There was an illegal demonstration for Palestine in northern Paris on Sunday, 15 May. It was quelled by 4200 police officers under the command of the city’s police chief, Didier Lallement. Protests against Israel’s bombing of Gaza had been banned on the direct order of President Macron’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin. They might be composed of ‘risky elements’, Darmanin warned. He asked the police to be ‘particularly vigilant and firm’.
Bernard Heilbronn was arrested on 12 May as he was leaving a meeting at the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. Heilbronn’s organisation, the Association France-Palestine Solidarité, had called a demonstration in support of Palestinians. Heilbronn, 71, was handcuffed to a bench in a police station and warned about the protest ban.
Darmanin, who is still subject to legal proceedings for an alleged rape in 2009, accused Marine Le Pen of ‘almost becoming too gentle’ in her response to ‘Islamist separatism’ during a televised debate in February. In reply, Le Pen praised Darmanin’s book on the subject. She had read it ‘very carefully’, she told him, ‘and, apart from a few inconsistencies, I could have put my name on it.’
A new law targeting ‘separatism’, approved by the Senate last month, tightens the screws on French Muslims. The Collective against Islamophobia in France, earmarked for dissolution by the authorities, is now based in Belgium. Far-right doctrines about the demographic ‘replacement’ of ‘Europeans’ are cited daily on mainstream news channels. Retired generals hint at a military coup to save France from the ‘hordes’ of immigrants and their descendants.
The hard line against solidarity with Palestinians cuts across French politics. Anne Hidalgo, the Parti Socialiste mayor of Paris and a possible presidential candidate, called the ban a ‘wise move’. A demonstration in support of Palestine was prohibited under François Hollande during Israel’s attack on Gaza in July 2014. It went ahead anyway and protesters were arrested; Alain Pojolat, a prominent member of the New Anti-Capitalist Party, was prosecuted.
Nearly sixty years ago, on 17 October 1961, under the direction of Maurice Papon – a former colonial administrator and Nazi collaborator – police attacked pro-independence Algerians at a demonstration in Paris. More than twelve thousand were arrested and held in improvised detention centres. The most reliable sources estimate that about two hundred were killed. Their bodies were thrown into the Seine, and also fell into what the historian Kristin Ross calls ‘a “black hole” of memory’ in France. Newspapers were silent; historians searching for information were stonewalled; documents mysteriously disappeared. The first French president to acknowledge the massacre was Hollande in 2012.
Selim Nadi, a French political scientist, notes that support for Palestine is an avenue for Arab political expression in France: ‘At pro-Palestinian demonstrations, masses of Arabs raising their political demands are to be seen in public places.’ Few things are less appealing to France’s governing elites than a restive Arab population. ‘In France,’ as the legal scholar Rim-Sarah Alouane says, ‘a good Muslim is an invisible Muslim.’ Seething at his arrest, Heilbronn declared that ‘a threshold has been crossed.’ Rediscovered, perhaps.
Yesterday, when thousands of police officers protested in front of the National Assembly to demand tougher sentences for anti-police violence, representatives from various political parties stood alongside them, including Jordan Bardella, the 25-year-old vice president of Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. A recent poll suggested that 74 per cent of serving police officers intend to vote for the RN in the next election. Darmanin was there too. ‘Every evening, when I go to bed, I think of you,’ the interior minister told the officers.