The debate over migration is tearing Europe apart. It’s not just German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition that seems in danger of collapse over the issue; the election of a populist, anti-immigration government in Italy has created yet another political crisis for the EU, one that threatens to pull apart the founding members of the European political project. Can dialogue and compromise endure?
It doesn’t feel like anybody is pulling any punches in the debate. Full-throated attacks on migrants and refugees are a daily occurrence in European media, and politicians certainly seem able to say whatever is on their mind (no matter how inflammatory it may be). Some, however, argue that “political correctness” is controlling the debate, limiting what we can do and say. Are they right? Or is it just that there should always be some limits of basic human decency in terms of what is publicly acceptable?
In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we have launched our ‘Cities & Refugees‘ project – aimed at fostering a Europe-wide dialogue between citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, NGOs, politicians, and European leaders. The emphasis is on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.
Today, we are looking at Béziers in southern France. Béziers is no stranger to the debate around political correctness. The mayor of Béziers, Robert Ménard, has been at the centre of numerous controversies, including being fined 2,000 euros (plus damages) after claiming there were “too many Muslims” in schools in his town, and attempting to record the numbers based on students’ first names. He has also launched a war against kebabs, and filmed himself telling Syrian asylum seekers they are “not welcome“. To some, he is a champion of free speech and reason; to others, a fascist and a demagogue.
Curious to know more about the debate around refugees, migrants, free speech, and hate speech in Béziers? We’ve put together some facts and figures in the infographic below (click for a bigger version).
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Yvetta, who believes that the fear of being branded “racist” is limiting what politicians can say about immigration and refugees. She calls this “political correctness gone mad”.
It seems like a bold claim to make, given that the discourse on migration has shifted so much over the past decade (some would argue that the so-called “Overton window” now opens onto a rather ugly view). Certainly, ideas that were considered shocking and unthinkable a few years ago are now standard political fare.
However, to get a response to Yvetta’s argument, we spoke to Jean-Philippe Turpin, Director of the French NGO La Cimade’s Reception Centre for Asylum Seekers in Béziers. Did he agree that political correctness was restricting the debate on refugees?
Yes, I agree, in the sense that it’s a debate in which there are a lot of emotions, and people engage in the debate with emotions, right off the bat. So, indeed, what she says is not completely wrong, seeing as when we debate about questions of immigration, it leads to appeals to emotion. That is the problem today with that sort of debate.
To get another perspective, we put the same comment to Renaud Camus, controversial French writer and author of the “Great Replacement” (a book apparently much-admired by Béziers’ mayor, Robert Ménard). In 2014, Camus was convicted of incitement to racial hatred. Does he believe that critical voices are being silenced by the charge of “racism”?
Ah yes! Totally agree! I think that anti-racism creates a lot more censorship than racism, which does not possess the means to silence anyone anymore. Anti-racist censorship is all the more effective because it is largely internal, internalised, in individuals and citizens. Not only are people afraid of being labelled racists, but they are afraid to judge themselves. Not only do they not dare to say what they think, but they dare not think it. They dare not see what they see. They dare not understand what they understand. They dare not even suffer what they suffer: exile on the spot, disempowerment, permanent humiliation.
On a deeper level, I think that the question of ‘race’ has been at the secret centre of the whole ideological debate, and therefore of the current situation. For the past century, this question underwent two successive captures, two kidnappings. It was first taken hostage by racists, who reduced it to scientific or pseudo-scientific data without much interest, stripping it of all cultural and literary dimensions: that’s what I explain in my short book The Word “Race”. It was then locked up, sequestered, by the anti-racists, who contented themselves with overthrowing the worldview of the racists, and doing the complete opposite. As I wrote about in my book, The Second Career of Adolf Hitler – less criminal than the former, but with even wider consequences. Racism made Europe a field of ruin; anti-racism, or the fear of being called racist, as your reader says, makes it a slum: a still slightly-privileged district – but not for long – of a global shantytown, the shantytown.
Next up, we had a comment from Manuela, who argues that the problem is not political correctness, but rather “nationalist” rhetoric from politicians. According to her, politicians use nationalism simply to get votes, rather than out of any real interest for the people.
How would Jean-Philippe Turpin, from the French pro-refugee and pro-migrant organisation La Cimade, respond?
I would say that it’s more complicated than that. I think that, today, immigration is a theme that allows certain people to be elected, so it’s an electoral issue that’s very interesting for those campaigning. The fundamental issue is that they don’t address this question with the necessary maturity and intelligence. Immigration is a fact; it should not be considered simply as an ideological issue. So, she is incorrect to say it’s just nationalist rhetoric, but it is indeed used by politicians for electoral reasons.
Nationalism uses popular fears for electoral reasons, but fear is a bad counsellor. That’s the issue here. You can be “for” or “against” something, but there are also facts to consider. Politics should be about how to – given those facts – act pragmatically. That’s what politicians should be doing, yet that’s not what they’re doing today. They stoke and fuel fears about this issue.
What would Renaud Camus say to the same comment?
I do not know what nationalism really is and I do not care much about it. The desire to save your people from disappearing by dilution, and your country from the invasion by migratory submersion, this desire has nothing to do with nationalism. It’s more despair, patriotism, love or survival instinct, as you wish. If politicians want to rely on this desire to get votes, great, good for them. It would be only necessary that they not betray, then, the votes which they thus captured.
Is political correctness making it more difficult to discuss the refugee crisis? Or is nationalist rhetoric the real problem? And does populism have a vital place in democracy? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!