and Western governments see him as a guarantor of ‘stability’ – which means Algerian oil and gas and Algerian cooperation in counter-terrorism.  Meanwhile more than 50 percent of Algerians in the 16 to 29 age group are unemployed, and some 23 percent of the population live below the poverty line.

It would be ridiculous to assume that a football tournament can compensate for such events.   But the magnifcent performance of the Algerian football team has nevertheless provided millions of Algerians with a source of national pride for the first time in many years.

Against South Korea they put on a thrilling display of attacking football, winning 4-2 in one of the classic matches of the tournament.   Against Germany, the country that once contrived with Austria  to put them out of the 1982 world cup in Spain at Gijon, ‘Les Fennecs’ – the Fennec Foxes, were equally fluent, determined and occasionally dazzling, and at times threatened to run the torpid Germans ragged.   Had they actually finished their moves and taken their chances,  they might have pulled off an epic victory and gone into the quarter finals.

In the event they couldn’t do this, but they nevertheless warmed the hearts of many of their countrymen, both in Algeria and France, and millions who watched them.   And now, in a sport dominated at a professional level by overpaid egocentric millionaires who make more money in a week than some people make in an entire lifetime, the national team has taken the remarkable decision to donate all its $9 million prize money to ‘the people of Gaza’.

This decision was announced by Algerian striker Islam Slimani, who declared of the Gazans ‘ They need it more than us.’

Compare this to the squalid and mean-spirited attempts by Marine Le Pen’s Front National to impose a French version of the Tebbit ‘cricket test’, by condemning Algerian support for their team in France as a symptom of ‘immigration failure.’  Or the ban on ‘ostentatious’ foreign flags imposed by the Nice municipality when Algeria were playing.   Or the vile killings of world cup spectators by Boko Haram and al-Shabaab who have decided that watching and playing football is ‘against Islam.’

No wonder thousands of their countrymen celebrated their return.   Naturally the politicians that so many Algerians despise have attempted to benefit from their popularity, some of whom turned up to meet them at the airport.    In addition Algerian state television has broadcast a special programme about them called ‘ Thank you heroes.’

No doubt there are many Algerian policians who would like the population to think about football rather than more pressing matters.   Such manipulation is only to be expected, and cannot detract from the Algerian team’s beautiful gesture.    The team played as Algerians and also as Muslims.   Their donation is an act of pan-Arab and pan-Islamic soldidarity that carries the echo of Algeria’s more heroic period as a beacon of decolonisation and Third Worldism in the 1960s.

But it is also a simple gesture of humanity, in a world where such gestures are conspicuously absent.    And for that reason we should celebrate it too, and be glad that even in these dark times, a team of footballers has done something that is unselfish, splendid, and really quite noble.

 

Who Are We? We’re Christians!

Given the shallowness and political opportunism of David Cameron’s manufactured conversion, his suggestion that Britons should ‘ be more confident about our status as a Christian country’ has provoked a surprisingly vigorous debate, with critics and defenders rising up to pronounce upon Lord Snooty’s assertions.

The ‘against’ group includes Alastair Campbell, the Rationalist Association, the National Secular Society and the more than 50 writers and public figures who penned an open letter to the Telegraph yesterday accusing Cameron of ‘fostering division.   On the other side there is the Church of England, obviously, the religious blogger Archbishop Cranmer and the Telegraph.

Somewhat more unexpectedly New Labour’s dreary former foreign policy plotter Jack Straw  has told the Today program that:

‘There has to be a clear understanding that this is the UK and there are a set of values, some of which I would say to the letter writers to the Daily Telegraph are indeed Christian-based, whether they like it or not, which permeate our sense of citizenship.’

To say that the arch-conspirator is not the most thoughtful or insightful of politicians would be understating it considerably.  But  his sneering suggestion that ‘Christian-based’ values are crucial to ‘our sense of citizenship’  which those who argue otherwise must accept ‘whether they like it or not’ touches on a crucial theme in the debates about religion that have permeated conservative and far-right politics across Europe for more than a decade.

In an interview with the Telegraph’s Christina Odone last year, Nigel Farage declared:

‘We need a much more muscular defence of our Judaeo-Christian heritage. Yes, we’re open to different cultures but we have to defend our values. That’s the message I want to hear from the Archbishop of Canterbury and from our politicians. Anything less is appeasement of the worst kind.’

Though the Joker told Odone that he only goes to church four or five times a year, he nevertheless insisted that the UK’s ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’ constituted an essential antidote to ‘ Notting Hill claptrap about diversity’ and a hallmark of a British national identity that was being diluted and threatened by the presence of ‘Muslims who speak no English and wear the veil’ and defenders of gay marriage who had ‘betrayed the family,’ among others.

For Farage, and for many of his peers in the conservative-populist-far-right political spectrum, the UK’s ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’ is a merely one more building block in the ongoing construction or ‘defense’ of an exclusive and essentialist national identity that is supposedly under siege from Muslims, ‘immigrants’, multiculturalists, gays and lesbians and other alien intruders.

Other European far-right formations have also used Christianity in the same way.   Last month,  Marine Le Pen announced before the French local elections that Front National administrations would be ‘enforcing secularism’ in the towns they controlled, by removing halal food from school cafeterias, forbidding Muslim women in scarves to accompany children on class trips, and preventing Muslim women from renting public swimming pools after hours.   Yet Le Pen also insisted that ‘France has Christian roots. They (the French) want to recognize their own country, recognize their lifestyle, their habits, their traditions.’

In a 2012 speech in Strasbourg, quoted on the ‘patriot’ website GalliaWatch ( a website ‘for those with a ‘limited knowledge of French and a boundless interest in saving European cultures from extinction’)  Le Pen criticized a French politician who had denounced the special privileges still enjoyed by the Catholic Church, asking

‘But my friends, have they all forgotten that France is a country of Christian traditions? Have they turned us into nomads to the point where they brutally cut us off from our roots? Have they all forgotten that France is the land of the “white mantle of cathedrals”, that for fifteen centuries Catholicism was the religion of nearly all Frenchmen? Let us be proud of this history and let us stop denying it or avoiding it!’

For Le Pen, there is no contradiction between defending ‘secularism’ and extolling France’s ‘ Christian roots’, as long as these tropes can be used to shore up a homogenous monolithic French identity – the better to exclude and persecute certain groups that have supposedly brought France and Europe to the point of cultural extinction.

Mainstream conservatives have also engaged in the construction of these ‘imagined communities’ across Europe.  Some emphasize secularism or liberalism as the essential defining values of their societies; others have stressed Christianity.

The latter tend to express very similar ideas; that Christians are a marginalized  ‘endangered species’ who are becoming strangers in their own country; that Christian faith is declining while Islam is growing stronger; that ‘militant’ secularism and atheism have eroded the moral fabric of the nation.

Cameron’s designation of the UK as a ‘Christian country’ belongs to some extent to the same tradition.  His call for Britons to become more ‘evangelical’ about their Christian roots was not explicitly aimed at Muslims – yet.  Indeed, according to the Telegraph,  His Lordship’s rediscovery of religion is partly due to the influence of his Muslim ‘minister of faith’ Sayeeda Warsi, who has condemned ‘secular fundamentalism’ and sought to restore the Tory party’s ‘faith in faith’ in the run up to the next election.

Nevertheless, his speech was a crude and reductionist attempt to answer the question ‘Who are We?’ that the conservative political scientist Samuel Huntington once posed about American national identity.

The answer should be that ‘we’ are composed of lots of things; that nations are the sum of all their components and the social arrangements they make to take full account of them; that Christianity is only one of the many forces that have shaped British history and society – both positively and negatively – and there is absolutely no reason to single it out as an essential marker of contemporary British society.

And politicians who make such claims should always be mistrusted, because,  unlike Eric Burdon and the Animals, their intentions are never good.

A Europe of the Far Right?

It’s never good news when the European far-right gets internationalist,  and the announcement that Marine Le Pen and Gert Wilders are planning to co-operate in next year’s European Parliament elections in an attempt to ‘fight this monster called Europe’  ought to raise alarm bells.

This is the first time the far-right has tried to collaborate within a European forum since the spectacular failure of the ‘Identity, Tradition Sovereignty’ (ITS) bloc in 2007.

A grouping of twenty far-right and extreme nationalist parties in the European Parliament,  ITS attempted to build a coalition based on opposition to immigration, the EU constitution and Turkish EU membership.  Its members included the French National Front, the Austrian Freedom Party, Alessandra Mussolini’s Social Alternative, and the Greater Romania Party.

Formed in January 2007, this coalition fell apart by the end of the year, when  the virulently anti-Roma Greater Romania Party took offense at Alessandra Mussolini response to the murder of an Italian by a Romanian migrant that ‘ Breaking the law became a way of life for Romanians.’

Some may take comfort from this collapse and anticipate a similar outcome once Le Pen and Wilders begin their attempt to attract more support from other European parties from the same template, but such complacency would not be advisable.   A lot of things have changed since 2007.   The crisis has hammered country after country across the continent, and the damage has been compounded by the disastrous ‘austerity’ policies which the European Union and virtually every European government have supported.

Unemployment, falling wages and living standards, pauperisation, economic stagnation, cuts in public services and the effective abandonment of whole swathes of the population have fueled anger, despair and resentment towards governments and the European Union itself.

All this has compounded a generalized bitterness and alienation from the political process – and also from the project of European unity – in many countries, which has provided grist to the mill for the established far-right and a newer generation of anti-immigrant and/or anti-Muslim populists like Wilders and UKIP.

The crisis has also intensified the racist and xenophobic victimization and scapegoating of certain categories of immigrants and visible minorities such Roma or Muslims, providing an increasingly receptive audience to the poisonous ‘identity’ politics promulgated by the Le Pen, Wilders and Golden Dawn in Greece.

Of course there are differences within the broad political spectrum that could potentially include  the far-right and anti-immigrant nativists like UKIP, but political success may iron out these points of conflict.   Polls indicate that a quarter of French voters may vote for the National Front in next year’s elections.  Wilder’ PVV is currently leading the Dutch polls, and would gain 32 seats if a general election were held, compared with the Socialist Party’s projected 24.

UKIP is also poised to make another surge in next year’s elections to match its national rise.  In Greece Golden Dawn remains the third political party, despite the ongoing criminal investigation into its affairs by the Greek government.

In short, the momentum is currently with the far right, even if some of its members are likely to keep their distance from each other for the time being, and even if some appear to be more superficially reasonable in their opposition to immigration, multiculturalism, and the EU.

Such opposition pays lip service to the economic consequences of the crisis in the eurozone and ‘tyranny’ of the European Union, but it invariably draws its strength from the idea that the EU has failed to ‘control’ national borders – an accusation that completely ignores Europe’s ruthless immigration enforcement model that has had such tragic consequences for migrants and refugees – and has allowed the multicultural hordes to erode the national and cultural identities of its component parts.

Too many mainstream politicians, whether left-of-centre or centre-right have pandered to the right’s anti-immigrant agenda, and said or done things that have made it seem as if the far-right has a point.

Too many politicians have preferred to present immigration rather than anti-immigrationism as the problem in order to distract attention from their own failings and/or dip into the far-right trough in search of votes.  Too many have preferred to present draconian anti-migrant legislation as a solution to racism and xenophobia, and compete with the right to demonstrate their ‘toughness’ in ‘protecting our borders.’

It might be Labour, which supported Theresa May’s vicious Immigration Bill.  It might be Hollande, who recently expelled a Roma schoolgirl and her family and then pathetically offered to allow the girl back into the country on condition that her family stayed.

Such gestures will not take us anywhere.   In disgracing their own parties they also legitimize the worst sentiments of the population and pave the way for their own irrelevance.   Too many left-of-centre governments were in power before the crisis and backed the policies that made it possible, and many have been complicit in the brutalist ‘remedies’ proposed by Europe’s financial and political elites, or unable to propose any viable alternatives to them.

If we are to prevent Europe from slipping back towards its very recent political dark ages, we need to halt this momentum – and construct a different kind of left.   We need to build a European-wide movement that embraces the concept of a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society that so many countries have become; that stands up for the rights of migrants rather than constantly looking for ways to reduce and restrict them; that challenges the disastrous economic model which is being enforced on the continent; that can mobilize the continent and put the far-right back in its box.

We need to develop European unity that reflects the ‘idealist’ components of the European project, rather than the dictats of speculators and bankers.  Because as flawed as it is, the European Union provides a forum which the left could turn to its own advantage, and even the ‘monster’ is preferable to the Europe that Marine Le Pen and Gert Wilders would like us all to live in.

 

 

 

Sarkozy: la France c’est moi

What do you do when you are the president of France and you are facing a crushing  defeat at the hands of the centre-left in forthcoming elections next month,  and a substantial swathe of the electorate thinks that you are the worst French leader since World War II?

If you are Nicolas Sarkozy, this question has only one answer.

You may remember that during Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign he talked a great deal about immigration and French national identity – a combination that in France, as in many other European countries, is usually evoked in reference to the Muslim immigrants who are deemed to be a particular threat to French identity.  In the case of France however, Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party faces a serious electoral challenge from the far-right in the shape of Marine Le Pen’s resurgent Front Nationale.

For this reason, Sarkozy has always been particularly willing to blow on the dog whistle, and has rarely missed an opportunity to do so in his five years in office. In 2007 for example, he promised to create a new Ministry for Immigration and National Identity’ – a pledge that he fulfilled, though he subsequently dropped the national identity part.

In 2009 he set out to promote a ‘ great national debate’ about French national identity, which fizzled out in February the following year, amid widespread criticisms that it had been divisive, politically opportunistic and ultimately futile.

Political opportunism, immigrant scapegoating and Muslim-baiting have remained the stock-in-trade of a politician who has rarely left any depths unplumbed.  Whether deporting Romanian Roma or banning the niqab and burqa, Sarkozy has consistently demonstrated a willingness to turn French xenophobia and racism to his political advantage that is unconstrained by any moral scruples.

The prospect of political extinction has clearly brought these instincts to the fore.  Last week Sarkozy  borrowed from David Cameron’s playbook and promised to cut immigration to the tens of thousands, because there were ‘too many foreigners in France’ and restrict state benefits to legal migrants.

He also sought to take advantage of a pseudo-controversy begun by Marine Le Pen earlier last month, who suggested that French were unwittingly eating halal meat and that 100 percent of all meat in the Paris region was halal.

Initially Sarkozy had criticized Le Pen, but last week he waded into this pseudo-controversy with all the subtlety and delicacy of Atilla the Hun, and declared his intention to eliminate halal meat from school canteens, on the grounds that halal was the ‘ French people’s major concern and number one topic of conversation’.

Well Sarko undoubtedly has his finger on the national pulse there.  Unemployment in France is around 10 percent nationally, rising to 20 percent amongst the youth and even 40 percent in some areas, some 800,000 people work for nothing as interns, and tens of thousands face permanent job insecurity and short-term contracts.

In these circumstances I bet your average Frenchman or Frenchwoman does nothing else but think about halal meat from the moment they wake up in the morning, and they will no doubt be cheered to know that Sarkozy is thinking about it too, and that his prime minister Francois Fillon has now told Jews and Muslims that they should stop eating kosher or halal because such foods ‘don’t have much in common with today’s state of science, technology and health problems.’

This is really bottom-of-the-barrel stuff.   Now Sarkozy has appeared at a ridiculous US-style rally accompanied by an action man soundtrack, with celebrity backing from  the equally ridiculous buffoon Gérard Depardieu,  with a message that might easily have come from a Marine Le Pen script.

Sarkozy rally: Nicolas Sarkozy walks to the rostrum before making a speech

At the rally Sarkozy called on the European Union to tighten its border controls and do more to prevent the entry of illegal immigrants who are threatening European ‘civilization’, ‘our way of life’ and the ‘implosion of Europe.’    Returning to  the same tune that he first played (with Berlusconi on back-up vocals) last spring in response to the rise in North African immigration via Lampedusa, Sarkozy also threatened to pull France out of the borderless Schengen area.

Sarkozy knows of course, that Europe is already doing a great deal to prevent illegal immigration, with frequently disastrous consequences for the people its borders are designed to exclude.  He undoubtedly knows that non-European immigrants remain a minority in Europe and in France itself and therefore can hardly be considered a cultural threat to ‘European civilization’.

So on one level Sarkozy’s willingness to wade through these sewers is a measure of the desperation of an amoral demagogue for whom Marx’s description of Adolphe Thiers as ‘that monstrous gnome’ is equally applicable. But it is also  symptomatic of a wider phenomenon across Europe.

With Europe’s political/financial elites increasingly unable to offer their populations anything but cuts and ‘austerity’, even mainstream politicians are opting to encroach into the far-right’s political terrain and engage in anti-immigrant scapegoating, under the cover of pseudo-debates about immigration, multiculturalism and national identity.

Like Sarkozy, these debates are often presented as a recipe for good race relations and better integration – even as they stigmatize immigrants in general and certain categories of immigrants in particular.   It’s a sordid, nasty and dangerous game, whose potential repercussions are very ugly indeed.  But for the Sarkozys of this world, only one thing matters: to get elected and remain in power.

And some of them really don’t give a damn about how they do it.