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In Attack's Wake, France Grapples With What It Means To Be French

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People light candles in Marseille as they pay tribute to the victims of the attacks in Nov. 13 Paris.

On Friday, more than 120 people were killed in a series of six coordinated attacks in Paris. Elaine Sciolino, an American journalist who has lived in the city since 2002, says the attacks highlight growing tensions in France concerning immigration and assimilation.

"In France you have this idealistic notion of what it means to be French," Sciolino explains to Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It's an idealization of the secular republican ideal that doesn't recognize difference."

Sciolino adds: "France is so attached to this republican ideal that over a decade ago, it passed a law forbidding what is called 'ostensible signs of religion.'"

Included in this law was a ban on Muslim girls wearing headscarves in school.

"Every person who carries a French passport is to look and feel and act as if he or she is French in a very uniform kind of way," Sciolino explains, but "those with an Arab-sounding last name or a Muslim-sounding last name are stigmatized."

Sciolino is the former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times. She is the author of The Only Street in Paris, a nonfiction work about the Rue des Martyrs, a vibrant commercial street that stretches from the city's 18th arrondissement into the 9th arrondissement.

Interview Highlights

On why she's not surprised that Paris was attacked by ISIS

Paris is a huge target for all sorts of reasons. First, it is home to the largest Muslim population and the largest Jewish population of any country in Europe. It has been very forward-leaning in terms of using military to attack Islamic extremists in Iraq, now in Syria, before that in Mali. It has a huge number of radical Muslims living in the country. These are radical French people. We have to remember that there are two, and sometimes three, generations of ethnic Arabs, Muslims, sub-Saharan Africans who follow Islam living in Paris, in France and in Paris. Most of them are peaceful, but at a time when you've got very high unemployment, generally, in France, and, in the troubled suburbs where many of the immigrant communities reside, up to 40 percent, sometimes even 50 percent, unemployment, it is a fertile breeding ground for extremism, especially among the young. Also, physically it is very easy to get from France to Syria. You just go to the edge of Paris, and you take a bus to Istanbul and then cross over land into Syria, so it's like kind of like summer camp for terrorism training.

On France's official policy of secularism

If there is a national religion in France it's laïcité, or secularism. ... France is so attached to this republican ideal that over a decade ago, it passed a law forbidding what is called "ostensible signs of religion."

It was basically aimed at Muslims, and it was basically aimed at girls who were wearing headscarves. It caused a complete disruption in the schools. I wrote about it at the time. There were young girls who shaved their heads so that they wouldn't be showing their hair. There was a young girl who started wearing wide bandanas to class, and one of the law-makers said, "We have to have a bandana ban."

It's gotten even worse in recent years, because a few years ago France passed a ban on wearing the full facial coverage by Muslim women in public space, and it was perceived as an anti-Islam move. Where if the French had been more clever they could've just said, "Look, anyone who covers his or her face in public, whether it's with a motorcycle helmet or a ski mask or a facial mask is breaking the law. We have to do this for security reasons; we have to be able to see the faces of people in public space, whether it's a bank or a post office or a governmental building." But Islam has been stigmatized and that is what is so dangerous and troubling.

On anti-Muslim, far right politicians in France

The far right has won in local elections in some small but crucial cities in the south of France. There are some absurd manifestations of some of the things they want to do and have done. For example, some of these mayors have said there are too many kebab shops in France, because kebabs, which are Turkish not even North African Muslim, are not French, so we need to put back our boulangeries and our little French cafes and ban kebab shops from expanding.

Recently there's been a controversy because some of the far right political leaders have called for forcible serving of pork in all public schools. Muslim and Jewish students cannot eat pork. So they're being told, "If you don't want to adhere to our secular republican ideal and what is part of the French cuisine, go to your own private schools."

These attacks were a gift to the far right, wrapped up in a bow before Christmas. This feeds perfectly into the French fear that there's no security on our borders, that immigrants are the enemy, that there aren't enough jobs for "normal" French people so that we have to prevent the other, the alien, the foreigner, from invading our country.

On how this attack in Paris could bring about an end to Europe's system of open borders

Migrants from Syria don't want to settle in France. France has never been very welcoming to this kind of refugee, even though France is the country of "Liberté, égalité, fraternité," liberty, equality, fraternity. There are several hundred, maybe thousands of immigrants stuck in northern France in these horrible sorts of makeshift centers and even camping out in woods trying to escape France, flee France, and somehow make it across the English Channel into Britain.

So that in France, the system, the policy is in movement, in flux. It hasn't been like the policy in Germany, where Angela Merkel, the chancellor, has been willing to take so many of these refugees. It think it's going to get worse in the next few months because there's going to be a desire, in many European countries you already have seen it — to close the borders, [which] means closing the open borders that have existed for some time among European Union countries, sort of like if you look at the European Union as one United States of Europe so that you can cross from one state or one country into another without even having to show your passport. There is a call, especially by the far right, to close the borders, to reinstate passport controls, serious security checks, and to eliminate this open border system.

On reports that people were shouting, "Death to Jews", during a gathering at the Place de la Republique after Friday's attacks

The question of anti-Semitism in France is extremely complicated, and I can't say whether there is an increase. What I said is that there's a different manifestation of it that is ugly and evil. But what your listeners need to know is that if you're on the streets of Paris and you say, "Death to Jews," that's a crime punishable by prosecution. It is a hate crime, and hate crimes are punished mercilessly in France. If you are a Holocaust denier in France, that's a hate crime. You can be prosecuted for that.

Copyright 2015 Fresh Air. To see more, visit

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