Sarkozy’s TV bigotry is not atypical
When a recent French president appears on a TV discussion program trying to justify the use of racist vernacular, it is clear that the country has a very serious problem with institutionalized bigotry.
The increasingly shambolic Nicolas Sarkozy thought nothing of uttering the worst racial slurs in relation to black people on TMC, a mainstream channel owned by TF1, France’s most powerful national broadcaster.
The gist of the 65-year-old’s argument this month was that a liberal elite is preventing people using racist insults — a frequent complaint by rabble-rousers intent on stirring up ill feeling against minority communities.
The sacred myths of “free speech” and “the right to offend” are evoked, despite France’s nominally strict legislation aimed at preventing discriminatory discourse.
When it comes to terminology that is technically outlawed, when pillorying people from African or Muslim backgrounds (or both), then offenders are usually given a pass. Hence Charlie Hebdo magazine was allowed to publish a cartoon of former Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who is black, as a monkey, for example.
Such caricatures represent nothing but blunt, lowest common denominator racism, yet they remain startlingly popular in a country that once ran a vast colonial empire.
Charlie Hebdo’s ongoing demonizing of Muslims infamously led to a series of vile terrorist murders of magazine staff in 2015 — killings that are currently the subject of a court process. The gunmen responsible for the outrages were themselves shot and killed, but alleged co-conspirators are being tried in Paris for providing logistics, including weapons, in support of the evil crimes.
Meanwhile, Charlie Hebdo continues to print hateful material from a secret, heavily guarded headquarters, with the full support of the French security state — a fact that makes a mockery of Sarkozy’s argument.
The truth is that the country’s self-styled secular establishment is full of bigots who relish the chance to reduce ethnic minority communities perceived as “alien” to ridicule and humiliation.
The diminutive Sarkozy was notoriously reactionary during his period as president and, before that, interior minister, when he referred to dark-skinned suburban youths as “scum,” whom he would wash away with a “Karcher,” the brand name for a high-powered hose.
He also introduced a sulfuric national identity debate, allowing right-wing supporters to vent their views about “French values, patriotism and minorities,” using the kind of terms that spread prejudice in the coarsest manner possible, including on an official government website and in town halls.
Beyond simple viciousness, the main reason for this was because Sarkozy was chasing voters of the National Front, the far-right party that is now known as the National Rally. They also epitomize the way in which a vast number of the French veer toward racist thought and expression, to the extent that they do not bother hiding it.
As well as Jean-Marie Le Pen, the convicted racist and Holocaust denier who founded the party, there are thousands of party members, and indeed millions of voters, who despise anyone who might have a link to foreign countries that allegedly threaten what they loosely define as French culture.
It is Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, who now leads the dynastic party, and she came second in the last presidential election to Emmanuel Macron, despite her own association with extremism.
The Le Pen electoral base is certainly one that Sarkozy attempted to woo during his single term of office, and there is no doubt that Macron is trying to do the same thing.
His new Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin is another stocky character who is every bit as hyperactively aggressive as Sarkozy. Groups Darmanin has infuriated include feminists, because of a series of allegations about sexual impropriety. Many feel that the threat of court action over complaints he is vehemently fighting have made him more brutal in his approach to law and order.
The ferociously right-wing Darmanin used to be a member of Sarkozy’s The Republicans party and revels in his hard-man image. Like his former mentor, he is particularly antipathetic toward overt expressions of Islamic faith — an issue that affects some 5 million Muslims living in France.
Darmanin will now play a key part in formulating a new law combating what Macron has described as “separatism” — the stigmatizing propaganda that minority communities, and especially Muslims, are not integrated enough.
When pillorying people from African or Muslim backgrounds (or both), offenders are usually given a pass.
If this sounds chillingly like Sarkozy’s warning that Islam is somehow incompatible with Republican values and that everything must be done to fight the so-called “tyranny of minorities,” then it is meant to.
Like Darmanin, Sarkozy has serious legal troubles to worry about — next month, he will become the first former head of state to be tried for alleged crimes carried out while he was in office. They include bribing a judge and trying to illegally influence a fraud enquiry, with Sarkozy facing up to 10 years in prison if found guilty.
Sarkozy is also actively being investigated for a range of other grave offenses, not least of all accepting millions in dirty money from the late Libyan dictator Col. Muammar Qaddafi. Despite the torrent of litigation, Sarkozy insists he is innocent of all accusations.
Given these charges, it might be appropriate for the fast-falling conservative to now reserve his statements for the dock, but, typically in France, it always appears a good time to insult and bait minorities.
- Nabila Ramdani is a multi-award-winning French-Algerian journalist, columnist and broadcaster who specializes in French politics, Islamic affairs and the Arab world. Twitter: @NabilaRamdani