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'La Haine': A window into the Charlie Hebdo attack

'La Haine': A window into the Charlie Hebdo attack
Published 28 Jan 2015   Follow @n_george2

Last week, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced a raft of new government spending on security in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack. The plan included the creation of more than 2500 new jobs in the law, justice and defence sectors, and the ongoing surveillance of roughly 3000 individuals.

This hard-line response drew appreciative commentary in France.

Days earlier, the same media outlets were reflecting on the meaning of the 'Je suis Charlie' marches across the country and the symbolic message of unity they seemed to embody. Ironically, all this deliberation seems have to pushed to one side any commentary on the widespread political alienation felt among French migrant populations, and the extent to which this has become a wellspring for violent radicalisation.

To understand something of this alienation it is necessary to consider the marginal social and economic standing of France's second and third generation of post-war Arab and African immigrant populations.

These communities are often concentrated in the infamous banlieue neighbourhoods of France, a shorthand reference to suburbs which fringe many of France's major urban centres and are characterised by uniform and soulless public housing edifices. In media discourse les banlieues are frequently stigmatised as migrant enclaves, plagued by epidemics of crime, gang violence and rioting. The youth in these places describe their neighbourhoods as the 'occupied territories', voicing the idea that French state authority is unrecognised there, an intrusion that is resisted in the same way Palestinian populations respond to the imposition of Israel authority.

These tensions were explored in La Haine, a film directed by Mathieu Kassovitz which was released to critical acclaim in 1995. [fold]

The film provides us with an entrée to life in the banlieu through the experiences of three young men: Vince, of Jewish origin, Saïd of Arab origin and Hubert of African origin. It opens with the voice of Hubert recounting the story of a man falling from the top of a 50-storey building. 'So far so good, so far so good' (jusqu'ici tous va bien), he repeats, to reassure himself as he falls through the air. But as Hubert concludes, its not how you fall that matters, its how you land (Mais l'important n'est pas la chute, c'est l'atterrissage). 

In the 24 hour period that we follow this trio, they move through their local neighbourhood and travel to central Paris. We watch them walking (or are they falling?) through streets which are policed not only by suspicious law officials but also violent neo-Nazi extremists, all of whom treat them with violence.

The tension mounts as we see the consequences of trio's small acts of resistance such as the spray-can tagging of public signs and train fare evasion (so far so good). But events build towards an armed stand-off with police and the final, terrible, point of violence that is their inevitable landing. The film's subtext, evident in more subtle and sometimes ironic form, expresses the profound lack of opportunity experienced by migrant populations in France, who sense that they have been betrayed by the republican ideals of a fraternal and indivisible citizenry. Billboards stating 'Le monde est à vous' ('the world is yours') seem to mock them. This sense of exclusion is captured neatly by Saïd who observes at one point, 'nous sommes enfermés dehors' ('we are locked out').

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks this observation seems particularly pertinent. In the many hours of French media coverage since the attack, French public intellectuals have ruminated over the challenge France now faces as it maintains commitments to liberty and solidarity, but also to security. 

Some of these themes are neatly captured in a media clip airing on all French free-to-air television stations commemorating the victims of the events of 6 January and to emphasise the importance of unity. This clip builds on the 'Je Suis Charlie' meme but adds names which represent the diverse groups — religious, cultural and ethnic — of France's contemporary population. It concludes with the words 'Bien differents. Bien ensemble'.

This tribute is moving at one level. But it is also deceptively simple.

It seems to gloss too easily over the political alienation of those whose lives are shaped by discrimination and inequality. And it seems to ignore how this violence might be explained as a form of resistance against forms of French republican authority experienced by many in France. It may seem strange that a self-declared 'anti-establishment' outfit like Charlie Hebdo would be viewed as synonymous with regularised systems of state authority and somehow become the target of resistance-oriented violence. But for some parts of the French population, the work of Charlie Hebdo is undoubtedly seen as simply one more place where they are diminished and belittled, emulating a pattern that is felt to be well rehearsed by other parts of French state authority.

My contention here is that this attack has its origins in the experience of marginalisation and inequality that is the lot of French immigrants and their descendants.

We too easily efface those motivations if we understand it only as an expression of Islamic radicalisation. Likewise, well-meaning slogans about the benefits of unity in the aftermath of this violence will do little to heal the wounds borne by the generations of citizens who became French as result of their forefathers' migration but live in circumstances characterised by profound exclusion.

So many times in the last two weeks, the French commentariat has reflected with puzzlement on the fact that in some schools, students refused to take part in the national commemorative minutes of silence for the Charlie Hebdo victims.

It may be 20 years since La Haine debuted in France but in this film's poignant depiction of the constrained opportunities of the French banlieue there is an answer to this puzzle. It is a work which remains as relevant today as it ever was. Many have been inspired by the sombre message of unity encapsulated in the 'Je Suis Charlie' protests. But others, indeed Kassovitz himself, have expressed discomfort with this movement even while taking part. It is an appeal masking much that deserves critical attention in French society.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user cwangdom.

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