Making Europe White… Again

French police officers citing a woman wearing a Burqini on a French beach. Image Credit: Bestimage via NYTimes.
French police officers citing a woman wearing a Burqini on a French beach. Image Credit: Bestimage via NYTimes.

Zygmunt Bauman, the renowned Polish sociologist, calls them the emergent precariat. Shaken by the false promises of global neoliberal capitalism, the emergent precariat is a significant class of white Europeans living in constant fear of losing their positions of privilege. Their lives are characterized by a sense that they are in a constant state of crisis – the death of multiculturalism, the moral panic about terrorism, the collapse of the European Union and continued European economic paralysis. The global crisis of 2008, in particular, rapidly expanded and intensified their anxieties. Stalked by these, and material precarity, refugees and migrants have become the embodiment of their greatest fears – a change in a nation’s color and the real specter of economic meltdown in Europe.

Against this growing “influx” and increasing visibility of non-Europeans, right-wing populist politicians, aided by the moral panic induced by mainstream western media, appear to be urgently summoning the emergent precariat to defend their “ancestral lands” against threatening “hordes” of migrants. The words of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy to “bring back authority and defend the French Republic,” (to kick start a failed second presidential bid), are eerily similar to those as say President-elect Donald Trump’s to “make America great again,” and as geographically proximate as Geert Wilders of the Netherlands who summons the Dutch to make the Netherlands Ours Again.” Indeed, much of this rhetoric is about the restoration of economic nationalism and a purported disdain for the nefarious political elites in Brussels and Washington.

But there is something more sinister at work. The true power of this ideological production is not dictated by what is really said but rather by what is omitted. Both in Europe and the United States, there is a nostalgia for when Europe and the U.S. were whiter – a supposed return to former glory and greatness – and an accompanying fear that particular migrants are rapidly diluting the whiteness of their countries. Central to this rhetoric, is a coded racial grammar directed largely at Arab and or Muslim and Black Africans. By using the phrases “ours” and “bring back,” while simultaneously omitting any references to race, they are tacitly signaling the idea that Europe excludes those historically categorized as non-European; those that are not white. In the case of America, making it “great again” is a direct reference to eight years of leadership under a black president, whose birthplace was relentlessly questioned by Trump.

These leaders are communicating that even if you are indeed here, you don’t really or fully belong. Your sojourn is temporary, you may even be “born in, but [are] not of [this] society” as critical theorist David Theo Goldberg reminds us. Sarkozy, in a speech to launch his re-entry into French politics indicated precisely this: “Being French means having a language, a history, and a way of life in common.” And in specific reference to public contentions about the burqini (the bathing suit worn by many Muslim women): “People cannot say ‘I want to be French, but in my own way’.” Here we see rhetorical strategies that continue to support “national fantasies” and reinforce the characterization of migrant populations as deeply suspect and potentially disloyal; this manifest in their apparent unwillingness to integrate as prescribed by French authorities. Sarkozy went on to note: “Wearing a burqini is a radical, political gesture, a provocation…  the women who are choosing to wear it are testing the resilience of the Republic.”

Crucially, this kind of rhetoric invokes violent cultural induction, internal boundary making and the expansion of illegality. Earlier this year, we saw French Muslim women interrogated by French police for wearing burqinis on the beach. In the pursuit of apparently sustaining secularism, French authorities remain steadfastly opposed to veiling, to the point of dramatically curtailing otherwise benign liberties of self-expression. In Germany, Frauke Petry, the leader of the AfD – Germany’s Far Right party – in April of this year demanded that headscarves be banned in schools and universities and minarets prohibited. Succumbing to this pressure, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Interior Minister called for a partial ban on burkas in a range of public contexts, noting that it would apply in “places where it is necessary for our societies to coexistence.”

But what is really at play here? When asked by French broadcast media about the burqini, Marine Le Pen of the French National Front party said: “The burqini is a symptom. One of the multiple symptoms of the rise of fundamentalist Islam in France for many years… it is about demands that are designed to say ‘We Muslims, though not all are in agreement with this, we want to eat differently, we want to live differently, and we want to dress differently’.”

Differently from whom precisely? Therein lies the revealing point of departure for Le Pen. Women in burqinis – “consenting victims” as she calls them – represent an affront to whiteness, white aesthetic comforts and more generally mainstream western culture. It is this that Muslims want to be different from. And in western societies structured by racism, the state and the politically powerful engage in disciplining immigrant difference and mobility into commensurable citizens and commodifiable cultures”; cultures which are innocuously referred to as “authentically” French or German.

Worryingly, these racist discourses serve to legitimate increasingly stringent immigration controls and mechanisms of refugee incorporation. In the current European migration policy regime, migrant’s integration is seen as precondition for achieving formal rights of residence and finally citizenship: formal tests for citizenship were practices in six countries in 1998 rising to nineteen by 2010. However, this testing – and other forms of control – are not only practiced at entry, but consistently after supposed “inclusion.” In Germany for instance, a new Integration Law gives the state power to determine where refugees can live – either by allocating or banning them from certain areas; this will supposedly “avoid the emergence of social hotspots.”

The effects are in fact to place people under a glare of general suspicion until they prove otherwise. Migrants are in turn deprived of the self-evident fundamental right of the freedom to choose where they live. Thus institutionalizing the “exclusionary incorporation” of migrants; the relative lack of educational and employment opportunities, the residential segregation, the public media denigrations, the police profiling, the public humiliations etc. This ensures that they remain second-class citizens and on the margins of the economy, despite being granted citizenship or asylum.

Helidah Didi Ogude

Helidah Ogude, originally from South Africa, is a PhD candidate in public policy at The New School in New York.

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