Writer and editor

France votes: 'Left and right have completely failed'

Added on by Anealla Safdar.

Paris, France - Women of Muslim background are the most talked-about minority in France.

From conversations around the discrimination towards those who wear the hijab, niqab and burkini to the sensitive discussions over French females who join hardline groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) - an issue raised by centrist presidential candidate and frontrunner Emmanuel Macron in a televised debate on Wednesday with his far-right rival Marine Le Pen - they are rarely far from the headlines.

They are often grouped together as a homogenous entity, and the focus tends to be on younger women. 

Have they always experienced discrimination? And what does the older generation think of today's situation?

Al Jazeera spoke to two women - Djima Bouraima, 77, a retired chartered accountant, and Salika Amara, 67, an author, activist and feminist - about the country they call home, the complexities of immigration, racism, and the forthcoming election.

This is Salika Amara's story. (Djima Bouraima's story can be read here.)

Salika Amara's story:

"I came here when I was two years old, in 1952. I have spent all my life here. My father came in 1943. After my mother had a son, she joined him. My opinion is that he came because he had a son, after having two daughters. In the 1950s, having a boy was significant.

All my life and memories are in France.
My father was an activist of the National Liberation Front, the principal nationalist movement during the Algerian War.

I later became an activist and went to university to learn French literature. There were some non-white students at the school, but they came directly [from other countries]. There were no Arabs from France at that time going to university.

We lived near a shanty town, in a transitionary building. The state put us there for what was meant to be a short period. My family lived there for 17 years. To get out of this temporary accommodation, I convinced my parents to buy a small house.

We were raised like all Algerian kids at the time. We were raised with the myth of return, that we would go back to Algeria soon.

My mother raised us; my father, being an activist, was quite absent.

You could call my mother a feminist. She didn't make a distinction between her sons and daughters. She treated boys like the women - they were not at home doing nothing, and they were participating in the domestic chores.
By 1969, I took on a small room in a Catholic centre and transformed it into a youth centre for hundreds of girls and boys. My young brother helped me - we made a theatre there.

It was not common for Arab girls and boys to mix freely at the time.

In the beginning, it was people from the suburbs that came. Then people started to come from Paris.

At some point, it was hijacked by an Algerian organisation run by the Algerian government. They came to see what we were doing, they wanted us to promote the Algerian government. I didn't want to carry on. I preferred to break my toy than to give it up to people who didn't know what to do with it. They were already controlling other youth organisations inside Paris, and then they tried to do the same in the suburbs.

In 1974, I eventually went back to the theatre. I noticed that whenever immigration was spoken about, it was always from a male perspective.

The story was always the same - the guy who comes with his suitcase looking for a flat, looking for a job. Our mothers were invisible. Females were invisible in the main discourse. So I set up the first female theatre company of the suburbs.

"For the tears of our mothers to become legend", our first play, ran from 1975 to 1979. It was a predominantly female cast; there were only small parts played by men. It was a story about forced marriage.

Our second play ran from 1972 until 1982. It was about a family which had been in France for 25 years and had exploded.

The mother in the play had three children. The son was in jail, one daughter had been through an arranged marriage that she agreed to unwillingly, and the younger daughter left home because she didn't want an arranged marriage. The mother was returning to her homeland because her husband wanted to protect the youngest child from French society.

Forced marriages were very common at the time - for me it was legalising rape. This was not a personal experience. My mother wanted us to avoid her fate as she had been forced in Algeria.

I wrote all the plays myself from the experiences I saw around me. Writing about those things was a way to denounce them.

I wrote scenes about taboo subjects, such as the tradition of proving a woman's virginity after the wedding night. The female character then speaks about the rape, she explains what happened. I received threats after that. We were called whores by men.

In 2006, I set up Sons and Daughters of the Republic as a result of the riots in the suburbs. (France experienced what some called the worst riots in 40 years after the deaths of two teenagers - Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna - who were electrocuted while hiding from police in a power transformer.)

The name of the theatre group for young people was a way to emphasise the fact we were French citizens - not French of immigrant background.

One play was called "Responsible but not guilty" - the story of three generations. The three main scenes were the Algerian War, Marche de Beurs (March for Equality and Against Racism) and the riots in 2005.

It was a way to show the continuation of bloodshed in Algerian immigration with mainstream French society.

And in 2014, there was another play based on portraits of women: my grandmother, mother and myself.

There were lots of issues: discrimination; the veil; motherhood; sexuality; politics; religion; education; how the education system treats children.

It was performed by women who lived in the suburbs and had never done theatre in the past.

The way the education system teaches children here, there is no social mixing in schools from an early age.

When I worked as a teacher, I made sure I had the classes that were full of struggling Arab and black children who were put into vocational lessons such as learning how to be a baker or mechanic. That was my activism. They send children who have less experience to those classes.

From an early age your destiny is set.

From childhood, there are those who are programmed to become the elite of the nation, and others to become the working hands of the country.
I don't think it's improved. National education has to be reformed.

In some suburbs, you have a class taught by 18 different teachers because they keep leaving. That doesn't happen in elite schools.

I don't like the "Muslim woman" label. I'm labelled a feminist. I was interested in the struggles of both genders within immigration.

To be recognised when we are Arab women, we have to speak like the white feminist, some of whom can be quite racist and Islamophobic.

That's why I took genuine women from the suburbs who have genuine stories to put forward in their own words. They are not being dictated how to speak.

If Le Pen wins, it will be Muslims in general - those who are visibly Muslim who wear shirts, robes, headscarves and jellaba - that will be the first victims.
These are identity markers because Muslims have been rejected. It's a way to say: "I am here and I exist". For the youngsters who were born here, it's a rebellion. They have seen their brothers, fathers and mothers being rejected.

It's a conflicted generation. Sometimes, it's a rebellion towards the family, like becoming a punk or a hippy - to belong to a group. It will remain that way because of discrimination.

As for the differences between 2002 and 2017, the last time the far-right was in the second round, they were targeting Arabs. Today it's Muslims.

The same people are always being targeted, it's just the words used to describe them that change. Immigrant used to mean Arab, now Muslim means black people and Arabs.

The election this year is a political disaster. It shows that the left and right have completely failed.

In 2002, even then I didn't vote for [Jacques] Chirac. He was a crook and I don't want to vote for a crook. (Chirac was up against the founder of the far-right, Jean-Marie Le Pen.)

It's the same this year. I won't give my vote to Macron - he will win anyway. I can't vote for a man who has so much contempt for the working-class population.

At a demonstration, a protester said to Macron: "I can't afford a suit like yours."

"The best way to afford a suit is to work," Macron replied.
The first working-class guy to speak to him and he tells him off?

He doesn't give a damn about the working class - he speaks to the bankers and people who have money.

The left and the right have a responsibility in the rise of [Le Pen's far-right] Front National party.

Racism has always existed. The anti-racist movement was co-opted by [the] Socialist Party. And religious organisations were favoured in terms of subsidies.

I believe that the French government is responsible for the rise of fundamentalism in Muslim communities. The government favoured folkloric organisations that promoted bellydancing, couscous and football. They preferred organisations that kept immigrants in their place.

We wanted the same things as French citizens, but the state prefers immigrants to be immigrants. To practise your religion is good because you don't ask for the same things. You are not French, you are still an immigrant if you stay in the same position.
We have lost the solution - the left missed the opportunities.

We were the products of the French Republic and we were very secular. We asked for equal rights and they didn't want to provide us with them. The opportunity was missed by the left - the country was ruled by left-wing governments at that time. When you see some kids who are being radicalised in a short period - that's a result of them not having equal rights.

The solution has to be found by the young generation - I belong to the old one. It's for our children to reinvent it. Life belongs to them."

Published on Al Jazeera on 5th May, 2017