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Society

Eric Fassin: “We can no longer say that there is no alternative.”

Translated Sunday 6 September 2015, by Anne Sanders

After the publication of the photo of a Syrian child washed up on a beach, one which has deeply shocked Europe, the sociologist Eric Fassin returns to the reasons for a possible awakening of public awareness and analyses the regressive political stance on migrants by France.

Huma: After the publication of the photo of a Syrian child washed up on a beach, one which has deeply shocked Europe, the sociologist Eric Fassin returns to the reasons for a possible awakening of public awareness and analyses the regressive political stance on migrants by France. What is symbolised by this image of a Syrian child washed up on the beach?

Eric Fassin: Playing on such images is nothing new, especially in war photography. But there is more to it: this child has become the face of the politics of immigration. RESF, the Education Without Borders Network, has made us understand that the migrants are people like us, since their children go to school with ours. Children cannot be condemned as invaders or terrorists. Moreover, in this picture, the clothes on this little body make it easy to identify with him: we think of our own children. The refugee no longer seems like a foreigner. This photograph has had an even greater impact, following the recent debate: ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’? It is a question of vocabulary, which reflects a shifting reality. It is no longer about the misery of the world, but about the misfortunes of war. For years, asylum-seekers have been suspected of actually being economic migrants. Are we going to recognise that asylum is a right?

Huma: France seems to be quite isolated in its wish to close its borders and to make it impossible for these refugees to obtain any rights.

Eric Fassin: For years, we have been told that we cannot shoulder the burden of all of the misery in the world. Should the heart or the head prevail? We are told that we must follow economic reasoning and not give in to otherworldliness. In response to this, with the Cette-France-là group [1], we strove to demonstrate that these arguments do not hold water, and that this policy is neither reasonable or rational. What is interesting today, is that it is the Germans, who claim to be followers of economic rationality, who are setting an example by opening their doors to refugees. We can no longer say, then, that there is no alternative! To do so is to threaten the common sense of our politics. Instead of decrying the “rights-of-man-ism”, should we not revive the rights of humans?

Huma: An emergency meeting has been called by the government. Is this a last-minute U-turn?

Eric Fassin: It was only back in May that Manuel Valls refused quotas of refugees, saying that “France has already done a great deal”. For the whole French policy has been thought out as a reaction to the fantasies of the “suction effect”. In practice, this means making life unbearable for the migrants, and, of course, for the Romas, in order to dissuade them from settling – in Calais, La Chapelle, and Vintimille. They end up avoiding France.

Huma: Is the xenophobic mood which has grown over the last fifteen odd years, stirred up by Sarkozy and Madame Le Pen, only the expression of a hidden opinion?

Eric Fassin: Certainly, if one is to believe the opinion polls, “French people” refuse to accept any more migrants. But there is a sharp division between the PS, the Socialist Party, and the “Republicans”. This government does not represent left-wing opinion, it is speaking to right-wing electors. Those in power claim to reflect opinion, but in fact they shape it. However, there again, the current awakening of public awareness, led by the media, could also shake things up. Will Manuel Valls refuse to take it into account? He can no longer say that he is simply responding to popular sentiment. What if we put an end to this conflict between the heart and the head?


Eric Fassin, Professor of sociology at the University of Paris VIII.

[1Cette France-là, editions de la Découverte, 2007


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