Fishing for Refugees East of the Rhine

A fabricated media spectacle of compassion: Daniel Schneidermann on the mixed French reaction to the refugee crisis of last week(previously on IB), and on the mixed refugee reaction to France as well. The refugees are not particularly eager to come to France, and unlike Germany and England, there have been no spontaneous French welcoming parties either. Finally, even the nice rooms being prepared for the refugees on camera this month are pure show, as should be clear from the grim refugee shantytown the French state has ordained for long-term asylum seekers at Calais.

Well, this takes the cake. The refugees-whom France is welcoming with somewhat open arms, in generous, carefully counted portions-the refugees are being choosy. Resettle in France? No, thanks.

If there is one thing we have learned from the immigration crisis of recent days, it is the unsurpassable value of media reporting from the field when big events are playing out. It is striking how such events, when shown from just the right distance, neither up too close, nor too far away, can upend all of our preconceptions simply by pouring raw words into an open microphone, unfiltered and unrefined by fancy editing-as Le Monde did on Thursday in an unparalleled online project, a powerful and polyphonic report from the field.

Just a few days ago, the unexpected spectacle of Germans rushing to the train stations with their “wilkommen” signs smashed our image of a cruel people which had been set in stone by the Greek debt crisis. We have been forced to revise our representation of the Germans, though to be sure, without exactly knowing what to replace it with.
Whether Angela Merkel instigated (or as seems more likely, imitated) this welcoming impulse of the German people, the result is the same: here she is, posing for selfies with the new arrivals. Please keep your children at a safe distance: this image is violent:

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Angela Merkel posing for a selfie with an asylum seeker in Berlin. Photo AFP.

A violent image because it sends crashing into the dungeon of oblivion that other, earlier image-though it, too, was an accurate one- of Merciless Merkel, Crusher of Greeks and Spaniards. But let us not try to imagine that one of these images is more accurate than the other. Let us instead simply try, even if it is a difficult exercise, to keep both images in mind, to think of both at the same time. And as a sidenote: try for a moment to imagine our President, Francois Hollande, in the same posture. Impossible to conceive; that is all that need be said.

And then here they are; they have gotten down from the trains, been welcomed, washed up, rested. The main characters of the movie start to speak, start leaving the monochrome role of refugee or migrant, start expressing not vague generalized hopes but specific demands and opinions, concrete choices. And it is here that France takes a body blow.

Numerous indications emphasize what we pointed out on Thursday. A swarm of representatives from the French Office for the Protection of Refugees rushed up to Munich to procure a thousand refugees, but are having serious difficulties filling their nets. And as for the little fish that were caught and hauled in by bus to a refugee center that had been fitted out with a great deal of commotion in the Val d’Oise, well, when asked by Le Monde, they wonder if they made the right choice.

“Our parents were shocked to hear that we ended up in France,” one 23-year-old young man admitted. That is all that need be said.

It remains to be seen if these first reactions truly reflect the state of mind of the majority. But if the first snapshots are confirmed by what follows, then there goes founding fantasy of the Sarkozy-Le Pen-Zemmouri mindset: the vast swarms of foreigners waiting to converge on France and voraciously siphon the nectar of “French Social Welfare Benefits.”

Oh agonizing correction! “All of the Misery of the World,” it turns out, does not give a shit about welfare benefits. It wants to get to work, and quickly. And it wouldn’t mind a polite welcome either.
So what remains to be understood is how this founding fantasy got imposed in the first place, how it became engraved on French minds through the decades. As for the political consequences of all this in France, they might be considerable. Or not. Let’s not assume.

Daniel Schneidermann Translated from French by International Boulevard