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Politics

French historian says alienated immigrants at risk

Emmanuel Todd

PARIS -- A month has passed since the deadly terrorist attack on the Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and related killings in nearby suburbs.

     In an interview with The Nikkei, prominent French historian and demographer Emmanuel Todd said alienated immigrants tend to be more at risk of becoming terrorists. He also said it is difficult to maintain a good balance between freedom of expression and respect for other religions.

     The interview was conducted in French and translated into English via Japanese.

Q: After the deadly shootings at Charlie Hebdo in early January, many French citizens showed their solidarity against terrorism by adopting the slogan "I am Charlie." What is your opinion about that phenomenon?

A: I am significantly out of sync with the majority of my fellow citizens over this issue. I rather suspect that the "I am Charlie" campaign is the realization of something disturbingly unreasonable.

     The French tend to tolerate any kind of offensive humor as long as the target is not an individual. However, I have detested the satirical drawings published by Charlie Hebdo since before the shootings. I cannot tolerate making martyrs of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks -- the people who published obscene cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

Q: What has the attack taught you?

A: I have been closely watching what middle-class citizens are thinking and doing. A total of 4 million people joined anti-terrorist rallies across the country. According to a research institute, many of them were middle-class citizens. On the other hand, it has been found that younger people living in the suburbs (mainly immigrants and their descendants) and many working-class people that often support the far-right National Front party did not participate in them.

     Based on this data, I have concluded that those rallies were not a display of national solidarity. They were just gatherings of middle-class citizens who assumed they were the center of the world. As a historian, I am alarmed by this, because stability of the social system depends largely on the middle class, not immigrants and the working-class population.

Q: How should the French people treat Muslim immigrants?

A: Young wealthy people with superior educational backgrounds can afford to move to Australia or Canada. However, immigrants and their children are often too poor to receive sufficient education. Many don't have jobs due to the ongoing economic crisis. Young people, frustrated with this situation, may head for emerging countries, some of them joining the radical Islamic State group.

     The emergence of this phenomenon in the suburbs of major French cities is an expression of the crises facing Western Europe. Islamic youth living in suburban France are just like any other French people born in the Western world.

      Their inability to improve their prospects is one of the factors driving their sense of alienation. I think citizens of Western Europe are turning a blind eye to their own problems and looking for some kind of scapegoat [for their problems].

     French troops are bombing (members of Islamic State group in) Iraq and helping Syrian rebels in their fight against the regime of President Bashar Assad. France has also launched a military intervention in the African country of Mali. It is not rational for French people to assume that the [Charlie Hebdo] attack came out of the blue.

Q: How can we maintain a good balance between freedom of expression and respect for others' religions?

A: In France, it is generally perceived that citizens are entitled to use expressions or commit acts that could be interpreted as blasphemy. However, that is not the case elsewhere. For example, it is an outrageous offense to set fire to a national flag in the U.S.

     Making sarcastic remarks about the religions of oneself and one's ancestors is one thing; insulting the religions of others is quite another.

     The Muslim faith has been something spiritual that jobless immigrants in the suburbs can fall back on. Being disrespectful to Islam is like humiliating the socially vulnerable, such as immigrants.

     France is a home to 4-5 million Muslims. Currently, the French economy is in a slump and society is on the verge of collapse. There are things the French people have to think hard about before drawing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

     No one would doubt that it is difficult to quickly settle matters involving freedom of expression and respect for religion. However, one thing is certain -- some topics are not fit for careless handling.

     Emmanuel Todd is a leading public intellectual and fellow at the National Institute of Demographic Studies in Paris. He is the author of such books as "The Final Fall: An Essay on the Decomposition of the Soviet Sphere," which predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, and "After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order," which noted the decline of the U.S.

Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Yasuo Takeuchi

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