Article paru initialement le 7/2/2019 dans le Guardian ici.
At citizens’ debates in France I found the best way to fight messaging from activists like Steve Bannon is to talk to people @SchamsEU
Wed 6 Feb 2019 06.00
The story of my life is, in some ways, the story of Europe. My father emigrated from Egypt to France in 1986, one month before I was born. My French mother fulfilled her dreams of becoming an English teacher after having grown up in the Calais region looking at the cliffs of Dover. Together they worked hard to give their children a bright future in a free, borderless, united Europe. I grew up with this dream, which has partly become a reality. But I’m not sure my own children will get to enjoy the privileges of belonging to the EU in the same way – if at all.
So I decided to go on a debating tour of France, to better understand what makes us still believe in the strengths of the EU, as well as the fears some people have. I quit my job in Brussels at the European parliament to travel to small towns and villages in 30 of France’s départements and take part in discussions with local people about Europe, immigration, Brexit and Frexit. I’ve now held more than 60 such debates, ahead of the EU-wide elections due in May. Here are some of the lessons I’d like to share, and which must surely hold true elsewhere in Europe too.
Recent polls show only 50% of the French are against Frexit, while 27% have no opinion on the matter and 23% support it
First, we must listen to one another. Immigration and identity are real topics, but they mask other economic and social grievances that concrete policies can and must address. People want change, and understandably so, but the risk is that they’ll seek it regardless of who’s promised it. I deliberately held four debates in places where 53% of voters had cast a ballot for Marine Le Pen in the 2017 French presidential election.
I once found myself listening to an angry man telling me how “African and Arab immigrants can’t integrate”.All the while, I thought of my Arab, Muslim, immigrant father who wakes up every day before I do, works six days a week saving children’s lives as a doctor, his accent an endearing reminder of Egypt. I sat there and listened to the man’s concerns and then respectfully confronted his arguments with facts such as there is no connection between race and crime. But the truth is, I was lucky enough that he’d shared his views in the first place. This at least allowed for a genuine exchange of ideas, and it made him feel listened to.
Bridging the gap between EU institutions and citizens requires better work at a grassroots level. I know from working in the European parliament, at the heart of Europe’s democracy, how worried most people are about the rise of xenophobia and Euroscepticism, and how hesitant they are about addressing this head-on. But travelling to reach out to voters can contribute to shifting their mindsets. Shunning that effort and keeping to the “Brussels bubble” is a huge mistake because it allows the far right to monopolise public discourse, or set its terms.
After David Cameron called for a referendum on EU membership, the Scottish MEP for whom I then worked, Alyn Smith, switched from his parliamentary work to travel across Scotland, listening and speaking to people from all backgrounds in dozens of events about the benefits of belonging to the EU. There has to be more of this kind of outreach across the continent.
Another lesson is that Brexit is not as unique a phenomenon in Europe as many would like to think. France’s economy, level of education and population are strikingly similar to the UK’s. Recent polls show only 50% of the French are against Frexit, while 27% have no opinion on the matter and 23% support it. Despite France being a founding member of the EU and the host country of its parliament in Strasbourg, most people I met on my tour of the country seemed utterly unaware that voters elect the European parliament through direct suffrage, and that its role in crafting EU laws is more decisive than the commission’s. In fact, what’s struck me most over the course of these debates in France’s heartlands is just how few people understand the workings and immense benefits of EU membership.
The European parliament has direct, tangible effects on our lives. It can weigh on financial markets, on climate change, on the tech giants. It is relevant in so many positive ways – not a hotbed of bureaucrats. Discussing its role with people in local communities can shift perceptions. During a debate in the region of Savoie, in the French Alps, one lady told me she had no interest whatsoever in the EU elections. I mentioned Europe’s role in defending minority and women rights, and it meant a lot to me that she left the meeting saying she’d cast a vote for her “children’s future”. Likewise, in discussions with supporters of the gilets jaunes movement, I saw how making the case for citizens’ empowerment could actually convince people to vote in the EU elections, not just stand in the cold at roundabouts complaining about “elites”.
Europe shouldn’t fear Steve Bannon. It should fear the hype that surrounds him
At the heart of the European project is an endeavour to build a better future for us all. If Islamophobia is on the rise, we should fight it with just as much energy as we do antisemitism, and vice versa. Indifference is a recipe for collective failure. If you’re a citizen of an EU country, get involved. Call your MEP, write a petition, support a citizens’ initiative, join a party or an NGO you believe in. Engage with your community, especially in the face of hardship. After the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, I organised a gathering around a group of Syrian refugee musicians who’d arrived in Europe on rafts. Together we founded Syrians Got Talent, who have since given 19 concerts across Europe. We were disparaged by Breitbart News, the far-right website set up by Donald Trump’s then presidential campaign strategist, Steve Bannon. We just went on, building trust between locals and refugees.
The fight for a united and strong EU is a worthwhile one. Debating with people in small localities throughout France has reminded me – and hopefully others – that the power of the European project lies in its citizens, in transcending national borders so that we can live together. Now is the time to stand up to the anti-EU push Bannon has launched. This May, for the first time in its history, the European parliament risks becoming a fulcrum for the far right. The significance of this should not be underestimated.
• Schams El Ghoneimi is a French-Egyptian pro-EU activist based in Paris; he has worked for the European parliament and founded Syrians Got Talent, a Syrian refugee musical group