Cases of Mass Mistaken Identity

Jeremy Harding

‘Terrorism and immigration are not the same,’ an Afghan migrant in his thirties tells me. Self-evident facts need to be reiterated in a state of emergency. He’s married to a French person – no names at this point – and expecting a French passport shortly. He’s worried, like all migrants of Muslim origin, about the next step in the confrontation with Isis: migrants were regarded with suspicion long before last week’s attacks in Paris. He’s with friends, new arrivals from Kabul and Jalalabad, queuing in the drizzle outside the offices of a refugee support NGO, Terre d’Asile, in the 18th arrondissement. They have folders of documents to help them make asylum claims, but they’re confused, and so am I: procedures have changed since I last lent a hand with a claim.

The new system is supposed to be faster but it’s only recently in place and needs fine tuning. For the moment there are long waiting times – months – before the key meeting at the local prefecture, which will entitle a claimant to some form of lodging, assuming it’s available. Until then you must make do, and these young men, who don’t speak French (or English), are sleeping rough in a little park nearby. Their friend raises one finger at the sky without looking up. ‘You see the weather.’ He points to the line of asylum seekers: ‘Everyone here is from somewhere, they have a country. Terrorism has no nationality.’ All the named suspects so far are French or Belgian, I want to reply, but think better of it.

The head of Terre d’Asile is braced for new and fiercer cases of mass mistaken identity, in which irregular migrants and asylum seekers become indistinguishable from murderers, even though the suspects were European citizens not ‘sans papiers’. Speaking on the phone, he wouldn’t name political parties or individuals, but he’d already heard murmurings to the effect that France should have ‘its own Guantanamo’ and Schengen should be dismantled. What we the French hold dear, he said, including right of asylum, may soon be under attack from several quarters, but the rule of law (‘état de droit’) is among our key values, and our bulwark; without it the rest is impossible. The rest? ‘Boire, manger, aimer.’ It sounded frivolous and I knew instinctively not to reproduce it. But now, when I read these three words in my notebook, they strike me as a modest, serviceable résumé of the dead and injured on 13 November: lovers of music, lovers tout court, friends, drinkers, diners.

Later two Syrians escort me to the offices of Revivre, a small organisation housed in the town hall on Place Gambetta and founded in 2004 to rehabilitate the victims of Hafaz al Assad’s prisons. Since the exodus that began after Bashar’s repression in 2011, the main task has been to help new asylum seekers with their paperwork and find them somewhere to sleep, but even those with leave to remain are on edge, the duty officer explains: several have phoned in or come by to ask whether their status won’t be revoked. The problem, to their minds, is the fatuous smoking gun, the Syrian passport discovered near the Stade de France after the attacks. The duty officer assures them they’re protected by the law, no one can seize their papers, but she’s noticed another anxiety among these fragile, troubled exiles. ‘Europeans don’t realise how many Sunnis are now fleeing Syria because of Daesh,’ she explains, ‘but if you go back three, four years, the problem was Bashar.’ France’s foreign policy is disturbing to newer and older arrivals alike: both groups find it hard – Isis or no Isis – to accept that ‘Bashar is no longer the enemy. Horrifying!’

In passing she says that she’s been asked on Facebook to distance herself from the attacks, an insidious suggestion: why should she, simply because she’s Muslim? It’s obvious to her that the attacks run contrary to ‘Islamic thought’. On this subject, and right of asylum, the government has been meticulous: the words of Hollande and his ministers are carefully chosen to describe France as a nation of ‘diversity’, containing people ‘of Maghrebi origin’ (perhaps four million), rather than a nation of Muslims (nearer five million) and non-Muslims.

There’s no suggestion, either, that asylum seekers could have their rights curtailed in the name of frontier security, which, after Abaaoud’s undetected transit across the continent from Syria, looks more like a question of improved intelligence sharing among EU members than higher fences and bristling borders. We shall see. Despite the bleak situation in Calais, and down at the border with Italy – where French police blocked migrant entries through Ventimiglia over the summer – France’s refugee protection office dealt with 64,000 asylum claims in 2014, the highest numbers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and registered 193,000 successful asylum applicants in the country. Syrian admissions are probably around 6000 and rising, with 95 per cent of applicants successful, according to a recent breakdown from the refugee office.

Last year Hollande became the most unpopular president since the start of the Fifth Republic in 1958. That he’s observed the protocols of high office in a moment of crisis, that his ministers have done the same, that the press has trodden carefully through the marsh of identity discourse: none of this is to say that France has rallied behind the Socialist administration. Round one of regional elections is set for 6 December. Friends of the caliphate appear to have put the wind in Marine Le Pen’s sails, but if war and unity emerge in the next fortnight as a sacred platform for the Parti Socialiste in a dozen mainland contests, she’ll be scouring the country for abstentionists, or sluggish voters, who might grumble about migrants and Muslims in private but wouldn’t normally cast a ballot on the basis of their own worst instincts.