There is a "French Question" question today about identity that the French have in common with the Germans and British: What does it mean to be French?
Two recent controversies illustrate the way the question of French identity has become a topic of public interest.
The first is connected to the commemoration of the centenary of the Battle of Verdun (in the First World War); the second is connected to France's national soccer team.
Verdun, in 2016, remains the symbol of a bygone era, when European countries were fighting one another. In Verdun, more than 700,000 French and German soldiers were killed. Today, for the Germans and the French, Verdun has become the symbol of reconciliation between two nations and a justification for constructing a new political area, the European Union.
The basic reason for setting up the EU was to have no more wars among Europeans. This special 2016 commemoration of the Battle of Verdun was also a political message to Great Britain: Europe needs you, stay with us, do not "Brexit" (Britain exiting the EU).
But the French government, less than one year away from a presidential election, added a third message to this commemoration: The socialist president, François Hollande, dreamed of closing this day of silence, remembrance and speeches for peace with a huge party for the young. At the end of the centenary, the rap singer Black M (M for "Mesrine", a famous outlaw of the eighties) was supposed to brighten the podium at Verdun.
As soon as the presence of Black M was known, disturbing information surfaced in the social media networks: especially "right wing" ones. Black M is certainly a "people's artist," popular among the young, especially in the suburbs -- but he sings with a French rap group, Sexion d'Assaut, whose name is almost exactly the same as the French translation ("Section d'Assaut") of Sturmabteilung, Hitler's pre-1934 Nazi militia (better known as "the SA").
In one song, Sorry, Black M calls France a nation of "kuffars," a pejorative Arabic term for "unbelievers and infidels." In another song, It Humbled, Black M sings: "I think it's high time the fags died. Cut off their d**ks." In yet another song, Black M tells the young people to "get a Smith and Wesson" and "shoot the school." And in a very recent song, Black M sings about "the Yids who have a lot of fun going shopping."
The choice of Black M to perform at the Verdun commemoration sparked a controversy. Marine Le Pen, Leader of the Front National (FN), the populist anti-mass-migration party, declared that Black M "has no place in an official commemoration of a battle in which so many French families have been wounded."
Florian Philippot, a vice president on the FN and an advisor to Le Pen, said the choice of the rap singer was like "spitting on a war memorial."
Many people from the "left" were also uneasy with the choice of Black M. Elisabeth Levy, the editor of the news magazine, Causeur, said, "This idea of inviting Black M to Verdun was shocking far beyond the right and the extreme right: all my friends from the left are against it. They think the idea is totally insane."
In a classic scenario, the political "left" has counterattacked by denouncing the "racism" of the "far right" party. The association SOS Racisme wrote: "In this controversy, yesterday the danger was in black. Tomorrow it will be Arabic. The day after tomorrow it will be a Muslim, and in one of the following days, a Roma."
The mayor of Verdun defended himself by saying that the choice of Black M had been imposed by "the state" and that everybody understood that it had been the choice of the president himself.
The final blow for the concert came fast: the French state commission for centennial commemorations decided not to pay its share of €67,000 out of a total budget for the concert of €150,000.
The following day, the city announced that the concert had been cancelled. The mayor blamed "racism" and "hate."
Minister of Culture Audrey Azoulay denounced the move: "An unbridled voice, in the name of a nauseating and uninhibited moral order, caused the cancellation of a concert."
Immediately after the Verdun Controversy, the Benzema controversy erupted. At the end of May, it became official that Karim Benzema, a French soccer star of Algerian descent, would not be part of the national soccer team in the UEFA Euro 2016 championship. For most of the population in France, the reason for this exclusion lies in a sex-tape extortion scandal in which Benzema is apparently involved, targeting his colleague, Mathieu Valbuena. But on May 26, Eric Cantona, the former star of the Manchester United soccer team, in an interview with The Guardian, accused the French team's coach, Didier Deschamps, of having "left out French players on racial grounds."
"Benzema is a great player. Ben Arfa is a great player. But Deschamps, he has a really French name. Maybe he is the only one in France to have a truly French name. Nobody in his family mixed with anybody, you know. Like the Mormons in America.
"So I'm not surprised he [Deschamps] used the situation of Benzema not to take him. Especially after Valls [France's Prime Minister] said he should not play for France. And Ben Arfa is maybe the best player in France today. But they have the same origin. I am allowed to think about that."
The interviewer from The Guardian repeated the question. Was Cantona "really suggesting that Deschamps had been guilty of discriminating against Benzema?"
"Maybe no, but maybe yes. Why not? One thing is for sure -- Benzema and Ben Arfa are two of the best players in France and will not play in the European Championship. And for sure Benzema and Ben Arfa are of north African origin. So, the debate is open."
A lawyer for Deschamps said he would sue Cantona for his comments.
On May 30, Jamel Debbouze, a very popular comedian and humorist, wrote in France Football,
"Two important guests are missing. How can we not include these two extraordinary soccer players?... These boys [Benzema and Ben Arfa] represent so much, especially in the suburbs. It is so disappointing having no representatives 'of ours' in France's soccer team...."
By "ours," Debbouze means the Arab and Muslim youths of the suburbs.
Benzema himself rushed through the open door. On June 1, he declared, in the Spanish sports newspaper Marca, that he did not believe Deschamps is a racist, but that France's coach had "bowed to the pressure of a racist part of France." Benzema added that the political arena in France, where the anti-immigrant Front National has been gaining ground during the past five years, played against him.
This controversy targeted French audiences, but reverberated throughout Europe. British and Spanish newspapers were involved -- both countries that have large Muslim communities and where soccer is popular.
In France, a poll published on June 6 by Le Parisien revealed that 95% of the population think that Benzema was not included in France's national team because of his "personal behavior." Only 4% think his absence was due to "his [ethnic] origins." The mere 1% expressing "no opinion" signifies the public importance of soccer in France. When it is question of soccer, everybody is concerned.
Two recent controversies, one involving the French rap singer Black M (left) and the other involving French soccer star Karim Benzema (right), illustrate the way the question of French identity has become a topic of public interest.
Much may be inferred from these controversies.
Issues relating to ethnic Arabs and Islam situation are now daily controversies in France.
Criticism of Islam, usually brought by white, "far right" French people, is certainly taboo. But hate speech against "kuffars" is also a public issue, brought by many French Muslims who often, it seems, introduce themselves as permanent "victims." Black M and Benzema are examples of Arabs or Muslims who do not want to be judged on their individual acts (anti-French and homophobic songs, for Black M) or illegal behavior (the sex-tape extortion scandal, for Benzema), but only on the grounds of the minority group to which they belong. And because many regard their ethnic groups as permanent victims, they may well see themselves as belonging to a community of victims, to be exonerated from individual responsibility for whatever they say or do.
A large part of the "left" apparently thinks the same way.
A large part of the youths from the suburbs, most of whom are from Arab or African descent, seem to be divorced from the traditional perception of what it means to be French in France. Like Black M or Benzema, many, it seems, do not want to be part of France as individuals, but as members of a group that, they claim, is always discriminated against: Arabs or Muslims. In a certain way, a silent secession is taking place in France -- an ethnic and religious secession.
The polls reveal a growing fear of Islam in France. And the more the anti-Islamist sentiment grows among the non-Muslims, the more French Muslims feel victimized and discriminated against. Black M might possibly not even think that in his songs he is spreading "hate speech." He appears instead to think that he has been the victim of native French "hate speech."
There is a new division in French politics: a struggle between so-called racists and antiracists is replacing the traditional contest between right and left.
What good can come from this situation? We shall find out.
Yves Mamou, based in France, worked for two decades as a journalist for Le Monde.