The Migrants of Calais: Muslim immigration tears apart France and highlights the losers and winners in the global economy

A poll done for Le Parisien asked people what their thoughts were when they thought of migrants leaving war-torn countries: While 38 percent mentioned sympathy and compassion, 61 percent said anxiety and fear. Asked whether they would like France to offer a more generous welcome to refugees, the way Germany had, 70 percent said no.

"This used to all be trees,” says a French policeman at the Calais approach to the Channel Tunnel, which runs 31 miles under the English Channel to Dover. Mud flats and two-story fences stretch to the horizon. Until a few decades ago, Calais was renowned as a center of lace-making. Glittering gowns and dainty underthings provided jobs for 40,000 people. After World War II, the Communist party ran the city, year in, year out. The cop was not just idly reminiscing. More recently, Calais played a less chic but equally lucrative role as a ferry-port and tourist stop. But now it is best known internationally as one of the more squalid stops on the route of migrants into Britain, and its tourism-related industries are collapsing. Despite a location that should be a license to print money, Calais is the fifth-poorest city in France.

It is not the first time this has happened. In the 1990s, African migrants began to settle near a spot on the continental approach to the newly built tunnel by the dune-lined beaches of Sangatte. There they would obstruct, slow, and then stow away on the trains. Thousands came. At the turn of the century Britain and France resolved the problem with the so-called Touquet treaty, under which Britain admitted the backlog of migrants, about 2,000 of them, but was allowed to move the Anglo-French administrative border to the French side of the channel. Britain bore the brunt of that crisis, but France would be left holding the bag if it repeated itself. Now it has repeated itself.

The Jungle

Ever since the closing of the train approach, migrants have sought to pull the same trick by stowing aboard the semi-trailer trucks that pass through the road tunnel running under the channel through the same pipe. They have pitched tents on vacant lots, slept on beaches and in parks, and squatted in run-down apartments in the center of Calais. Last year French authorities commandeered a beachfront children's summer camp, the Jules Ferry Fresh Air Center, to provide space for a few hundred of them. The camp looks out on one of the biggest batteries Hitler built to defend Nazi-occupied France from Anglo-American invasion, at a bend in the N216 highway just east of town.

But that was before the mass migration of Middle Easterners and Africans into Europe began last summer. So many of them came here that the camp was quickly overwhelmed. France built an annex out of shipping containers, bringing the de facto refugee camp up to 3,000 or so people. But thousands more came. Having no obvious place to go, they pitched camp just outside the gates of the official camp. The government said that there were 4,000 people living in this collection of makeshift villages, which came to be known as the New Jungle, but the policeman who drove me around said that was simply false — there were more than twice as many. He was right. When French authorities moved to raze part of the camp in mid-February, human-rights organizations working there were able to secure an injunction by showing that there were more like 8,000 living there, including hundreds of unaccompanied minors.

The Jungle is an extraordinary place, rather like a newly founded town. It is sharply, if informally, demarcated into ethnic neighborhoods. Itinerant young men outside of their homelands for the very first time, carrying their life savings in their trouser pockets, are just as scared of foreigners as you are. They are just as scared of disease, too. There are developing-world diseases in the camp, including scabies (la gale). You see young people walking around in disposable surgical masks. Afghans dominate the buildings at the camp's muddy entrance. There is a path leading off to the right where a church has been built out of plywood for the benefit of the camp's very few Christians — who all seem to be Eritreans and Ethiopians. There is indeed a group of settlers fleeing the war in Syria, but they are a minority, and I met no one who had spoken to any Christians among them. If you leave the Afghan neighborhood by turning left instead of right, you pass through a big concentration of Pakistanis, who have turned a section of the camp bulldozed in January into a cricket pitch. The Syrian neighborhood comes next, with a few Egyptians alongside. Black Africans are at the end of the road.

The village, while short of obvious sources of potable water, has a lot of restaurants serving appetizing food, particularly in the Afghan section. There are restaurants in the Pakistani section, too, where the variety stores will "top up" residents' cell phones for a fee. Africans haul in most of the foodstuffs from Calais's big-box stores and supermarkets by bike. As in parts of Africa, a group of NGOs is ultimately responsible for much of the infrastructure. There is medical treatment from Doctors of the World and Doctors Without Borders. There is a legal-aid cabin, where pro bono workers help migrants navigate Europe's immigration bureaucracy. There is a theater, too, housed in a graffiti-covered geodesic tent. One afternoon in early February, a London theater troupe called Shakespeare's Globe arrived to do an open-air performance of Hamlet. It put one in mind of the USO scene in Apocalypse Now — not the effect they were seeking, probably.

It had been thought that quartering the migrants several miles from the tunnel entrance would keep traffic flowing on the highways. But the last year has seen raids on the highway approaches that Le Monde compared to Stagecoach and other Westerns. Dozens and dozens of migrants would wander onto the highway or heave forklift pallets or light fires .  .  . anything to get the trucks to slow. If they did, the migrants would try to break the locks on the cargo section and stow aboard. Some truckers are now forbidden by their companies to park overnight within 100 miles of the tunnel. Deforesting the whole region and building dozens of miles of reinforced fence is only the beginning of the government responses. About 1,900 agents from both the Gendarmerie Nationale (a part of the armed forces jointly run by the interior and defense ministries) and the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (the riot wing of the national police) have been assigned to protect the roads from the camps. They fill many of the Calais hotels, and you can see platoons of them, dozens strong, climbing into paddy wagons with their guns and their body armor at all hours of the night.

None of this has sufficed to convince the citizens of Calais that the situation is under control. There are reportedly European radicals in the camps. The newspapers lump them together under the term No Borders, although they prefer to call themselves les antifa, or "antifascists." They have been raising political consciousness, as the saying goes. In January they led several dozen people in an attempt to board an England-bound ferry boat by force. (While the tunnel is far from the camp, the ferry is just down the street.) They staged a march for immigrant rights in the middle of Calais and defaced a statue of Charles de Gaulle. One group carrying banners of the New Anticapitalist party led a bunch of migrants to the house of an alleged rightist, provoking an armed confrontation.

"Rightist" and "fascist" may not be accurate words for the predominantly working-class anti-immigration movement that has arisen in this old Communist stronghold. ("Immigration — Weapon of Capital!" read one sign carried at a protest in December.) But whatever you call these people, their numbers are growing at an extraordinary rate. A group called Angry Calaisians has a long list of complaints: Locals receive exorbitant parking tickets for overstaying at a meter while youth gangs heave burning pallets onto the road with impunity. Petitions to demonstrate in opposition to mass migration are rejected out of hand by the mayor's office and even (in early February) blocked by the ministry of the interior, while demonstrations in favor just happen. All foreigners at the town's hotels must fill out a fichier de police, while the authorities cannot tell even to the nearest thousand how many people are living in the Jungle.

And when a plan to move residents of the camp into better quarters elsewhere in France was blocked by a lawsuit in late February, the leader of the British NGO that launched the effort told the press: "The refugees don't want to be all over France. They want to be in Calais." It can seem that foreign activists and charities on one hand, and refugees on the other, are laying down the law in France.

Representatives of the mainstream parties often look passive and wimpy. Former prime minister Alain Juppé came to the Jungle in late January and said: "Our government needs to speak more forcefully to the British government about this." President François Hollande's Socialists and Nicolas Sarkozy's opposition Republicans are not popular here. The National Front is. The FN, a populist force with roots in colonialist rightism of the 1950s, is in the midst of a long-running effort to modernize and to shed its old thuggish image, but it remains solidly opposed to mass immigration. It is the most popular party in much of France. In Calais it is more than that. It approaches an absolute majority, having won 49.1 percent in the multiparty first round of December's regional elections.

The Hollande strategy

Calais's problems are not just those of a hard-luck city. They are a distillation of problems facing France as a whole. Ever since an ISIS platoon, operating under ISIS command, killed 130 and wounded 368 in bomb and gun attacks in Paris last November 13, French people have been particularly uneasy about migration. Information that has emerged since has done nothing to put them at ease. Two of the suicide bombers who attacked the Stade de France that night passed through the Greek isle of Leros, identifying themselves as Syrians fleeing the war. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian ISIS organizer killed by French security forces in a ferocious military raid on an apartment north of Paris, was himself in Athens last year. He told a female informant that 90 people had entered on that route. A "Western counterterrorism official" speaking to the Wall Street Journal said that 50 or 60 operatives had entered through Greece, Bulgaria, or Romania. An interior ministry report leaked to Le Figaro in early February counted 8,250 "radicalized" people in France, as against 4,015 less than a year earlier.

The feeling one gets in Calais that things are spinning out of control finds echoes everywhere. Belgium has re-established controls on its border with France, for fear that migrants will set up a spillover refugee camp. In the Paris Métro, one hears crime warnings in every language ("Bweh of pickpalkets .  .  . Achtung vor Taschendieben .  .  . "). Something I noticed more than once was groups of Arab teens running to the train and keeping the door jammed open for their friends, holding up the train while a hundred or so French passengers waited silently and impotently. All this jostling and hollering in Arabic ("willi-halla-walla .  .  . Akhbar! .  .  . Muhammad!") is disconcerting to anyone who remembers the reserved comportment of Muslim immigrants to the United States in the aftermath of September 11. There is no evidence that the boys were dangerous, or anything more than slightly rude. But the rudeness reflects a confidence that Arabic rules the streets and subway platforms. It has not gone unnoticed. A poll done for Le Parisien asked people what their thoughts were when they thought of migrants leaving war-torn countries: While 38 percent mentioned sympathy and compassion, 61 percent said anxiety and fear. Asked whether they would like France to offer a more generous welcome to refugees, the way Germany had, 70 percent said no.

Socialist president François Hollande would seem to be in an impossible predicament. Hollande is the most unpopular French president since the Fifth Republic was established in 1958 — in large part because he appears to care little for anything besides the human-rightsy gestures that impress the limousine-liberal wing of his party: Putting women in the Panthéon to make up for the sexism of French culture in years past. Gay marriage. "Gender neutrality" in schools, so that all the plumbers in learn-to-read books are women and all the nursemaids are men. The promises to be tough on financiers and industrialists, meanwhile, have gone out the window.

Now Hollande is being summoned to duty by a frightened, patriotic, and impatient country. He has mobilized the army, declared a state of emergency, and called for the stripping of French citizenship from anyone found to have engaged in terrorism, all of this while continuing to insist on his identity as a man of the "left." Hollande reckons the FN will be the strongest party in the next election. His cynical strategy is to survive the first round by being as much like the FN as possible, and then to win the second round run-off by tarring the FN as so fascist and beyond the pale that all of Sarkozy's Republicans will be shamed into voting for Hollande — a delicate operation.

Even in France, building a winning coalition out of feminism and national security will be hard to pull off. The New Year's Eve sexual attacks by migrant men on German women in the main square of Cologne have shaken France to its core. The episode grows more significant and unsettling as the weeks pass and new details emerge. The number of discrete attacks appears to have been closer to a thousand than to a hundred. The post-Cologne revelation that a similar mob sex attack had taken place at a concert in Sweden in the summer of 2014 raised the specter of ideological taboos resembling those in a totalitarian state. It is not just that the government has worked hard to silence inconvenient facts, as Germany's did in the aftermath of Cologne. It is that the European public has been disciplined into suppressing its own thoughts.

The reflection has lately taken a darker, more anthropological turn. Elisabeth Lévy, editor of the controversy-sowing monthly Causeur, was the first French writer to ask a troubling question: Where were German men in all of this? The Russian writer Maria Golovanivskaya, too, wondered why she had seen no "battered male faces" among the victims. The Polish writer Adam Soboczynski even put in a good word for pre-feminist ways. "The patriarchal society," he wrote, "which remains alive and well in other parts of the world, was never one in which a woman could be humiliated for sport." He noted, with a certain Polish mischief, that the young men he saw in the German subways hardly seemed up to the task of being protectors. "They were very sweet and very slender," he wrote, "and it would have made a very very politically incorrect parlor game to guess which of them were gay and which of them were only acting like it." Elisabeth Badinter, the French feminist doyenne, was simply bleak: "That about a thousand men," she wrote, "should take possession of a public space and, along with it, all the women there is unthinkable. I have no memory, in my entire life, of anything similar." Of course not. You would have to go back to 1945 for that.

The Middle Class Evicted

You might think France is sitting on a powder keg, that its heavily immigrant suburbs are about to "blow." But that is not exactly what is going on. There is a new political configuration in France, which is best addressed by looking first not at ethnicity, class, or ideology but at territory, which explains them all. In his 2014 book La France Périphérique, "geographer" Christophe Guilluy, whom we would call a sociologist, provides a thoroughly original way of looking at France. It also sheds light on our own country.

France has been cut in two by the globalization of its economy. The urban upper classes of Paris and a couple of other cities (aeronautical Toulouse, for instance, or bohemian Montpellier) have never been better off. They are in like Flynn. But the benefits have been poorly spread. The middle class is shrinking. The gap between rich and poor is growing. Thus far the analysis is conventional. But Guilluy changes it all by asking a bold question: Why would you expect Paris to have a middle class?

Paris's prospects have improved because it has specialized. The division of labor has become global. Paris is now a place for couturiers, writers, film directors, CEOs, and other "symbolic analysts," the people who design, direct, conceive, and analyze things. But the jobs the middle class used to do all over France — manufacturing, mostly — are best done elsewhere. You would not expect a middle class in Paris any more than you would expect one on a cattle ranch. That's not what Paris is for. Guilluy measures this shift by looking at the "appropriation of working-class housing stock"— what we call gentrification — by rich people who can use Paris in a way that the old working and middle class cannot.

Even if Paris does not need a middle class, it desperately needs a lower class. Those symbolic analysts require people to chop their sushi, mix their cocktails, dust their apartments, and push their children's strollers and their parents' wheelchairs. This means immigrants — and increasingly it means only immigrants. Because who would you rather have washing your bathtub for 12 euros an hour? A laid-off factory worker who used to get 30 euros an hour and seven weeks' vacation and who is now looking daggers at you? Or a polite woman from Mali, for whom the smell of Formula 409 is the smell of liberation? The banlieues are an integrated part of the world economy. There is now an immigrant-descended petite bourgeoisie. Naturally, as rich people monopolize the private housing stock, poor newcomers monopolize the welfare housing. Far from being a drain on rich people's taxes, these projects provide subsidized housing for their servants. Big problems will eventually come, because there is no next rung on the social ladder onto which the migrants' children can step. But this is not an acute problem just yet. For now, worrying about the banlieues is something of a red herring.

The acute problem is the reconstitution, recomposition, displacement, and — to use a favorite word of Guilluy's — eviction of the native working and middle classes from the productive parts of the urban economy. These natives are locked out of a France that they thought belonged to them. The rich have bid up the price of urban real estate to the point where those from outside the metropolis cannot afford even to rent it. Public housing is not an option because its inhabitants are almost never French and are very often Muslim. To move into it is to become a despised minority in one's "own" country. A question of social class thus turns, poisonously, into a question of ethnic identity and ethnic exclusion.

This reconfiguration of French society is not the immigrants' fault. But the most explosive potential problems in France have everything to do with immigration. The system's main beneficiaries defend mass immigration as if it were a matter of civilizational life or death. A report prepared for France's prime minister by the consultants France Stratégie found that eliminating open borders between the European Union's member states would be the equivalent of a 3 percent tax on business. But this is an elementary (one would almost say an infantile) mistake. If you simply take order and political stability for granted, like the laws of gravity, well, sure, paying 3 percent more is a pain. But if you could take those things for granted then you wouldn't need the EU, or any other government for that matter. In a recent interview, the financier George Soros lauded German chancellor Angela Merkel for being "farsighted when she recognized that the migration crisis had the potential to destroy the European Union, first by causing a breakdown of the Schengen system of open borders and, eventually, by undermining the common market." This is rather a non sequitur: Isn't it her bad decisions, rather than the crisis itself, that are destroying the EU? If a Union's survival depends on the unexpected arrival at random intervals of millions of desperate foreigners, it's probably not terribly stable to begin with.

It is better in some ways to be an immigrant in a housing project in La Courneuve, outside of Paris, Guilluy believes, than to be cut off from the global economy in what he calls "peripheral France." The people who live there are doing badly, and they are coming to see this as the outcome of a deliberate policy. In January, INSEE, France's national demographics bureau, announced that the life expectancy of French people of both sexes had fallen for the first time since World War II. For Guilluy, those banished from the big urban economies are "the nightmare of the ruling classes." This is because they still constitute an electoral majority, and they have chosen the National Front as their vehicle. The two main parties are both built on shrinking bases. The electoral base of France's Socialists consists of those enriched by globalization and those protected from it (like public employees). The electoral base of France's Republicans consists largely of retirees. The National Front is the fastest-growing party because it is the party of globalization's losers, and globalization is producing more losers than winners. Its electoral base consists of the unemployed.

Not so different from the U.S. presidential elections

If Guilluy is right, and I think he is, we are using antiquated categories that make the most explosive social problems of our time wholly invisible to us. The geographical segregation into globalized and unglobalized areas has created a sort of epistemological trap. From the age of social democracy, when class was measured by one dimension, income, we have inherited the habit of assuming political issues will pit "the rich" against "the poor." But today's issues don't. The dividing line on most issues is whether people are being helped or hurt by the global economy.

A journalist or sociologist or businessman looking only at Paris, with the best faith in the world, cannot form an objective view of whether France is doing well. You talk to rich and poor, old and young, black and white, male and female, immigrant and native .  .  . but these are all people for whom France is "working." What is more, the mainstream sources from whom one might absorb alternative information — journalists, television broadcasters, comedians — all inhabit this same world. Those who do not are so absolutely invisible that they cannot even be analyzed. You wouldn't know, for instance, that 64 percent of working-class people in France favor the death penalty.

Surely something similar is at work in our own politics. Consider the Democratic primaries. Whether one likes the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders or not, everyone will agree that he has a more coherent political program than Hillary Clinton. But everyone is wrong. Sanders's textbook socialism makes sense for an industrial proletariat of 100 years ago, but this proletariat is an imaginary friend. In fact, Sanders is using a program designed for the wretched of the earth to appeal to the party of globalization's winners. Not all Democrats are winning the same way — life is improving for the party's bloc of billionaire plutocrats in a qualitatively different way than it is improving for its bloc of activist gays or blacks — but it is improving for all of them. For these groups Hillary is the better ideological match. This is not to deny she has shortcomings, but they are personal, not political. She lacks the charisma to lead any party. Similarly, if one uses Guilluy's model to think of the Republicans as the party of those, from the top of the social scale to the bottom, for whom globalization has made things worse, one can see that Donald Trump — again, like him or not— has been winning primaries because he has thus far been the best candidate, with "best" not meant in any condescending way. His success rests not on demagogic tricks but on a truth about the global division of labor that has eluded other candidates. Whatever that truth is, it has something to do with the word "again" in "Make America Great Again."

A character in one of Michel Houellebecq's novels complains that, in our time, "there is no example of a fashion coming out of the United States that has failed to swamp Europe a few years later — none." That may be changing. France is now on the front lines of the world's most pressing crises. Many of those refugees who are causing such turmoil in French politics have walked to the country from a war zone. And the rumbles coming from the global economy are no less ominous. The United States was the first country to globalize in the 1990s. Because it set the rules, because it held the reserve currency, it has been the last Western country, the very last, to discover that its population has serious misgivings about the experiment. The United States once again has some very important lessons to learn from France. That is not necessarily cause for celebration.


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