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Notes on the French Intifada
France’s colonial legacy plays a huge part in today’s problems
Seven years ago today, a 31-year-old man got behind the wheel of a 19-tonne lorry and purposefully drove it down Nice’s Promenade des Anglais at speed as crowds celebrated France’s Bastille Day. Eighty-six people were killed, including 14 children, the image of an infant’s corpse wrapped in foil beside a toy shocking a country that had grown wearily used to violence.
The previous November, 130 people had been murdered across Paris in a series of attacks which reached their most intense savagery at the Bataclan. This followed earlier atrocities that year at the Charlie Hebdo office and a Jewish supermarket in the French capital. In all cases the attackers were of North African origin, although often born and raised in France.
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Visiting the country that summer felt quite strange, with soldiers stationed at every conceivable public place amid a sense of acute tension. Even in a small village fête in Provence four soldiers and four armed police walked around guarding all entrances. It brought back childhood memories of Northern Ireland, and of visiting Israel during the Second Intifada. Indeed, this was the phrase that had started to be used to describe the state of emergency: the French Intifada.
The recent violence in Paris and elsewhere, which saw attempts to ram the home of a mayor, once again highlighted the trouble the country has with integration. But the French police union describing themselves as being ‘at war with vermin’ illustrated the different mindset to the English-speaking world, and the far more belligerent approach to the problems of diversity.
Like Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden, France has had difficulties assimilating the children of immigrants from beyond Europe, yet its recent history has proved especially violent and troubled. Britain has jihadi terrorism – 2017 was especially grim – but it has never reached such intensity. Today, as over 130,000 police officers stand guard to protect the Republic on the day of its celebration, it is worth considering the journey that brought it to such a state.
Analysts have often compared Britain’s state multiculturalism with France’s system of laïcité, which tends to downplay the existence of ‘communities’ even to the point of not taking demographic statistics. Although neither country’s approach has entirely been a success, France’s refusal to recognise immigrants as anything but French has often been blamed for the widespread sense of alienation.
Others point to the housing system, which tends towards concentrations of North and West Africans in suburban banlieues, or the less laissez-faire economic policy which results in higher unemployment (in exchange for better social security).
While they no doubt play a part, the biggest single difference is history, as Andrew Hussey recounted back in 2014 in The French Intifada, in particular France’s history with North Africa. To put it in British terms, imagine that Britain’s rule in Pakistan had involved not a small number of administrators and soldiers but instead hundreds of thousands of British settlers arriving in the country, many with the intention of making it a ‘new America’ (i.e. driving the natives out).
That Britain had declared Pakistan an integral part of the country, and that, rather than scarpering in indecent haste when the empire began to disintegrate, Britain had dug in to preserve its rule in a sadistic war of independence, one in which natives and white settlers committed countless atrocities against each other.
And that this violence had spilled into Britain with assassination attempts and terrorism, by both sides, destabilising the country to the point where there was talk of a coup. And that this was happening just as large-scale immigration to the colonial power was taking place.
Britain experienced nothing like as much violence in the dying days of empire, and indeed the only real comparison with our history was the moment when there was almost all-out conflict between Britain’s Protestant and Irish Catholic populations before the First World War.
If French politicians so casually talk of ‘civil war’ between its right wing and the Algerian-descended population, it is because it has already played out this conflict before – one that was never healed, and so invites a sequel.
Hussey describes first arriving in Lyon in the 1980s with the typical left-wing worldview of a Manchester University graduate. This was a period when youth politics in Britain was moving firmly to the Left and antiracism becoming the norm, and he was taken aback by the attitudes in his new home.
Lyon, despite being France’s second city, is somewhat insular, having less of an international profile than smaller centres like Marseilles or Bordeaux, and also has a long-standing link with the occult, including necromancy and satanism – in 1993 Le Point called it ‘Lyon, capitale de l’etrange’. It also has a sense of itself as being in opposition to Paris, representing La France profonde and with a strong conservative tradition; indeed, it is home to a university that, by British standards, is very right wing and still has a nationalist strain within its student body (the Anglophone presumption that students are left wing does not always hold on the continent).
It was in this city that rioting erupted in the summer of 1981, soon after the election of François Mitterrand, the country’s first left-wing president since the war, and a moment that had inspired hope for the country’s progressives. This was the first taste of unrest involving the country’s North African population, and more was to come three years later in Vénissieux, a suburb of the city, which led to a week-long occupation and the involvement of more than 4,000 armed police officers. Even then, people talked of a ‘new French civil war’.
The earlier generation of French Arab youth were secular and leftist. ‘They also believed in the right to smoke dope, drink alcohol, chase girls of all ethnic extractions, and form rock bands’, Hussey writes. This was quite similar to the experience in Britain with the politicised young Asians of the 1980s, as outlined in Kenan Malik’s From Fatwa to Jihad. In particular, they modelled themselves on black Americans who, with their outsized cultural power and charisma, had since the 1960s become role models for non-white minorities across Europe.
Black French youth today still have a strange sort of Anglophilia, influenced by rap music and Premier League football, ‘which explains why so many kids in the banlieues are called Steeve, Marky, Jenyfer, Britney or even Kevin’. He writes that ‘They don’t always get the spelling right, but the sentiment is straightforward: we are not like other French people; we refuse to be like them.’ (Kevin is also popular with working-class whites in France).
The housing situation plays a major part in creating a sense of separation. ‘In all French towns and cities with a significant immigrant population, there has been a singular failure of vision and imagination around the issue of the banlieues. The problem is both simple and complex. It is simple in that the people who live there are angry and unhappy. It is complex in the sense that these people do not necessarily live in tangible, material poverty but rather in a kind of spiritual poverty. This is because they do not belong here. No one does. This is the secret truth of the banlieues of Lyons and its replicas across France.’
Living in the soulless housing projects, North African communities rely on traditional structures to help social solidarity, with caïds (chiefs) and grands frères (big brothers) who ensure safety and order. As with elsewhere in Europe, much of the tension comes from the clash between a clannish population and a WEIRD one.
Algeria, despite the war with Islamic fundamentalists, is not an especially religious country – way less so than Pakistan – and French Muslims are not that observant. But belief and identity are separate things, and as Islamism rose in strength across the wider Middle East, so the Faith of the Other proved to be the most powerful force among people often made to feel ashamed of their ancestry.
The result is a population living in a state of acute alienation. Hussey witnesses a crowd of angry youths at the Gare du Nord, the borderland between these two worlds, in a stand-off with police, an event he describes as thrilling and frightening. ‘This was anti-civilisation in action – a transgression of every code of behaviour that holds a society together.’ They shouted ‘Nik les schmitts’ (Fuck the cops), or ‘Fuck the police’ in English, but on occasion he noticed that they were also shouting ‘Na’al abouk la France!’ – ‘Fuck France!’
It was during the October–November 2005 riots in Clichy-sous-Bois, on the eastern outskirts of Paris, that the media first talked of the ‘French Intifada’. As with recent events, it was sparked by a bavure, or ‘blunder’, the word given to ‘the kind of police cock-up that regularly ends with an innocent person dying or being injured’.
The violence subsided after two weeks, although it helped the career of Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior, who called the rioters ‘racaille’ (which Hussey translates as ‘scum’, though others compare it to the milder ‘riff-raff’ or ‘rabble’).
The riots then, as now, attracted a great deal of coverage in the Anglophone world, and ‘it was generally agreed that the severity of the crisis had been exaggerated by the English-speaking media, who knew little of France and used the news of the French riots as a distraction from their own problems with immigration and immigrants in their own countries’.
Indeed, in France it is very easy to not know these riots are going on. My mother visited Paris during the recent disturbances and said that you wouldn’t have any idea there was anything up. But that, of course, is part of the problem. ‘It’s not uncommon for contemporary Parisians to talk about la banlieue in terms that make it seem as unknowable and terrifying as the forests that surrounded Paris in the Middle Ages’, Hussey writes.
Modern France works under a system of laïcité, which ‘guarantees the moral unity of the French nation’, the ‘Republique indivisible’. The principle of hard secularism dates to the early 20th century and the bitter culture wars over the role of the Catholic Church, but for the children of migrants, he writes, laïcité can seem to resemble the ‘civilising mission’ of French colonialism. Unlike the British, who were not interested in turning colonial subjects into little Englishmen, France’s empire was motivated in part by a desire to make colonial subjects French.
In the 19th century, France began to describe itself as ‘une puissance musulmane’ (a Muslim power), and this system famously reached its most absurd with Berber children in Algeria learning about their ‘Gaulish ancestors’. In contrast, the British had an attitude to empire that was effectively more racist, believing that colonial subjects couldn’t be like us, but it also carried a certain amount of standoffish respect – because, even if inferior, they’re fine as they are.
This approach would continue to some extent as the empires followed Britain and France home. British-style multiculturalism has its downsides – in particular, it helped to promote religious identity through often dubious ‘community leaders’ – but neither has France’s civilising mission created a common sense of nationhood between the gris – those children of empire considered ‘neither white nor black’ – and the fils de Clovis, as they call the white French.
The housing system certainly plays a part. Unlike London, where government housing tends to be heaviest in the most central (and expensive) boroughs, France reserves the land inside Paris’s Périphérique and its projects are kept outside, especially concentrated to the north-east. These used to be white – indeed they had a significant Jewish presence – but they have since fled, often complaining of intimidation.
Many British cinema viewers were introduced to the banlieues by the 1995 film La Haine, which starred Vincent Cassell as Vinz, a young Jewish man in a multiracial gang. But Hussey finds the film ‘unconvincing, because I suspect that a Jew could never be friends with blacks and Arabs in this way. Also, although I know plenty of Jews in Paris, I don’t know a single Jew who lives in the banlieues, even though at one time the Jewish community flourished in the suburbs – there are still synagogues in Bagnolet and Montreuil which date from the 1930s.’
Indeed France’s Jews, whose numbers were hugely depleted by the Holocaust, have probably suffered most in this conflict. In January 2006 Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old mobile phone salesman, was invited out on a date with a French-Iranian woman called Yalda; he was seized by men in balaclavas and found, three weeks later, naked and tied to a tree. He died on the way to hospital. She later crowed that, when their victim was seized, ‘he screamed for two minutes with a high-pitched voice like a girl’.
Halimi had been tortured for three weeks, and ‘residents of the block had heard his screams and the laughter of those torturing him, but had done nothing’. No one called the police.
Fifteen youths from the Bagneux district of southern Paris were arrested, a group calling themselves the Gang of Barbarians who expressed a hatred of ‘rich Jews’. The leader, an Ivorian who had doused his victim in petrol and set fire to him, said he was ‘proud’ of what he did.
What gave this horrific story an extra chill was how few came to the Jewish community’s defence. In a country where historical guilt about wartime trains to the east hangs in the air, perhaps most memorably related in Au revoir, les enfants, they just went quiet – all the way to the top.
After Ilan’s murder ‘the Chirac government disassembled about “social problems” in the banlieues’, and only Sarkozy, of partly Sephardic heritage, called it an ‘anti-Semitic crime’. One Tunisian-French Jew told Hussey of the historic echoes ‘of the Nazi period, when Jews died and everybody pretended everything was all right.’
Hussey finds anti-Semitism widespread in the banlieue, residents bandying around ‘phrases such as sale juif, sale yid, sale feuj, youpin, youtre’ – this latter term dates from the 1940s ‘and so, with its echoes of the Nazi deportations, contains a special poison’. All of these racist epithets ‘were widely used. I heard all about the crimes of the Jews, yet it was hard to find anyone who had met a Jewish person’.
Hussey’s book title was prescient, published just as the violence began to intensify into something much more serious, fuelled by the chaos of the Syrian war and the rise of ISIS. The first victims were Jews.
In March 2012, Rabbi Jonathan Sandler was dropping off two boys, aged 5 and 3, at the Ozar HaTorah school in Toulouse, when a gunman approached and shot all three dead. Nearby, teachers and pupils thought the shots were fireworks. The killer then grabbed an 8-year-old girl, Myriam Monsonégo, and blasted a bullet through her temple.
The media at first believed the killer to be a neo-Nazi, as the previous week two soldiers of North African origin had been killed in a similar way. But then a journalist took a phone call from a man claiming full responsibility for the attacks, saying it was revenge for Afghanistan and the treatment of the Palestinians. The killer, Mohammed Merah, was soon confronted by police while heavily armed and shot dead by a sniper.
Toulouse was followed, after the publication of Hussey’s book, by a series of horrors that led the President to declare a state of emergency – not just the Hebdo massacre, Bataclan and Nice, but numerous street rammings, church attacks and other acts of terror both by organised groups and lone wolves.
The Intifada has died down since, but the rage at its heart remains – an anger that runs deep to the first arrival of the French in Algiers in 1830. And if many young French of North African descent see their revolt as revenge for colonialism, it is an idea not lost on the country’s Right, either. Indeed, for some, the current violence is merely the continuation of a long war between France and its Arabs.
This is part one of a two-part review.
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