'If you’re black, you’re not employed.' At the age of 47, the singer from Toulouse has learnt to manage his anger. But every day brings its dose of rebellion. Positive discrimination, wearing a veil, integration. Magyd Cherfi has gone solo after a long and festive collaboration with the group Zebda. We meet at the springboard festival 'Sémaphore en chansons' at Cébazat in the Puy-de-Dôme region of France, two months after his tour ends.
Your texts are always very political. How do you feel about recent mediatised issues, like integration, the suburbs, immigration...?
I feel like a kid in a sweet shop. Every day in the news there is an Arab, a black, an immigrant, an illegal immigrant, a poor soul... as far back as I can remember. I’ve never been short of material! And now, we're being forced to listen to a debate about national identity. I could write buckets of songs about it. But I’m ashamed!
Do you refuse to talk about the debate on national identify?
I would prefer not to take part. In any case, not in the debate launched by Eric Besson (immigration and national identity minister - ed). 'Identity' and 'national' is a collusion that I don’t get. When I see people trying to answer this question, and particularly people like (Algerian origins, Puy-de-Dôme native and secretary of state for urban housing policies) Fadela Amara, Rachida Dati (Moroccan origins, former French justice minister) or (Senegalese-born sports minister) Rama Yade who support the debate, all hope for fraternity is lost in my opinion.
We are French. Full stop! Everyone is French
They are installing a white race, creating an anonymous white identity. And it’s working. And people say 'yes, it’s an interesting debate.' I can’t deny what I feel inside: my disgust with this white race they are suggesting. It's when you hear people like the interior minister Brice Hortefeux talk about Arabs and say 'When there’s one, that’s ok – it’s when there are several that it becomes problematic' (in a video published by daily Le Monde that created a huge debate in France at the beginning of September 2009 - ed).
I’m a lot less angry now, I am 47. Before, I wanted to pick up a gun, a stone, a catapult and say ok, I’m going to shoot. I’ve had enough. Because there was always a minister or a president who had said 'There are too many', 'There are too many of you', 'You must integrate'. But I’m not angry any more. I say to myself it's not the immigrants that have a problem, but the white French who are frightened of Arabs, blacks and of Islam. We are French. Full stop! Everyone is French. They are different because in them, there’s a chunk of culture that comes from somewhere else. In the United States, a black, no matter what his origins, is above all an American. In France, a black is an immigrant, son of an immigrant of second, third generation, an illegal immigrant and then he’s French.
In your opinion, is the liberation of women, or French people's issues with Islam, the reason for the burqa debate?
There are both. Intellectually, I am against this debate, but I feel that if girls wear it, it’s because we (the French government) have let them down. Having seen cousins in France or back home wearing it, I understand a bit better why. There is something called the republic or the state of law that does not protect them. They are frightened, in their families, in their neighbourhoods. They are looking for weapons that are not supplied to them by this pseudo republic and its rights and duties. It’s a bit like the snake that bites its own tail.
So what can they do?
Nothing. What can they do? Leave? And go where? And who will protect them? And then there is the emotional dependence on your own mother. How to find the strength to leave abandoning your mother, your family, your tribe, your clan, your blood lines. There are always a few exceptional girls that find the strength to cut free from everything to live freely. Only a very few. There is no way out in my mind. It’s hard enough for boys. This is why the multicultural fraternity 'black, white, arab' doesn’t work.
Does this mean you are eternally pessimistic about this issue?
In the short term yes. But not necessarily in the long term, because one day we will have to get on. Arab and black people need fair laws. Because otherwise in fifty years, there will be nothing but a smattering of blacks in the French national assembly. And we’ll say 'Yes, but it’s not equal'. But sod them! There is already no equality because we are underprivileged: but, with a little 'underprivileged' and a little 'privileged' the end result will be equal. I’m happy to be the privileged in the story. Many blacks and arabs are against this. That’s the debate.
So, do you believe positive discrimination like in the United States is the solution?
In spite of myself, yes, I think so. I don’t think it's a good thing, but I think it’s all we’ve got left. We’ve talked forever about integration, equality, unity and fraternity but that doesn’t work. 'If you’re black, you’re not employed.'
9 November was the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. Do you have a specific memory of that day?
I’m not very European in my head because I feel like we already don’t exist in one country. I think I was on tour at that moment. I felt happiness, like a barrier was being broken down, like a family that was being reunited but I didn’t get the political dimension of the event. I didn’t realise what it meant as it was happening. I didn’t know that it was the end of communism, of the soviet bloc.
This anniversary also marks the beginning of a new era for Europe. What is your vision of Europe?
I find it difficult to project myself into a European dimension when I feel like we’re not treated like French people in our own country. How to think European when fraternity doesn’t even work?
What do you say to your children?
Sometimes my children ask if they are French. My son was called a 'dirty arab'. He burst into tears at school. So, if he asks me if he’s French, the answer I give him is 'you are French, but...' When you are black in France, you're not white!
You have distanced yourself from the left-wing Motivé-e-s political movement (mainly initated by Zebda members, the left-wing faction openly disagreed with Cherfi's backing of a socialist candidate in 2001 - ed). Where are you now in your activist journey?
I’m not a political activist. I never was. I supported people that I liked that were on the political left, and extreme left. I do 'emotional activism' in my songs.
And, we’ve heard that Zebda is going to get back together? Or not...
Yes, Zebda are recording again!