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France’s Arab population is divided by an invisible wall

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, we must address France's long war with its Arabs. Andrew Hussey reports from Paris.

On one of my first ever visits to Paris, I was confronted by a massacre, an attack on Jo Goldenberg’s deli on 9 August 1982. Goldenberg’s was at the heart of the Jewish district on the rue des Rosiers – which was a lot scruffier then than it is today. Two attackers, who have never been captured, threw grenades and fired with machine-guns into the restaurant, killing six people and injuring 22 more. The killing was attributed to the Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal and his Black September group, but no one is certain who did it. The slaughter convulsed Paris – this was, it was said at the time, the worst attack on Jews in France since the Second World War.

I had come to Paris in the gap before starting a degree in French at Manchester. I was one of the generation of students who studied Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les mains sales and Albert Camus’s Les Justes, canonical texts about the ethics of political violence and terrorism. I did not quite understand the historical contexts of these books; that they were thinly veiled allegories about eastern Europe and Algeria respectively. But I did enjoy the classroom debates about existentialism and the philosophical limits of political action. Yet none of this helped me make any sense of the anti-Jewish terrorism that had happened half a mile or so from the tatty hotel where I was staying. In the days that followed the massacre, I read the French newspapers, listened to the radio and watched television, but all I could make out was anger and pain.

This is how most of France felt in recent days as three Islamist terrorists brought the country to its knees. The facts of what happened are simple, stark and horrifying: three attacks left 17 people dead. Four of them were Jews, shot down in a kosher supermarket in the eastern part of Paris. What is harder to describe is how everyone felt during those terrible days.

The first assault, on the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo, was a gut-wrenching moment. That was because even if you didn’t read Charlie Hebdo – and it could be dumb, crass and boring – the journalists and cartoonists were almost like family friends to so many. This applies especially to Cabu (Jean Cabut), whose daft Beatles haircut belied a sly wit and whose sketches of Paris – published outside of Charlie Hebdo – were composed with a wiry elegance. Georges Wolinski, equally famous, was loved for his drawings of big-arsed women with attitude.

People had known for a long time that Charlie Hebdo had been sailing close to the edge with its provocative cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and so there were bodyguards at the offices, and a general atmosphere of tension surrounded the weekly magazine. But no one could have anti­cipated what happened and how it would affect people; it was as if an impossible evil had taken over daily life in the city.

And then it got worse. Thursday 8 January was a good day for a funeral, with sleeting rain and dark skies. There came the news that morning, both depressing and shocking, that a policewoman had been shot and murdered in Montrouge, on the southern edge of the city. Montrouge is on the other side of the périphérique – the motorway that encircles Paris – so it is officially in the banlieue, the notorious suburbs that surround French cities.

In reality, Montrouge is a more like a French provincial town, homely and friendly, with a popular public swimming pool. So it was all the more dreadful that a woman was killed during the school run.

By this stage, to be living in Paris was like being trapped in some kind of weird nightmare. The killers were on the run. Helicopters buzzed over the city day and night. Nobody could speak of anything else, and when they did talk it was in a muted way.

It was then, with the logic of a nightmare, that on 9 January we heard that a gunman had taken hostages at a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris. There had been more killings. With this latest vicious attack, the spectre of anti-Semitism, never too far away at the most violent moments in French history, had reappeared.

The game of equivalences does not really apply to terrorism – it is hard to say which attack is worse than any other: everybody suffers in similar ways. But, at least in scale, what was happening was bigger and more dramatic than even the 1982 attack on Goldenberg’s deli. For one thing, it had a geopolitical significance far beyond its local Parisian impact.

The 11 January Charlie Hebdo rally in Paris. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

I first heard of what was going on at a café in the rue de Grenelle as I stopped for a coffee before cycling to my office. This is a fairly staid part of town – mostly embassies and government offices – and as soon as I entered the bar I could see that something was wrong: the smart-suited diplomats and government officials were all standing, shouting and swearing at the television, as if this was a scruffy drinking dive showing a football match. I could just about make out the grainy and lopsided film of the assassins which has since been broadcast all over the world. “F**k!” said one of the guys at the bar. “Twelve dead! It’s a catastrophe.” Others joined in: “This has to be war.”

The television news and newspapers later reported, as they had done after the massacre at Goldenberg’s, that the attacks were the worst since the Second World War. Everybody started to believe it.

But the claim was not strictly true: the greatest loss of life on French soil since the war happened on 18 June 1961, when 28 people were killed on the Strasbourg-to-Paris train as it was derailed by a bomb. That attack was the work of the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS), an illegal group fighting to keep the French in Algeria at the height of the war of independence, when it looked likely that President Charles de Gaulle was about to give the colony away to the nationalist forces that had been fighting the French since 1954. The OAS’s campaign was in vain: the Algerians got their independence in 1962.

There is also, however, a link between the events in 1961 and 2015. More to the point, there is a case to be made that the attacks are all facets of the tortured relationship between France and Algeria. This was almost certainly not in the heads of the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly (born in France, of Malian origin) as they went about their deadly business in Paris, lost in the intoxication of murder and martyrdom. Yet without bringing the story of France and Algeria bang up to date, there is no way of understanding the twisted narrative that has led to the darkness engulfing France.

In all the recent coverage, the French media have not made much of the Franco-Algerian background of the Kouachi brothers. There are probably several good reasons for this. The French media, like nearly all French politicians, have been keen not to become entangled in what has been called “l’amalgame” – a confused mixture of race, religion and politics. The consensus is that this confusion is both inflammatory and entirely alien to the republican values of French universalism.

The one exception to the rule was Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National. It is worth remembering that Le Pen speaks to a disenfranchised white working class, many of whom have migrated to the Front from the wreckage of the Parti Communiste Français and who hate the Parisian elite. To reinforce her hardline image as the defender of the ordinary Français de souche (the “real” French people), Le Pen called for the return of the death penalty and the revoking of double nationality, a pointed attack on those who are perceived to be not “properly French” and, indeed, to be potential traitors or terrorists.

It was not hard to work out that this was an indirect reference to Mohamed Merah, the young Islamist assassin who, in three separate attacks, murdered three off-duty paratroopers, a 30-year-old rabbi and three small children outside a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012. He had a Franco-Algerian background similar to that of the Kouachi brothers. In the immediate aftermath of the killings, the French government and media had sought to disassociate Merah from anti-Semitism and radical Islam. The issues were said to be unemployment and the killer’s psychiatric problems.

But Merah, like many of his generation of Algerians in France, was caught between two worlds: the country where he lived and from which too often he felt excluded, and his country of origin, where he did not feel at home either. There is inevitably an existential conflict that Sartre or Camus would have recognised. Who are you? Where do you belong? What is your authentic self?

The next step in the radicalisation process is to find easy, ready-made solutions: in prison or in your home quartier, you meet an older man, a grand frère, who presents himself as an imam or a scholar of sacred texts and says that he knows the way out of the trap. He knows how the young, troubled man can find his true identity as both an Algerian and a Muslim, by waging war against the historical enemies of all Muslims. This is how the process of radicalisation begins.

The Algerian war of independence may seem far away to the present generation of young Algerians in France. However, Algeria’s civil war of the 1990s is within living memory. It began in 1992 when the Algerian government refused to hand over power to the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS, the Islamic Salvation Front), which had won the parliamentary elections the previous December and seemed likely to create an “Iran on the Mediterranean”. In the shadowy war fought since then between Islamists and the Algerian military, as many as 150,000 people are alleged to have been killed. No one knows the true figure.

For the Islamists, the enemy was not only the Algerian government but the French. They were seen not only as the former colonial masters, who had used torture as a weapon in the 1950s and 1960s, but also as collaborators with “le pouvoir” (the term the Islamists used to describe the Algerian national authorities). There were compelling rumours of French special forces’ involvement in faked terrorist attacks. It was therefore the duty of Muslims, according to the FIS, to fight against Hizb Franca, the party of France.

The Algerian civil war did indeed come to France in 1994 and 1995. The first attempt to attack the French mainland began on 24 December 1994. At Algiers airport, four members of the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA, the Armed Islamic Group) managed to sneak on to an Air France flight destined for Orly. There were 240 passengers on board. The plan was to fly to Paris and crash the plane into the Eiffel Tower, but for the next two days the plane remained on the runway as the French and Algerian governments sought a way out of the stand-off. In the end, French special forces stormed the plane on Boxing Day and shot dead the gunmen.

The violence came even closer in July 1995 when Sheikh Abdelbaki Sahraoui was killed in the rue Myrha in northern Paris. Sahraoui was in his eighties, a fluent French speaker and a founder member of the FIS. He was also a go-between for the French secret services and the GIA, which no longer heeded its elders. “We killed him because he was a democrat,” declared Abu Hamza at the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London. In Algiers, Paris and London the GIA distributed tracts that showed the Eiffel Tower in flames. It began to recruit even more heavily in France, sending volunteers to train in Afghanistan.

Parisians’ fears deepened on the discovery of two bomb factories in the same district of Paris. Then, just two weeks after Sahraoui’s death, a bomb exploded at Saint-Michel Métro station, in the heart of the Latin Quarter. The bomb went off at the height of the rush hour on the RER line, which connects the suburbs to the city. Eight people were killed and 119 injured. That night the French nation watched images on the evening news of bodies being carried across the familiar café terraces of one of the most popular tourist spots in the world.

Three weeks later a bomb exploded near the Arc de Triomphe. No one was killed but 17 people were injured and the strain for ordinary Parisians began to show. The sense of unreality was heightened by a bizarre note, sent to the French ambassador in Algiers, calling on President Jacques Chirac to convert to Islam.

The mastermind behind the terrorist attacks of 1995 was a young man called Khaled Kelkal, a Franco-Algerian who had been brought up in Lyons. His pursuit and capture were filmed by a crew from the France 2 TV channel and his killing was shown on prime-time news. The police claimed that Kelkal had been shot in the legs.

Kelkal became a hero of the banlieue across France. This was not just because he had defied the police but because of his life story. He was born in Algeria but moved as a child to live in the suburb of Vaulx-en-Velin. At the age of 13 he joined in the first anti-police riots in Lyons: this was in 1984. By the age of 18 he was serving time in prison for robbery. There, he was befriended by an Algerian called “Khélif”, an Islamist who had escaped prison in Algeria only to find himself locked up in France.

On his release, Kelkal began delivering guns and money from Algeria to France. He had found meaning in his life as well as excitement and glory. It was not long before he convinced himself of the need for military action against France. By chance, in 1992, he gave an interview to a German sociologist writing a thesis on France’s immigrant population. “In the banlieue we are separated from France by a wall,” he said, “an enormous wall.”

All of this has barely been mentioned in the French media in recent days. But it has not gone unnoticed in the French-speaking press in North Africa, which has unequivocally condemned the terrorists – with some caveats and warnings. Most notably, the Algerian daily El Watan suggested that what France is experiencing now was part of daily life in Algeria during the 1990s. In particular, the terrorists targeted journalists and intellectuals as their enemies.

An enduring memory of one of my most recent visits to Algiers is of a conversation I had with a female university lecturer. She is a Marxist and specialist in feminism. During the 1990s her daily life was punctuated by hissed threats and throat-slitting gestures from bearded young men and by the frequent discovery of headless corpses pinned to the university gates.

I went to the march in Paris on Sunday 11 January with a heavy heart and came back feeling slightly better. It was impressive to see a whole city on the move again; during the attacks, people had stayed away from the Métro and the streets had been unusually quiet. In the hour or so before the march, hundreds of thousands of people were once again coursing through the arteries of Paris, bringing it alive. Without wishing to make it seem too much like a Richard Curtis movie, it was heartening to see all ages, races and personalities mingling. I particularly liked the guy parading around with a big brown pencil in his over-the-top “French beret”. There were smiles, people were kind to those in wheelchairs, and strangers talked to one another.

Most importantly, I witnessed no overt displays of nationalism. At first I thought it had been a mistake to exclude Marine Le Pen and the FN – it is, after all, a legitimate and popular party. But the overall effect was to make the atmosphere more relaxed. There were Muslim faces, all welcomed and applauded. It is one of the invisible details of being a Parisian that interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims is an essential component of everyday life in offices, shops and cafés. More to the point, the Islam practised by most North Africans is of the Maliki school, a gentle, popular tradition that could not be more at odds with the puritanical fanaticism of the killers. I am glad that the march took place, but it will take a long time for this wounded city to recover. For now, the healing has begun.

Yet the ghosts of French history – and of French and Algerian history, in particular – are still very much present. Although the level of violence gets worse, from 1995 to 2012 to 2015, it feels as if there is nothing new in Islamist terror: variations of the same thing keep happening over and over again. It is 32 years since my first encounter with terror at Goldenberg’s deli. In the intervening period, I have researched and travelled widely in what was French North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria), trying to work out the complicated love-hate relationship between France and its former Muslim territories. Very quickly, after this month’s killings, I grew tired of the media arguments about censorship, the ignorant statements about Islam and the misunderstanding about the French-speaking world.

There are no easy answers; but what is certain is that the same political and cultural problems are being handed down from generation to generation. For all these reasons, much as we all wanted it to be the case at the march on Sunday, it’s not yet over.

Andrew Hussey is professor of cultural history at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. His latest book is “The French Intifada” (Granta)

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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