For many years our family had a house in southern France on the edge of the marshes of the Camargue, not far from the beautiful city of Montpellier. When we first arrived it seemed lost in time. It was bull fighting, sea fishing, farming country with hot summers, cold winters and the treacherous mistral wind — la France profonde.
Then the government rapidly developed the beautiful coast for mass tourism and a lot of building went on everywhere. But our village remained much the same, with a bull ring and a church in the main square full of plane trees, a few cafes, a smart pharmacy and not much else. For years we were the only foreigners and while nobody paid us much attention, everyone was pleasant enough. By the end we were on friendly terms with quite a few people.
I say by the end, because we left. We sold the house a few years ago because the atmosphere of the village had gone sour. There was something almost frightening in the air. It is strange to me that people have been so surprised by the past few weeks of burning and rioting in French cities, including Montpellier. It has been obvious for at least 10 years, even to a foreign visitor, that something was badly wrong.
The first sign I noticed, one Easter, was the arrival of a lot of new people, north Africans to judge from their appearance, who seemed to spend most of the time hanging around in the streets looking lost and forlorn. That was not surprising; unemployment in France was about 14% at that time and much higher round there.
What surprised us was the animosity that people in the village felt for the Arabs, as they called them when they didn’t use worse words. Nobody talked to them or played with their children. I think ours were the only children in the main square who did. In every shop there would be angry mutterings among indigenous people about them and us — how they were parasites, thieves and ignorant; they wouldn’t even have their children inoculated. You had to lock your doors. And there were so many of them.
Whatever righteous attitudes we tried to strike, we too became angry when our house was burgled. We had to start locking our door and our car wheels were slashed. Worst of all the benign neglect we had enjoyed for so long — nobody can accuse the French of being excessively welcoming even to white foreigners — changed subtly into something faintly unfriendly. It was as if the locals were suddenly sick of all foreigners, inoculated or not, of the changes they bring and the threats they represent to a nation undergoing a crisis of confidence. Then we began to hear of attacks on local synagogues, usually downplayed. Finally a synagogue in Montpellier was firebombed. We were glad to be out of there.
There is nothing new about the rage and resentment that have set France alight. Our part of France had been Le Pen country for years. La Haine, the celebrated film about a French ghetto just like those which have been ablaze for days, was made in 1995, 10 years ago. So it is odd that it has taken the French so long to wake up to the alarming failure of their much vaunted un-Anglo-Saxon society to accommodate its Muslims.
Perhaps it is unfair to single out the French. The multicultural social model has not worked either and all European countries have been unforgivably slow on the uptake. The riots have spread to Denmark, Belgium and Holland; we have already had riots in England and bombings in Madrid and London.
It is perhaps pointless to look back at the shamefully irresponsible immigration policies that have brought so many European countries to this explosive point. It is pointless to wonder how anyone in authority could have imagined that it would be a good idea to dump enormous numbers of poorly educated Third World immigrants from different societies into unprepared and unwilling, sometimes racist, European host cultures, into hellish high-rise suburbs from Seville to Rotterdam, in numbers so huge that integration became ever more unlikely and ghettos more inevitable. It is done now.
However, we might at least recognise the problem. As usual a great many people are deliberately avoiding it, in particular by editing the word Muslim out of their debates, as if Islam had nothing to do with the dangerous mood sweeping Europe. Poverty and rejection have played a significant part, but there is an unmistakable sense in which the riots are Muslim, consciously so.
Muslims vary and their beliefs vary. But the response of some Muslims to frustration — whether or not the fault of westerners — has been to retreat into more extreme forms of Islam and into the arms of fundamentalists. Yet although we know this, and despite the Salman Rushdie affair, despite the bombs and assassinations that led up to 9/11, despite the recent atrocities, we seem unwilling to recognise that what this can mean is deliberate separatism — apartheid.
Islam in the European ghetto can mean an unwillingness to integrate at all, a desire to practise the faith with as little interference from the geographical host country as possible. An internal security agency in France reported in 2004 that there were 300 communities across the country — roughly the number that rioted — which were “in retreat”, meaning communities marked by fundamentalism, anti-semitism and violence, coupled with hatred of France and the West. It is hardly surprising that there were effective no-go areas normally avoided by police in some of the French riot areas.
Even when Islamism does not aim at anything so extreme as striving for an Islamic caliphate in Europe, it can mean trying to impose Islamic practice and law. According to Amir Taheri, the Muslim writer, some French Muslims are calling for local religious autonomy, as in the Ottoman empire, and it already exists in some parts of France where radicals have imposed Islamic dress, chased away French shopkeepers selling alcohol and pork and shut down “places of sin” such as cinemas.
Even more startlingly, in Canada this year the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice proposed that sharia should take precedence over Canadian law in civil disputes between Muslims. There are sharia courts and councils operating informally in Britain. If Europeans lack the conviction to stand against apartheid and for integration, perhaps before long there will be one in our old village in France.