What has killed more people in France since 2000? Islamic terrorism or ‘la chasse’?
In recent weeks France has seen much publicity about la chasse (“the hunt”), after a young man of 25 years old was shot dead while chopping firewood near his house in Lot, in the country’s south-west, on 2 December. His killer caught sight of a “dark mass” and fired, thinking he would hit a wild boar. Instead, his over-eager trigger finger took the total of human deaths at the hands of chasseurs to 11 for 2020.
According to figures from the French National Office for Hunting and Wild Animals just after his death, more than 420 people have died at the hands of hunters so far this century. That office now no longer has an independent existence. Since the start of this year, the department has been merged into a new French Office for Biodiversity. The new title is just one of the ways in which President Emmanuel Macron has played to the gallery of the hunting community since being elected.
La chasse is big in France, and its followers are generally on the Right of the political spectrum and they assume that they can act as they like across the countryside. Visit the media presence created by friends of Morgan Keane, the December 2020 victim, to get a flavour of the anger this can stir up.
Walking out at night from our house in the pinewoods of Provence is not an option during much of the late summer and autumn when la chasse is at its height. A silent figure in camouflage fatigues with a rifle slung over his shoulder passed us noiselessly in the dark late one evening. The shots a few moments later took us quickly inside.
Playing to the gallery
Macron celebrated his first Christmas at Chambord, the Loire valley hunting castle of the 16th-century French king, François 1, while announcing that the licence fee for hunters would be halved and promising to restore the ritual of the “royal hunt” in the forests around the chateau.
It in no way excuses or minimises the deliberate horror inflicted by Islamist terrorists to note that they have killed fewer than 300 people since 1990, when they became a factor in modern French life. The overtly political nature of their mayhem places it in a different realm to that of the hunters whose killings become “accidents” rather than a challenge to the “French way of life”.
The terrorists’ actions have aggravated, though certainly not created, the atmosphere in which Islam has become a problem in France, rather than French discrimination against Muslims being a problem for Islam.
Playing to the gallery of the inheritance of anti-Muslim prejudice is something that successive presidents have sedulously engaged in since the Front National movement of Jean-Marie Le Pen began its rise in the 1980s. His daughter, Marine, now the leader of the movement under the name of Rassemblement National, has taken Islamophobic rhetoric to new heights. Politicians across the traditional Right and centre of French politics have trailed in her wake.
Higher education minister Frederique Vidal sent a St Valentine’s Day card to academia in a radio and TV interview just before the Parliament in Paris passed Macron’s law on “reinforcing republican principles”, a euphemism for making it harder for Muslims to follow the practices of their faith.
Vidal’s message picked up on an insult term increasingly bandied about in an attempt to pin on the Left an accusation that it is soft on Islamist violence: ‘Islamo-gauchisme’, literally Islamo-Leftism. In practice, the term is carefully never defined by those who use it. Vidal’s boss, education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has been using it for months.
Vidal’s point was that “Islamo-gauchisme is eating away at our society and universities are not immune.” France’s social sciences research body should prepare her a report on who was researching what when it came to racism, post-colonialism, etc, to get rid of “activism and opinion”. Though the university world exploded, she did not back down – which told us all that Macron was behind her move.
As with the hunters who really are prime patrons of biodiversity, things were turned on their head. Vidal declared that all she wants to do is “protect the pluralism of ideas in the university, deconstruct the idea that there should be a single approach on certain subjects.”
Bloodhounds of the Right
Vidal’s colleague, interior minister Gérald Darmanin found another enemy during the week. The Green mayor of Lyons, Grégory Doucet, ordered local schools to serve meals without meat. “A scandalous ideology … an unacceptable insult to French butchers,” Darmanin declared. Nothing of the sort, of course. Because of the COVID-19 epidemic rules, complex menus are unworkable in our schools, the municipality explained. In any case, Doucet’s predecessor had done the same a year earlier. And who were they? None other than Gérard Collomb, Macron’s first interior minister.
The atmosphere of hysteria, promoted by the bloodhounds of the Right, Darmanin and Blanquer, selected for that job by Macron, characterises much of French national politics.
This atmosphere of hysteria, promoted by the bloodhounds of the Right, Darmanin and Blanquer, selected for that job by Macron, characterises much of French national politics at the moment. It will get worse as Macron moves to make life harder for the Left, as he steals policies from the far Right in the run-up to the presidential poll, which is just 18 months away.
Macron is playing to, and so helping augment, a staged backlash against the past year’s outburst of public anger and activity over sexism and racism in France.
Down in Marseilles, other voices were to be heard. With a new Left and Green majority, ‘Marseilles’ Spring’ elected to the city council last summer and the previous mayor, Jean-Claude Gaudin, now under investigation for alleged corruption, a poignant ceremony took place on 21 February. At the spot where, 26 years earlier to the day, 17-year-old Ibrahim Ali had been shot in the back and killed by a Le Pen activist, his name was finally fixed to the wall, with the street renamed ‘Avenue Ibrahim-Ali’.
Renaming the road so that the crime would never be forgotten was a demand of his family and the anti-racist movement in the city for the whole quarter of a century that Gaudin ruled the roost in the city hall. The new majority alliance hopes that its demonstration of successful popular unity will both be an answer to racist prejudice and violence and to Macron’s manoeuvres.
Another anniversary was marked in Marseilles that weekend with the commemoration of the execution by a Nazi firing squad of the 23 members of the group of Resistance fighters led by Missak Manouchian on 21 February 1944. Ibrahim Ali came from the Comores Islands in the Indian Ocean. Missak Manouchian was from Armenia. Both died at the hands of racists in France.
At the Manouchian remembrance, a poem from the surrealist, later Communist, poet Paul Eluard was cited: “Si nous les oublions, leur combat est perdu” (If we forget them, their combat will be lost). Which is why, in the past fortnight, so many were so deeply angered by Vidal’s, sorry, Macron’s assault on those who try to unpick racism, to explore the scars left by colonial oppression and to analyse the workings of the discrimination and prejudice which still cause so much pain across France.
Live discussion: Peter Oborne and ‘The Assault on Truth’
Oborne’s new book covers “Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the emergence of a new moral barbarism”. Get the inside story on the state of the art of lying in politics and the media from three journalists who have seen it all.
Join us for this free event on 25 February at 5pm UK time/12pm EST.
David Leigh Journalist; former investigations editor, The Guardian
Peter Oborne Author and columnist; former chief political commentator of The Daily Telegraph
Chair, Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy