New barbarians and the Lola affair: How a child's murder in France weaponised for the advent of anti-immigration laws

By Sarra Riahi, London, The New Arab, 23 December 2022

Sarra Riahi looks back on the coverage and political recuperation of the Lola affair by the media and figures of the French extreme right, highlighting the patterns and tropes of extreme right-wing coverage.

Two months ago, the body of a 12-year-old schoolgirl was found curled up in a suitcase in the courtyard of her building. A day later, the media revealed the prime suspect was a homeless Algerian woman, residing in the country under expulsion. From then on, a racist frenzy took over the media landscape.

Demonstrations in support of Lola were led by the far right across the country and framed the case as a civilisational war on the French by Muslims and immigrants.

We were told of a “Francocide,” Lola was killed for being French. Through their lawyer, Lola’s parents have asked for all usages of their daughter’s name and photographs to stop immediately.

In the streets of Lyon, one could hear the crowd chanting “death to immigrants, outside terrorists” and “remigration”. An immigrant is then a Muslim and in essence a terrorist.

In this 'theatre' piece, where France is under attack, Lola becomes a martyr. The others are also given a role: Immigrants, Arabs, blacks, and Muslims. They are the others, and they are all the same. They are the new barbarians.

Racism and Islamophobia: an escape route from political accountability

The demonisation of Muslims and immigrants serves as a distraction from political and socioeconomic downturns.

Yasser Louati, human rights activist and policy analyst, speaks about a racist holy trinity: “Muslims are said to threaten the national security, identity, and economy. Depending on the opportunity, politicians, and the media cast French Muslims in one of these roles.”

In the last decade, successive governments were rejected for their neoliberal policies (labour law under Hollande or pension reform under Macron). They spurred vast contestation in the country, notably the yellow vest movement in 2018. Most French politicians cannot speak on socioeconomic grounds. What is left to address is identity.

But Islamophobia is more than an escape route for politicians. The mainstreaming of Muslim and non-white individuals' dehumanisation sets a fertile soil for the implementation of repressive policies.

Renaissance presents a new immigration bill for 2023

Shortly after the announcement that the suspect was under expulsion, the focus shifted to OQTF (Obligation to Leave the French Territory) and the so-called laxity of French immigration policy. At stake are the rights of immigrants. Interviewed by Le Monde after Lola’s murder, Minister of Interior Darmanin and Labor Minister Dussopt timely presented the new immigration bill to be discussed in Parliament in 2023.

The key announcement was the creation of a residence permit for "jobs in tension" This residence permit, intended for asylum seekers to be able to work while awaiting a decision on their application, is entirely subordinated to the needs of the economy, and is therefore of limited duration and without any real possibility of integration. It is the resurgence of utilitarian migration policy that marked postcolonial times.

But our minister is quick to jump from the question of work to that of security.

Drawing on the Lola affair, Darmanin asserts immigrants are responsible for a high rate of crimes and advocates for tougher scrutiny: “We must now be mean to the mean and nice to the nice.”

The nice, for him, are the “chibanis”, older immigrants, often North Africans, who came to work in France during the thirty glorious years (1945-1975). The trope of innocuous old men serves the dehumanisation of those he considers "mean”, today’s newcomers. At work here, is the subjection of immigration policy to moral categorisation.

Darmanin announced the bill also aims at extending follow-ups to all individuals under expulsion: “The prefect will ensure that life is made impossible [administratively] for them, for example by ensuring that they no longer receive social benefits or social housing.”

Whilst it could have opened crucial discussions such as the psychological consequences of migrants living conditions and the shortcomings of children and women's protection, the tragic murder of Lola was weaponised.

“The victims serve as scapegoats, and it is not new. We saw it with terrorist attacks, with Samuel Paty," Louati tells The New Arab. "We use tragedies to advance an ideological agenda and to hammer out a reactionary discourse that has become the norm in France, at least in the political and media sphere.”

Flashback: Samuel Paty and the Anti-Separatism bill

Exacerbating marginalisation, surveillance, and security, France's homegrown War on Terror has led to a full-blown Islamophobic witch hunt on racialised communities and organisations.

On October 2, 2020, Les Murreaux, Macron introduces his fight against Islamist separatism. Islam was “in crisis”, we were told, and Macron would save it from Muslims themselves.

Such a view is symptomatic of orientalism. Even existing “here” in France and as French citizens, Muslims remain “there, and them”, barbarians from the Orient. Reminiscence of coloniality.

“This discourse of the Murreaux is part of the policies applied in the colonies a century ago. We want to control the religion to control this population. Through the essentialist gaze, all North African and Arabs are religious and governed by a Muslim code of ethics. In 1894, Leon Roche, a French diplomat, obtains a tailor-made fatwa from Mecca. The fatwa said, ‘Algerians do not have to fight against France if it allows them to perform the rites,” says Louati.

Following the murder of Samuel Paty, a French teacher who was murdered near his school in 2020 for allegedly showing a picture of the prophet Mohammed, a dozen of Muslim organisations were criminalised and shut down with little to no judicial grounds.

“We had a state of emergency, at the time I was a spokesperson for the CCIF (now CCIE), and I took care of the families who were searched. For two- or three-weeks police raided Muslim houses with all might, terrorised couples, traumatised children for life, and families exploded. No one took a stand," Louati reveals.

Setting a precedent, it legitimised more scrutiny of those identified as Muslims and immigrants.

Louati explains: “When the media push the view that there is a population in France that is the internal enemy, that it is the only one capable of committing this kind of crimes, you justify its perpetual criminalisation, you maintain the idea that it does not belong to the national community, and you justify special laws that target this ‘other’ specifically.”

At each crime committed by a non-white, a French Muslim, afro-descendant, or immigrant cannot but feel, the untold role, that will come for him or her, in the Republic theatre piece.

Sarra Riahi is a French-Tunisian journalist. She is also the head of advocacy at @webelongeurope