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

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.