JOHN GRAY: Harsh measures meted out against migrants contain sinister echoes from France’s past

When migrants attempt the hazardous journey by sea from France to Britain, they are not merely seeking a better standard of living.

They are fleeing to a country where they will not be exposed to the prejudice and mistreatment – sometimes brutal – that is their daily experience across the Channel.

Home Secretary Priti Patel is reported to have told colleagues that the migrants are coming here because they find France a racist country.

No doubt there will be those who point to cases when Britain, too, has behaved in a racist manner.

It is true that our record is hardly immaculate. The injustice suffered by the Windrush generation, for example, is a blot on our history.

French police detain a migrant during the dismantling of a shelter camp in Calais, France

But the Home Secretary’s claim should be taken seriously. French police treat migrants with a systematic inhumanity that would not be tolerated here.

And French racism, however shocking it might seem, is not at all new. Harsh measures meted out against migrants today contain sinister echoes from France’s past.

During the war for Algerian independence from 1954 to 1962, the French army used torture on a colossal scale.

Hundreds of thousands of Algerians – many of them civilians – were subjected to beatings, electric shocks and rape.

Old men, women and children were detained without trials or rights. Many people were abducted and disappeared forever.

France’s show of extreme brutality during the war in Algeria was not an isolated example. Rather it was consistent with a climate of abuse that existed throughout France’s African empire. Violence was an everyday occurrence.

Young men who were arrested were regularly assaulted. A common practice involved the police stamping on their feet so their toes were broken.

This might all seem a long time ago. But echoes of that racist chapter can be clearly heard in French politics today.

Take, for example, the continuing ambivalence towards France’s well-documented history of collaboration with its Nazi occupiers.

ONE of the worst episodes in 20th Century history occurred when French police organised the deportation of thousands of Jews – many of them, again, women and children – from an internment centre in Drancy, a North-Eastern suburb of Paris, to Nazi extermination camps.

The French authorities were active accomplices in this terrible crime.

Yet during the last presidential election in 2017 the far-Right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen shamefully denied any French responsibility for it, claiming the deportations were imposed on France by German occupying forces. It was a disgraceful stance.

Worse still, Le Pen was then supported by more than a third of French voters in the final run-off against Macron. The ugly yet unspoken fact is that French politics is riddled with racism.

No racist has achieved anything like this level of influence in Britain. Oswald Mosley never gained a seat in Parliament, and Enoch Powell was excluded from politics by his Conservative peers.

France has a long history of antisemitism. In 1894, at the start of what came to be known as the Dreyfus Affair, a French military officer of Jewish heritage was convicted of treason for allegedly passing on military secrets to Germany. 

Sentenced to life imprisonment, Captain Alfred Dreyfus served five years on Devil’s Island in French Guyana.

The French suppress protests in the Algerian fight for independence where torture was used

The French suppress protests in the Algerian fight for independence where torture was used

Evidence quickly emerged of his innocence, while documents that supposedly incriminated him were shown to be forgeries.

Yet, as a result of a prolonged antisemitic campaign, it was more than ten years later before he was finally exonerated in 1906.

In Benjamin Disraeli, Britain had a Jewish Prime Minister decades before the Dreyfus Affair divided French politics for a generation.

Disraeli became leader of the Conservative party and ruled the country twice, in 1868 and 1874 to 1880.

It is accepted as entirely normal here that members of ethnic minorities have become national leaders.

Rishi Sunak, who has spoken about being at the same time British, Indian and Hindu, is widely discussed as a future Prime Minister. A practising Muslim, Sadiq Khan, is Mayor of London.

How long will it be before members of France’s Muslim, African and Asian communities achieve a similar standing?

Today, we are constantly reminded of the evils and crimes of the British Empire. We are attacked for looking back with nostalgia to our period of imperial power – an accusation for which there is, in fact, very little evidence.

Anything that smacks of Britain asserting a global role is condemned as reverting to the bad old days of colonialism.

Yet when Emmanuel Macron intervened in a former French territory – as he did when he made a visit to Lebanon earlier this month and declared ‘France will never let Lebanon go’ – there was not a squeak of protest in France.

Macron’s visit was staged as a Napoleonic triumph. The entire Lebanese political elite filed past him in the French embassy.

Plenty of Lebanese found the spectacle of Macron being paraded as their saviour to be patronising and offensive.

Britain is certainly not perfect. But in any balanced comparison with France, we stand up pretty well – as the boatloads of desperate people now trying to cross the Channel know from personal experience.

Their plight is real. Effective and humane solutions must somehow be found.

Yet while France lectures the world on ‘liberté, egalité and fraternité’, it blanks out its racist past and heaps indignities upon the migrants who feel driven to escape.

John Gray is Emeritus Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics.