x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Adnan Azzam, defender of immigrants' rights: 'People should be able to exist in dignity together'

Feature Adnan Azzam rode a horse around the world to deliver a message of peace from the Middle East to the West. Back in his adopted country of France, he is battling to secure justice and dignity for all.

Adnan Azzam, activist and defender of immigrants' rights, in Paris.
Adnan Azzam, activist and defender of immigrants' rights, in Paris.

Adnan Azzam rode a horse around the world to deliver a message of peace from the Middle East to the West. Back in his adopted country of France, he is battling to secure justice and dignity for all. Olivia Snaije tells his story. France is no longer the country it thought it was. Its secular tradition is under strain as it tries to come to terms with Europe's largest Muslim minority. From calls to ban the burqa, to its failed government initiative for a national consultation on l'identité nationale, or what it means to be French, the melting pot debate has never been so passionate. In the run-up to regional elections earlier this month, there was much racial mud-slinging. An informal survey by Le Monde into the ethnic background of regional candidates found the political landscape "a great white desert" with few immigrant candidates.

But if things are moving slowly on the political front, more and more immigrants and those born in France of immigrant parents are making themselves heard. Adnan Azzam is one. His Paris headquarters are in the racially mixed section of the 17th arrondissement. He runs several neighbourhood associations, including La France qui Marche (Marching France) and La Marche des Valeurs (the March of Values), which both promote equal opportunity and oppose discrimination.

Syrian-born Azzam, 52, has lived in France for more than 20 years. He considers himself an Arab of French nationality with an unconditional duty to be a responsible citizen. Having run - and lost - in several legislative and municipal elections in Paris since 1994, he considered standing as an independent in the recent regional elections but decided against it for lack of funding, time constraints and disillusionment with the political system.

Azzam is a long way from his Druze village in southern Syria where his father was a police chief and a traditional elder of his clan. One of Azzam's earliest memories is of walking barefoot behind his brother to collect a few pounds for the Algerian war of independence. "I'm not an Arab from the Champs Elysées," says Azzam, seated in his modest office, flashing a smile. "I stayed in my neighbourhood for 23 years to breathe the same air the French breathe. I have been on the labour relations board, I've worn many different hats and have explored all the layers of French society."

Azzam studied law in Damascus and then spent time in Abu Dhabi in the late 1970s, working in the restaurant business, in construction and as a sports instructor. It was in Abu Dhabi that he observed westerners for the first time and felt "they were there just for the money and weren't interested in Arab culture. I began to want to show them our culture." After reading an article on the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said's seminal book, Orientalism, Azzam was galvanised.

He decided to tour the world on horseback to bring a message of peace from the Middle East to the West, and exchange ideas and cultures. With President Hafez al Assad's blessings, he left Syria in 1982 with two mares, travelling through Turkey, Greece, Italy and France, where he met Brigitte Van Laer, who later became his wife. The two travelled to Spain, then sailed to the US where they rode 7,000 kilometres before sailing back to Spain. From there they rode to Morocco, Algeria and then sailed to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and finally Syria.

During the course of his travels Azzam met King Juan Carlos of Spain, King Hassan II of Morocco and Greece's president, Constantine Karamanlis. Azzam says his character and "vision" were in large part formed in Abu Dhabi and then on his trip, which he chronicled in a book A Cheval Entre Orient Et Occident (Riding Between East And West), first published in France in 1989 and again in 2004.

A long-time supporter of human rights, Azzam calls his form of politics simply "living". "People should be able to exist in dignity, living their differences together and with respect for one another." When Azzam moved to France in 1986, he opened a neighbourhood restaurant with his wife called La Reine Zenobie, where he organised cultural events and became involved in grassroots politics. "We defend a secular France, open to all religions - a universal symbol and a land of exile where men and women can live freely no matter what their origin. A France that battles racism and discrimination that still occur on a daily basis," Azzam writes on the website of his association La France Qui Marche.

Azzam defines himself as a Muslim but says it's no different from being a Christian. "Every religion is a stream that runs into a common river." As Azzam's neighbourhood activism gained momentum, the local UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) MP, Françoise de Panafieu, became interested in Azzam - "to use my popularity because she was seen as being bourgeoise and removed from the people", he says. Azzam asked de Panafieu if he could be part of her political campaign but she refused, leaving Azzam to present himself as an independent candidate in subsequent legislative elections.

When contacted, de Panafieu said she did not recall the event. Azzam later became the victim of rumours linking him to the Syrian secret service, a link he denies. Azzam used a lawyer and the CNIL, an independent administrative authority that protects privacy and personal data, to gain access to his file, in which he was accused, among other things, of travelling frequently to Libya, "where I've never set foot".

Azzam's experience is reminiscent of a recent incident involving Ali Soumaré, the Socialist candidate in the Val d'Oise - a department just outside Paris. French-born Soumaré, of Malian ancestry, left school before obtaining his baccalaureate but quickly gained recognition as a community activist, before joining the socialist party. In February, two UMP mayors of villages in the Val d'Oise referred to Soumaré as a "multiple offender" offering "proof" to the public. Most of the accusations proved to be false and Soumaré's name was cleared. The president of the CNIL officially requested explanations on the source of the information, which appeared to have come from police files.

In the end, the affair proved to be an embarrassment for the UMP, who suffered a heavy defeat in the regional elections and losing to the Socialists in the Val d'Oise. Soumaré, unlike Azzam, grew up on the outskirts of Paris and feels that children of immigrants are slowly gaining ground but admits "social ghettos and cultural prisons are also realities. One cannot hide the serious difficulties that the youth from immigrant backgrounds encounter."

In yet another embarrassing, yet revelatory incident this month, Gerard Longuet, the president of the UMP group and a close adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy, said he wasn't sure that the French politician Malek Boutih - whose parents are from Algeria - was the right candidate to take over the presidency of La Halde, the highest anti-discrimination authority in France, and that it was better to have someone from the "corps traditionnel français" or a traditional group of French people.

"Immigrants in France have an essential role to play," says Azzam. "They've already helped with demographics. But I'm convinced that immigrants arrive here with a healthier lifestyle and better morals. Immigrants need to take into account the richness they offer this country. Here, since 1968, for example, 'values' has become a dirty word. What's wrong with it?" Furthermore, this French-style assimilation is all wrong, says Azzam, who is in favour of integration closer in manner to the US or Britain. "The proposed law against wearing a burqa is absolutely idiotic. It's not up to politicians to tell people what to do about their culture."

Azzam is putting the finishing touches to his book Al Istighrab (Occidentalism), which will be published this spring in Syria. In it, he "dissects western man, with the positive and negative aspects". It is also a call to young Arabs to revisit their history and feel proud of their culture, to stop their fascination with the West, he says. If Azzam were to become an MP, he says he would eliminate the discussion on national identity. He would immediately enact a law that would condemn France's colonial period and award moral and financial reparations to people, in particular to Algerians who suffered from nuclear testing.

Azzam is referring to French nuclear tests that were conducted in Algeria's Sahara desert between 1960 and 1965, when the country was still a colony. After decades of complaints by people made ill by radiation, French parliament passed a law in December allowing compensation to be paid to victims of nuclear tests in Algeria and the South Pacific. Although Azzam was awarded the prestigious Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Merite in 2009 for his involvement in city politics, he says he has become more radical over time. Azzam marks the violent civil unrest in 2005, in the poorer suburbs of Paris, as the beginning of a general consensus among grassroots organisations that a more aggressive approach was needed to fight for equal rights and battle discrimination.

La France qui Marche organised two marches, one in 2005 from the European Parliament in Strasbourg to the Parisian Senate, the other a year later from Marseille to Paris. A regional march was held in 2007 from the disenfranchised northern Parisian suburbs, dubbed the "93" in postcode shorthand, to the newly opened Cité Nationale de l'Histoire de l'Immigration. The museum, commissioned by Jacques Chirac with the mission to recognise the contribution of immigrants in France over the past two centuries, was opened without a public ceremony under his successor, President Sarkozy, who, to this day, has not officially inaugurated the museum.

A year ago when Eric Besson, the unpopular minister of immigration, integration, national identity and development solidarity, attempted to inaugurate the media library, the police force came out en masse to control protesters demonstrating in support of illegal immigrants. France is in the midst of an identity crisis but well aware that changes will have to be made. As the National History of Immigration museum pamphlet reads: "[It hopes to] generate a public re-imagining of what it means to be French, displacing long-standing assumptions of ethnic homogeneity in favour of the acceptance of greater cultural diversity."