Thibault Camus / AP

For French Arabs, Palestinian protest ban echoes the past

Protest organizers plan to challenge what they call an attack on French democracy

Paris police moved on Friday to block pro-Palestinian protesters from taking to the streets of the French capital, citing what they called threats to public order. But for protest organizers, the decision represents a long-standing attempt to keep Arab and Muslim citizens — many from France’s former colonial empire in Africa — from congregating in the same place.

Protests in support of the Palestinians, amid Israel’s ongoing offensive on Gaza, brought as many as 30,000 people to the streets of Paris last Sunday, organizers said, although police have placed the figure closer to 7,000.

Some demonstrators hurled projectile objects at police, who responded with tear gas, according to local media, and alleged instances of violence between pro-Palestinian protesters and opponents have caused controversy.

“The problems came from extremists from both sides,” a police spokeswoman said, explaining the decision to ban a march set for Saturday. Rabble-rousers, she said, “were a minority. But it was because of these instances of violence that we have decided to take these measures."

“The risks are to the public order. It's not as much about the actual discourse involved in the protests,” she added.

Still, only pro-Palestinian protests are banned. Counterdemonstrations by pro-Israeli groups are not.

“We have a French government that is depriving a group of citizens of its democratic rights,” said Youssef Boussoumah, a protest organizer and a teacher at a school on the outskirts of Paris, in a community often qualified as a North African “ghetto.”

For Boussoumah, the decision echoes the Parisian police’s infamous crackdown on demonstrations for Algerian independence on Oct. 17, 1961. Police shot what some historians say was well over 200 protesters and buried them in mass graves.

“We are convinced we are seeing a continuity of colonial and racist policies,” said Boussoumah. “My parents were here at the time of the Oct. 17 [Massacre]. I am convinced that while the circumstances are different … the mentality [that precipitated the events] persists.”

The protest ban may result in a larger legal battle to preserve what one lawyer said was the freedom of expression of French Arabs and Muslims.

“We in France see a situation where Islamophobia is gaining ground,” said Hosni Maati, a lawyer who was set to address Paris police hours later to decry what he called “discrimination against our rights as French Arabs and Muslims.”

For example, Marine Le Pen, head of the country’s far-right National Front, which made its largest gains ever in recent municipal elections, said in the run-up to the poll that schools should stop offering halal lunches to children, arguing that it was an attack on the state’s secularism. At the time, halal options for French Muslim students became a flashpoint in what many say is a growing populist movement against the nation’s immigrants.

“It is necessary that we take action to preserve the rights of French citizens,” Maati said.

Sunday’s pro-Palestinian rally was significant for France’s Arab and Muslim communities because many economically, politically and socially disenfranchised youth participated, said Boussoumah.

“It was the first protest for many,” he said. “What are we telling them? ‘You are barbarians and anti-Semites, and you are no longer allowed to come out. You are condemned to watch images of Palestine without being able to express your outrage.’”

The participants, on average, were about 20 years old, and a large majority were women, Boussoumah added.

The move to ban the protests follows calls from Jewish community leaders who asked that authorities ban pro-Hamas rallies, which they have characterized as racist.

Synagogues and Jewish businesses around the city also faced vandalism, Jewish leaders said, by people associated with the pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

“Among those who participated in the demonstrations was the Union Juive Française Pour la Paix,” said Maati, referring to a Jewish organization advocating for Palestinian sovereignty. The group was not available for comment at time of publication.

“We see this wasn't about race or religion,” Maati said.

Pro-Palestinian protesters, according to local media, were attacked by members of the far-right group the Jewish Defense League (JDL), which often advocates the use of force against Palestinians and their supporters. The JDL was described as a "right-wing terrorist group" in a report by the FBI from 2000–01.

Various tweets sent by people reportedly affiliated with the organization said that they would meet the “Palos [Palestinians] with a gift” at the end of the rally.

The Paris-based JDL was not available for comment at time of publication.

Although Boussoumah indicated that he feels disheartened by the Parisian police’s decision, he said he’s hopeful — for pro-Palestinian activism and the French Arab and Muslim communities.

“The fact that they are so afraid to see so many Arabs rising up in society is a source of hope. They act on that fear when they take away our democratic rights,” he said.

He explained that in his parents’ generation, French North Africans were only factory workers. Now North Africans have advanced themselves, where possible, in the arts, sports and sometimes politics.

“That unsettles people,” he said. 

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