Is a ‘French Patriot Act’ the answer to divisions in society?

Known for its slogan of “Liberty, equality and fraternity,” France seems to be facing a new challenge

Rajia Aboulkheir
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Known for its slogan of “Liberty, equality and fraternity,” France seems to be facing a new challenge in meeting some of its Republican values after its prime minister said this week that the country is facing “apartheid.”

“These last few days have underscored a lot of evil that is gnawing at our country and challenges we must be equal to,” Manuel Valls told reporters.

“We have to look at all the divisions, the tensions that have been going on for years ... the neglect of the suburbs, the ghettos, the social misery,” he said. “A geographical, social and ethnic apartheid has established itself in our country.”

The comments came following the recent attacks on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that left 12 people killed in the deadliest incident in France in decades.

Valls’ statements created shock waves in France with many political figures saying he used inappropriate terminology.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy denounced Valls’ comment as “a mistake,” adding that the PM had ended the “national unity” that had prevailed between the Socialist government and the conservative opposition since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

For his part, French politician Bruno Le Maire said the use of the term “apartheid” was an “insult to the Republic.”

Some analysts, however, seemed to be more receptive of Valls’ statements.

French politician Marc Frayse noted that Valls may have used “the strong” term because he knew “it would create controversy” and “draw more attention to the issue at hand.

“Yes, definitely there is a real apartheid in France. Valls’ statement may have shocked many in France and abroad but it is clear that there are two Frances and that we are not all equal in this country,” Frayse told Al Arabiya News.

In a recent survey conducted by French daily Le Figaro, 52 percent of respondents agreed with Valls’ use of the world “apartheid.”

Frayse explained his view on the economic aspect of the radicalization of Muslims, saying lower-income Muslims – usually found in immigrant communities – would be marginalized due to their economic status. This in turn could lead those disenfranchised Muslims to turn away from the values of the French Republic and from society at large.

“On the one side we have Muslims who are well integrated in the society and feel they are French and others who live in deprived areas, known as ghettos, that mostly end up becoming radical Muslims,” he said.

The poorer neighborhoods in French cities are home to many low-income immigrant families, largely from North Africa, who face social exclusion and high unemployment rates.

Frayse said the attacks encouraged the government to realize that the Republican values supposedly upheld by French society are “only fictional.”

Patriot act

To combat the supposed marginalization of lower-income Muslims - which could lead to them being radicalized - French journalist Didier Maisto said that France needs its own version of America’s Patriot act, which gave the U.S. more authority to collect intelligence and pointed America’s surveillance apparatus towards its own citizens.

“We need a Patriot Act a la Francaise in which the French government would be tougher and more strict,” Maisto said.

“If passed, French people will likely object saying that the anti-terror legislation comes at the expense of civil liberties,” he said.

The Patriot Act remains controversial in the U.S. nearly 14 years after being signed into effect and similar enforcements could draw even harsher criticism in France.

Dominique de Villepin, the former French prime minister, warned in an article published in French daily Le Monde against the possible move.

“The spiral of suspicion created in the United States by the Patriot Act and the enduring legitimization of torture or illegal detention has today caused that country to lose its moral compass.”

In another development, French political analyst Christian Gambotti proposed that the government take “deep” measures to combat segregation and “focus on tackling youth unemployment and discrimination.

“Any measure the French government will take is likely to be expensive and take too long to bear fruit.”

He added that France should pay attention to the manner in which it spreads its Republican values.

So far, Valls has fallen short of offering specific measures which will be used to curb the so-called state of “apartheid,” but pledged to fight inequality in deprived areas on the outskirts of French cities.

For her part, Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, herself of Moroccan origin, presented a set of measures to promote secular values and “strengthen the sense of belonging to the Republic” in schools.

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