OPINION: France should heed warning from UK on letting extremists control asylum debate

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: France should heed warning from UK on letting extremists control asylum debate
Annecy's residents gather to support the victims and their families following the attack in which six people, including four young children, were stabbed. Photo by JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK / AFP

France rarely compares itself to Britain, writes John Lichfield. It prefers to sulk about its alleged decline compared to Germany or congratulate itself on its supposed cultural superiority to America.


The inexplicably vicious knife attack on small children in a playground in Annecy last week has generated a near-hysterical debate on asylum and immigration in France.

Almost nowhere in the thousands of words written or spoken on the subject is there any recognition that Britain has been possessed by a similar hysteria for years – with calamitous results for the country (Brexit) and no obvious solution to the problem.

Europe is confronted with real asylum and immigration difficulties. It is also confronted with potential asylum and immigration benefits.


Little about the appalling attack on toddlers beside the beautiful lake Annecy last week justifies such hysteria about the presence of middle eastern or African foreigners on French or European soil.

Abdelmasih Hanoun, 31, is a Christian Syrian. He is not, properly-speaking, an asylum-seeker. He was granted asylum in Sweden 10 years ago. He was in France legally because both France and Sweden are part of the EU free movement area.

READ ALSO: What do we know about the man in custody over the Annecy knife attack?

His reasons for stabbing four small children and two adults “in the name of Jesus Christ” may never be understood. It appears to be the act of a profoundly disturbed person, not a political act or a terrorist attack.

Profoundly disturbed people have existed in all places and at all times.

Compare the reaction to the Annecy attack to the killing of an 11-year-old British girl, and the wounding of her parents, in a Brittany village at the weekend.

The family's neighbour - an elderly Dutch man - has been charged with the shooting. The case has not yet given rise to a frothing debate in Le Figaro or social media on the danger of allowing thousands of displaced Dutch pensioners onto French soil.

What, one wonders, is the difference between a Dutch pensioner and a Syrian refugee charged with serious crimes? Both are "immigrants" after all.

The early reactions to the Annecy atrocity by the French far-right and hard-right and their followers on social media were instructive.

Eric Zemmour, the cynical far-right columnist turned cynical far-right politician said: “Asylum seekers used to be escaping death in their own countries. Now they come here to murder our children.” The Annecy attack was, he said, a 'Francocide' – part of a deliberate attempt to expunge the French people.

Even Eric Ciotti, leader of the supposedly moderate centre-right Les Républicains, spoke of an Islamist terrorist attack before the details of Hanoun’s background and religion emerged.


There was a brief pause the day after the attack while the Right and Far Right absorbed the inconvenient fact that the attacker was a Syrian Christian (part of a Christian-Arab community which the French Right usually likes to present as victims of Islamic aggression).

Their line of attack, and source of indignation, then rapidly changed. Hanoun was an example of the "chaotic" EU asylum policy. His presence sleeping rough in Annecy since November was an example of how France was threatened by open EU borders.

Anyway, Zemmour said, he probably wasn’t a "real Christian" but only a Christian for asylum-seeking purposes.

Not so. Abdelmasih is a first name given to Christians in the Arab world. But why let facts spoil a cynical polemic?

The Annecy attack was a godsend to a French right, which wants to convince the French people that they are existentially threatened by migration. Many of the arguments are reminiscent of those of the British Right and tabloids, pre and post Brexit.


An editorial this week in Le Figaro – centre-right and sensible on most things but hysterical on migration – said inter alia that the French health service was being swamped by migrants. This is pure UKIP/Daily Mail. By my observation, the French health service would not exist without migrants and their descendants.

There is also a constant drum-beat in France connecting "mass migration" to violence.

There is no real "mass" migration in France, the country is not being “swamped” by migrants. Net migration is under 200,000 people a year. That figure has increased only slightly over the last decade.

READ ALSO Immigration in France - what are the real numbers?

Some kinds of violence are increasing slightly; some crimes, mostly mugging and pick-pocketing, can be linked to illegal migration. But the assertion that France has become a more murderously violent country since north African and African migration began is false.

France had many more murders pro rata in the 1940s than it does now. You could use the statistics to argue (no doubt misleadingly) that migration has caused France to become a safer and a more peaceful place.

FACTCHECK: Is crime 'out of control' in France?

Yes, Europe has many problems in managing illegal migration and asylum-seeking and making the distinction between the two. Yes, the present rules need to be re-examined. Yes, there should be fairer ways of dividing asylum seekers between the EU-27. Yes, people-trafficking should be punished severely.

But what does the appalling case of Abdelmessih Hanoun prove? He was a genuine asylum-seeker, apparently integrated in Sweden for 10 years. Maybe his terrible acts can be connected to the fact that he was displaced from his own country and background. Maybe they cannot. Many other refugees thrive in their adopted countries.

What should France do to "prevent" similar attacks? Shut its borders to all foreigners given legal refugee status in other EU countries? Withdraw from the EU border-free Schengen zone? Withdraw from the EU?

We have seen how well that has worked for Britain - without beginning to solve the migration "problem". Advice to France: do not let the nutters take over the asylum debate.


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