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Battle of the banlieue: the French Intifada by Andrew Hussey

Race relations in modern-day France.

Protestors in Clichy-sous-Bois, near Paris, 2005. (Photo: Getty)
Protestors in Clichy-sous-Bois, near Paris, 2005. (Photo: Getty)

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