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The Black Box of French History

[Book cover image courtesy of Macmillan.] [Book cover image courtesy of Macmillan.]

Andrew Hussey, The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and Its Arabs. London: Granta, 2014.

In 2005, a series of disturbing events occurred in France. In February, the parliament attempted to pass a law to force schools to teach “the positive role of French presence overseas, especially in North Africa.” That same autumn, riots erupted in a number of suburbs northeast of Paris, gradually spreading to other French cities and provoking the government to declare a state of emergency that had not been issued since the Algerian War.

Many commentators drew a straight line from one to the other: France’s unresolved colonial past was coming to haunt it through an insurrection of its immigrant youth. Andrew Hussey, dean of the University of London in Paris, offers a remarkably unsubtle and unhelpful version of this analysis in his latest work, The French Intifada. Opening the book, one is confronted first with a map of the former French colonies in North Africa, and then with a map of the Parisian suburbs, which rioted in 2005. The posited link is clear. As is suggested by its evocative subtitle “the Long War between France and its Arabs," the book starts with a tableau of contemporary divisions in France before zooming back into the colonial past to frame them, rather vaguely, within a context of global Islamic insurgency. His hodgepodge narrative jumps from the 2004 bombings in Madrid to the 2011 revolution in Tunisia via the actions of black supremacist groups in France. All of these, somehow, he wants to trace back to the original sin of colonial Algeria, though it is unclear how.

At first sight, France's shared history with its former North African colonies is so intimate that this seems to make sense. Since the 1830 conquest of Algiers, migration, capital, and blood have created dense links across the Mediterranean. The relationship with Algeria is even more intimate than with the former protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia, so much so that Algeria was made a part of France in 1848 and only left after the bloodiest of liberation wars in 1962. Hussey claims to want to show that France was not “the sole agent of history during the colonial period, but that the countries of the Maghreb had a direct influence on the twists and turns of French history,” yet his narrative does no such thing.

Instead, when he claims that there is an “unacknowledged civil war between France and its suburbs” and that rioting youth are “anti-civilization in action,” Hussey is very much part of the problem rather than providing any kind of solution. The emergence of Islam as one of several languages of protest in the French suburbs, drawing on the colonial past, but also on contemporary global trends, is a worthy subject of analysis, but one that is hardly served by crudely stating that five million French Muslims are at war with the French state. North Africans and their descendants in France have never been a monolithic group, and it is irresponsible for Hussey to give the impression that all of them are somehow involved in his vaguely outlined global insurrection. Many aspire to be left in peace without being constantly branded as colonial others. This is something that works like The French Intifada are unlikely to dispel, pushing them further into a tiny little black box. Saying that their only impact on French society has been violence runs dangerously close to the National Front’s arguments that see immigration only as a "problem."

In fact, Hussey is so desperate to find violent Arabs that he makes disturbing simplifications. In order to work, his theory of Algeria as the black box of French history has to systematically erase any possible binaries other than the one between "France" and "Arabs." For instance, black people perform a strange disappearing act in The French Intifada. In the early chapters on the present-day, Hussey ranges aimlessly among a number of spectacular contemporary cases of violence in the banlieues, discussing for instance the extremely violent torture and murder of a young Jew by a gang led by Youssouf Fofana, the son of immigrants from Côte d'Ivoire. He then moves on to tell us that he is going to find the solution to this problem by travelling to… Algeria. Black people and sub-Saharan Africa are never mentioned again. The connection between these things is never made clear. Black people, therefore, disappear under the larger category of “Arab,” presumably because they are Muslim and this means more or less the same thing. Jews, here in the tragic figure of Ilan Halimi, abducted, tortured and killed, are conjured as objects of vague concern but not as agents, simply because Hussey wants us to know that he is a good liberal man who is concerned about anti-Semitism.

Imazighen (Berbers), who are North Africans but not Arabs, are also condemned to disappear. Despite giving us a relatively detailed account of Algerian history since independence, Hussey seems to suggest that all Algerians speak Arabic, completely leaving out the numerous insurrections and riots in the Tamazight-speaking region of Kabylie against the Arabization policies of the central government. Hussey accidentally or intentionally writes out the possibility that there might be a history of relations between Muslims and Jews, Arabs and Berbers, blacks and whites that is heavily polarized but not reducible to colonialism.

North Africans, it seems, are incapable of having a history of their own. Thus, the 2011 revolution in Tunisia only appears in Hussey’s work as a revolution targeting France. Of course, the French government actively supported the Ben Ali regime until it was ousted in January 2011, but suggesting that the Tunisian people only evicted Ben Ali as a way to get back at France seems tragically reductive. When he visits Tunis today, Hussey slips into using colonial terminology, claiming it is "one of the prettiest cities in French North Africa"—mapping it like a colonial administrator while Tunisia has not been under French control since 1956. For a book written in 2013 that is meant to help us think about the contemporary situation on both sides of the Mediterranean, what Hussey does with the 2011 revolution in Tunisia is most worrying because it makes it impossible to think of North Africans as agents of their own history.

Because it is an example of relatively non-violent change, however, the Tunisian revolution of 2011 is swept aside in a narrative focusing on violence. French colonialism in North Africa was indeed colossally violent, in physical and other ways, yet it is also dangerous to only see it as a "long war." As James McDougall has pointed out, by only looking for violence in the North African past, we leave out important chunks of time in which other possibilities seemed to open up, and condemn North Africans to endlessly repeating cycles of violence with no choice. By positing a continuous conflict, this focus actually makes contemporary violence in postcolonial France and North Africa harder to properly understand.

This is not to say that the structural violence of colonialism has disappeared, but rather that its enduring legacy in the present must be thought through carefully. In this, Hussey is not alone. A whole body of scholarship has mixed the psychic and the political to diagnose French society as “repressed," only to be cured by talking about its colonial past. The first was Benjamin Stora's landmark work La gangrène et l'oubli, written in 1991 at a time when the French government still had not recognized that there had been a "war" in Algeria. Stora traced the systematic repression of the history of the Algerian War and its repercussions in contemporary French politics. Stora might not be so familiar to English-speaking audiences, but in recent years, many scholars from American and British universities have followed his lead. Initially interested in France, these historians have moved on to explore the French colonial past. Such a prospect is tempting: it allows them to do “global history” at minimal cost in terms of linguistic skills, and to broach sexier, zeigeistier subjects than those previously afforded to historians of France, including race, Islam, Arabs, etc. At its best, such work has reinvigorated French colonial history by bringing a critical outlook on race forged in an Anglophone postcolonial context, thus generating new insights about the Republic's supposed racial neutrality. At its worst, these scholars only approach the French colonies (and really, mainly Algeria) as a black box to solve problems in French history. This is dangerous because Algeria ceases to be a real place where people live, breathe, hope, dream, and die, and instead becomes a mere problem or concept in French history. Approaching this subject through the prism of an interest in France, this kind of scholarship tends to exceptionalize France's colonial and postcolonial history, without connecting to developments elsewhere.

“Repression” is an unhelpful analytical tool, as the problem is certainly not one of silence. Especially since 2005, there has been a slow, but increasingly rich and explicit discussion in France of racial inequality and the colonial past, both in the academic and political spheres. The Algerian War has never really been forgotten in France; instead, the political context of the 1990s and 2000s stimulated controversy and debate about how to understand the past. In 2012, the fiftieth anniversary of Algerian independence led to a particular profusion of public events, television documentaries, and exhibits. Like Foucault's Victorians in their relationship to sex, French people nowadays talk about repressing the Algerian War more than they actually repress it.

Writing about race in postcolonial France should thus acknowledge change as well as continuity: colonialism alone cannot explain racism in contemporary France. As the rap group from Seine Saint-Denis, Suprême NTM, already noted in 1995 in "Plus jamais ça," Jean-Marie Le Pen may be a “mentally unbalanced man” who “has not digested the end of the Algerian War” but “we do not give a fuck because we were not there” (nous on s'en bat les couilles, on était pas là). Twenty years later, with his daughter Marine now leading the party, the Algerian War is increasingly unhelpful for understanding why a young generation of French voters is tempted by the National Front’s Islamophobia. Whilst discourse surrounding immigration in the 1980s primarily referred to North Africans as "Arabs," there has been an increasing racialization of Islam in France since the 1990s and especially as part of the post 9/11 "War on Terror" discourse. The rise of a certain way of talking about "Islam" in contemporary France—both as a threat but also as a language of affirmation that has seen young French people of a variety of origins converting or re-converting to Islam—does draw on colonial precedents. But it also acquired a dynamic of its own that continued to unfold under the Sarkozy presidency and up to the popularity of the Front National in the polls today.

Acknowledging the role that 9/11 plays in shaping French political discourse indicates another way we might escape using Algeria as a “black box:" by inserting the history of France's relations with its North African colonies into a global context. Hussey suggests that the "French Intifada" is both a uniquely French process and part of a global "Fourth World War," and it is unclear how this exceptionalist story fits into a global context.

Writing about racial issues in France as an "Anglo-Saxon" is no easy task: Hussey correctly points out that the French media gets very touchy about foreign observers “misunderstanding” the nature of the problem of the suburbs. Comparisons between Britain and France often descend into a petty game of national point-scoring. Commentators love to compare the perceived benefits of “French assimilation” versus “British multiculturalism” without verifying whether they bear any relationship to reality. Relying on a narcissism of minor differences, this kind of commentary makes complex problems reassuringly national: these are "French" problems to do with the "Republic," or conversely, "Anglo-Saxon" problems to do with "racism." Thus any kind of structural racism that might go beyond the national character of each side of the Channel is eluded.

Sadly, Hussey falls into these traps by positioning his story as an exclusively and exceptionally French one, even though he has ample material which he refuses to push further. He recounts, for instance, a scuffle between football fans in Marseille in which English supporters call Tunisian supporters “Pakis”—and yet goes no further. Might the colonial pasts of France and Britain be more entangled more than we would like to think? Hussey only offers the cliché that "the British were mostly interested in money and therefore mainly indifferent to the cultures of the 'natives' they colonized." Not only is this elision of the impact of British settler colonialism disturbing, but it does not square well with one of Hussey's best chapters, in which he shows that British and American queer writers in interwar Tangiers participated in imperialism just as much as their French Orientalist counterparts.

While exposing the alleged repression of the French colonial past, Hussey ends up bottling up the British one, thus offering us no way beyond this French/Anglo-Saxon rivalry. For a book written in 2013 by a British author focusing on rioting as a form of protest against racial oppression, it is particularly bizarre not to mention the 2011 riots in Tottenham, if only as a counterpoint. Hussey even tantalizingly tells us that he was present in 1981 at riots in Toxteth in Liverpool and at les Minguettes in Lyon the same year, so he would presumably be in a good position to compare and contrast.

We could easily imagine the opposite of Hussey's book, an exploration by a French journalist of Britain's unique postcolonial issues, perhaps entitled La Rage du Raj and ranging from the Battle of Plassey to the 7/7 bombings, offering potted histories of kedgeree, the Kashmir conflict, and a safari through Bradford in the process. This would be equally pointless. Instead, careful and thoughtful comparisons might help us isolate precisely what it is about the colonial past that affects contemporary France. Simply pointing out that there are riots and that many of the people involved in the riots are Muslim is not enough: one hesitates to imagine an explanation of the 2013 riots in Stockholm based on Sweden's troubled colonial past. Without falling into sensationalist traps of writing only about violence or drawing straight lines between the colonial past and now, we might arrive at a more subtle understanding of race in postcolonial France, and particularly how it interacts with socioeconomic and generational inequality.

Through such an analysis we might understand why the poorer banlieues in France are also full of socio-economically deprived Portuguese immigrants and their descendants, but they are invisible in both national and international media coverage because of their “whiteness.” Or we might try to understand how children of immigrants to France, though “Arabs” in France, are alienated by their cousins when they visit North Africa because they are considered to be “French.” Or how crossover mixes of Algerian, Ivoirian music, and hip-hop ("rai'n'b") repeatedly storm the French popcharts, suggesting a creativity of the mixed banlieue culture which Hussey condescendingly only sees as “anticivilization.” 

The only purpose of perpetually describing France as repressed is to put intellectuals in the exalted position of exposing the terrible repression of the past, and yet, the process completely excuses them from engaging in political action to undo systemic racism. At the end of The French Intifada, Hussey concludes that France might need not “a psychiatrist but an exorcist” to shoo away the ghost of Algeria. But this is only because his explanation of events is supernatural in the first place, as the past and the present are linked by some magical but unexplained means. Hussey summons many ghosts—colonialism, the Algerian War, Palestine, Islam—and then has no idea what to do with them. Such necromancy, without any hard thinking to figure out the links between these phenomena, is reckless. Hussey repeatedly conjures the Palestinian struggle through his use of the word intifada and other careless analogies; Algiers, he tells us, shuts down at night unlike any other Mediterranean city “with maybe the exception of Gaza." It is unclear how this link is meant to operate: are French Muslims being influenced by events in Palestine (a recurring anxiety of the French media)? Is it therefore only a French Intifada or a global one? But why bother thinking about such things when one can conjure important-sounding words and then dismiss them.

The shared history of France and North Africa is a rich and important topic, one certainly worthy of a great book, but The French Intifada is not it. Aside from its crude thesis, it betrays a systematic contempt for historical facts (sadly too numerous for this review to discuss), and for spelling in English, French, and Arabic. Various Arabic quotations, inserted for local flavor as Hussey interviews taxi drivers in North Africa, are systematically butchered: one wonders to what extent someone who claims Algerians shouted “yaya djezair” (instead of tahya al-jaza’ir, long live Algeria) and Moroccans shouted “yahla al malik” (instead of yahya al malik, long live the king) really cares about giving North Africans a voice.

Hussey claims to offer “accessible analysis” to a lay audience but instead he provides very little analysis at all. By trying to frame every single action of North Africans as a violent Islamic insurrection against civilization, he does far more damage than good. Precisely at a time when historians have moved away from positing simple links between the colonial past and the present, when they have attempted to write histories of North Africa beyond counting the number of beheadings, when they have shown that Islamic fundamentalism is not merely set against the West, and when revolutions in the region show us that not all history is colonial history, Hussey clearly has the tools in hand to make a more subtle argument, and yet he wilfully ignores it. Without this analysis, The French Intifada is to postcolonialism what French Women Don't Get Fat is to nutritional science: an exotic tableau full of quaint italicized words whose purpose is to enhance the author's authority rather than to offer any genuine historical—let alone political—insights.

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