Protestors in Clichy-sous-Bois, near Paris, 2005. (Photo: Getty)
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Battle of the banlieue: the French Intifada by Andrew Hussey

Race relations in modern-day France.

The French Intifada
Andrew Hussey
Granta Books, 382pp, £25

At the start of this year, the world outside France got to know a stand-up comedian called Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. Of Cameroonian and Breton parentage, Dieudonné was banned from performing his sold-out stage shows because the Socialist government decreed them to be anti-Semitic. In Britain, Nicolas Anelka, the French star of West Bromwich Albion, was provisionally fined and barred from five games for doing the “quenelle”, a stiff-armed salute that is Dieudonné’s trademark. The comedian’s many young supporters insist that the quenelle is not anti-Jewish but merely a subversive “up yours” to the French establishment. Yet few in France beyond Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, point out that Dieudonné’s shtick is much more than anti-Semitic or “anti-système” satire. His stock-in-trade is contempt for France and everything that the republic stands for. He is a talented (and rich) performer and his act goes down so well because he is tuned to the rage of la banlieue, the council estates on the fringes of urban areas, where France has parked its North African immigrants and their descendants since the 1960s.

It takes some nerve to examine France’s Arab problem because the subject is hedged about with taboo. It is illegal to compile ethnicity data of the kind that is routine in the US and the UK. Rarely do you hear one particular shocking statistic: roughly 70 per cent of French prison inmates are Muslim. Journalists, academics and politicians tiptoe around the dispossessed tribes of the banlieue estates. When riots flared across the country in 2005, the media did not address the broad alienation felt by young blacks and Arabs. Instead, they depicted it as an episode in the country’s long history of workers’ street revolt. The remedy, it was said, was improved education and opportunities to enable the rioters to integrate better in a secular, “colour-blind” republic that is devoted to liberty, equality and fraternity.

“Anglo-Saxons” who dish up home truths about the angry, dispossessed “djeunes de la cité” – ethnic-minority kids on the estates – are told to look to their own countries’ glaring mistreatment of non-white immigrants. So it is likely that some French disapproval awaits Andrew Hussey, a British academic and commentator who has just taken a scalpel to this, the rawest of Gallic nerves. The French Intifada: the Long War Between France and its Arabs mixes lively street reportage with the history of two brutal centuries in France’s former Maghreb territories. The provocative title may not be acceptable in a French edition; even Ms Le Pen avoids talking about “France’s Arabs”.

Historians should put aside their obsession with the global conflicts of the 20th century and the cold war or a Third World War, writes Hussey, who is the dean of the University of London Institute in Paris and author of the fine Paris: the Secret History, published in 2006. The lawless estates, with their drug trafficking and admiration for militant Islam, are the front line in a Fourth World War that began with Europe’s withdrawal from its 19th-century conquests, he says. “This war is not just a conflict between Islam and the west or the rich north and the globalised south, but a conflict between two
very different experiences of the world – the colonisers and the colonised.”

A similar line could be taken on the disaffection in Britain’s Muslim “communities”. Radicalised young people in the UK have, like their French peers, embraced the values of al-Qaeda; hundreds of them have travelled to fight in Afghanistan and now Syria. However, Hussey argues that there was something especially toxic in France’s administration of its empire and its leave-taking, beginning with Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign in the early 19th century.

It was not all plunder and abuse, of course. Generations of colonial administrators, attracted by the 19th-century mystique of the “oriental”, strove to be just – by the rough standards of the time – in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Yet by sweeping up these lands and imposing on them its “civilising mission”, France made their peoples complicit in its own bloody history, including the latter stages of the Vichy regime’s collaboration with the Nazi occupiers of the 1940s.

The central instance of this was Algeria, the jewel that was deemed part of the French homeland. Algeria suffered domestic massacres and thousands of deaths fighting for France abroad, until the dirty war of liberation ended in 1962 with Charles de Gaulle’s abandonment of this vast southern Mediterranean colony. The violence did not stop with the fightback by the pieds noirs, the white Algerian population, and the reprisal killings of tens of thousands of harkis or Algerian French troops; the country suffered another decade of atrocities in the 1990s, blamed on Islamist terror groups and the military regime. The land that so many of the banlieue-born French dream of as a beacon remains an economic mess and a target for al-Qaeda’s Maghreb affiliate.

For Hussey, and many other foreign observers of France, the young Muslims of the banlieue continue to be victims of colonial doctrine. The official model for them is immersion in the resolutely secular république indivisible: “The proclaimed universalism of republican values, and in particular laïcité [secularism], can very quickly resemble the ‘civilising mission’ of colonialism.” The young, he argues, are being robbed of their identity and spiritually “annihilated”.

It is not surprising that when cutting loose against the riot police, these French-born youths voice their hurt and rage by screaming, “Na’al abouk la France!” (“Fuck France”). Hussey describes witnessing this at the Eurostar terminal at the Gare du Nord in Paris, which suffered a spontaneous riot in 2010. “The atmosphere was strangely festive,” he writes. A year later, the sense of betrayal among “French Arabs” was compounded when, in the nascent Arab spring, Nicolas Sarkozy’s government initially offered its policing expertise to Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian dictator who for two decades had been an ally of Paris.

This is strong stuff – and it can be argued that the Gallic model of assimilation for immigrants has merits. For instance, the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005 alerted Britain to the dangers of tolerating separate cultures, an approach that the French deplore as “communautarisme”. France has lately welcomed more non-whites into the business world and the professions. François Hollande’s administration has a few senior Arabs, notably Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the Moroccan-born minister for women’s rights and government spokeswoman. Yet on the face of it, Britain’s more tolerant system appears to have done somewhat better in lowering barriers and bringing the offspring of its former colonies into the mainstream.

Hussey does not attempt to prescribe remedies for France and his conclusion is grim. The prisons have turned into the chief “engine-room of Islamist radicalism”, attracting recruits from the white population. In their rage, “the rioters, wreckers, even the killers of the banlieue are not looking for reform or revolution. They are looking for revenge.” Yet the white mainstream seems intent on keeping them locked out. He concludes: “Until this ceases to be the case, the unacknowledged civil war between France and its disturbed suburbs will go on.”

Charles Bremner is the Europe editor of the Times

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

Ellie Foreman-Peck for the New Statesman
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The rise of Raheem Kassam, Nigel Farage’s back-room boy

The former conservative blogger is mounting a bid for the Ukip leadership. But can he do enough to convince the most right-wing of Britain’s leading parties to back him?

It is a mark of how close the UK Independence Party has moved to the heart of the British establishment that one of the three main candidates for its leadership has ascended from the so-called spadocracy.

Nigel Farage used to castigate David Cameron and Ed Miliband for having worked as special advisers and little else, but Raheem Kassam – said to be his preferred choice as his latest successor – was his aide for several years and sometimes styled himself as Farage’s “chief of staff”. His only other substantial jobs have been in the right-wing blogosphere.

Kassam has one big advantage going into the election on 28 November: the support of Ukip’s mega-donor, Arron Banks. He will stand against the party’s former deputy chairwoman Suzanne Evans – who is backed by its only MP, Douglas Carswell – and the former deputy leader Paul Nuttall, who has declared himself the “unity candidate”.

Kassam, 30, was born in Hillingdon, west London,
to Tanzanian parents of Gujarati descent. They are practising Muslims but their son says he has not followed the faith for a decade.

Like Evans, he came into politics through the Conservative Party, and sat on the board of its youth wing. Although his political colours have changed since then, his allegiance has always been to the far right: he once listed Barry Goldwater, the Republican senator who voted against the Civil Rights Act and was defeated by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 US presidential race, as a hero.

Kassam worked for the Commentator, a right-wing blogging platform, but left on bad terms with Robin Shepherd, the site’s founder and editor. Subsequent articles on the Commentator attest to the acrimony. One brands Kassam “weird”, and the latest mention of him appears under the headline “Ukip leadership contender Raheem Kassam is a criminal, and we can prove it”.

His time there did, however, earn him the approval of the conservative polemicist James Delingpole. In 2014, Delingpole brought Kassam on board as managing editor when he set up the British outpost of Breitbart News, the right-wing website whose US executive chairman Steve Bannon became Donald Trump’s campaign manager in August. Breitbart sees itself as the house journal of the “alt right”, hardline on immigration and invested in denying climate change. Recent articles from its London bureau have carried headlines such as “British peer: polygamy ‘commonplace’ within Muslim communities in Britain” and “Green politico: it’s time to learn Arabic and stop worrying about migration”.

Given his hardline views (he addressed the first UK rally of the far-right group Pegida), it is not surprising that Kassam felt more at home in Farage’s Ukip than David Cameron’s modernising Conservatives. In 2014 he officially switched from blue to purple, joining Farage’s office later that year.

There, he was soon at the centre of the tensions between the Ukip leader and Carswell, who had defected from the Tories to Ukip that year. From the start, Carswell and Farage were at odds over strategy, with the former concerned that his leader’s anti-immigration rhetoric would imperil the EU referendum result.

Carswell tried to oust Farage after the 2015 election, in which Ukip polled 3.9 million votes but won just one Commons seat. Then as now, Carswell’s preferred candidate was Suzanne Evans. She is not only a close ally, but an employee in his parliamentary office.

Such is Evans’s proximity to Carswell that Farage and his allies will do their utmost to prevent her from becoming leader. Although Farage now has his eye on a lucrative new career as a pundit on Donald Trump’s long-rumoured television network, the knowledge that Ukip had fallen into the hands of his old enemy would sour his retirement.

Farage, like Arron Banks, had settled on a preferred replacement: Steven Woolfe, formerly a Ukip MEP and now sitting as an independent. But Woolfe’s candidacy was beset by problems from the outset – culminating in a brawl that ended with him in hospital. On recovering, he announced not only the end of his leadership bid, but also his association with Ukip, which he now regards as “ungovernable”.

That left Kassam as the most plausible anti-Evans candidate. But can he do it? Kassam has two obstacles in his path. The first is his own record of combative public pronouncements – he has asked if Angela Eagle has “special needs”, called for Nicola Sturgeon to have her mouth taped shut so she couldn’t speak, and added “and her legs, so she can’t reproduce”. The second is his name, coupled with his skin colour and Gujarati heritage.

As a conservative blogger, Kassam will be familiar with the rumour, peddled by Breitbart and others on the alt right, that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. So his campaign website is liberally dotted with photos of him sipping a pint (he lists Whitstable Bay as his preferred poison). Will that be enough to convince the most right-wing of Britain’s leading parties to back him? 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage