France, Arabs and Ghosts of a Colonial Past

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Young Muslims protesting in France. Reuters
Young Muslims protesting in France. Reuters

A new book, The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and its Arabs confronts the sordid colonial past of the French in the Middle East

NEIL BERRY

French-Intifada[dropcap]A[/dropcap] British professor of French studies resident in Paris, Andrew Hussey became curious to understand the tortured relationship between France and its Arabic Muslim community. Now he has written a big book on the subject, as erudite as it is provocative: The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and its Arabs.

Hussey’s book begins in the banlieues, the turbulent public housing estates on the outskirts of Paris that are home to great numbers of Muslims of north African background whose sense of alienation and bitterness is extreme. In subsequent chapters, he delves into history to elucidate why so many of them hate France, evoking the French colonization of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, the so-called “mission civilatrice” that in reality encompassed untold brutality and culminated in perhaps the bloodiest, most traumatic episode of the European colonial era: The French-Algerian War that raged from 1954 till 1962.

Quoting Frantz Fanon’s belief that colonialism is a “form of psychic violence that destroys the identity of the colonized,” Hussey portrays the relationship between France and its Arabs as inherently violent, essentially inflammatory.

And for all that there were French-ruled Arabs loyal toward metropolitan France, hostility toward the French state seems the common inheritance of indigenous Arab Muslims for whom the slogan of the French Revolution, “liberte, equalite, fraternite,” was a bad joke. Tellingly, Muslims make up 70 percent of the French prison population.

Hussey’s account of France and its Arabs suggests an ill-fated marriage, an abusive relationship that was a mistake from the outset.

The thrust of his argument is that France’s imperial past bedevils the present, with the banlieues haunted by the ‘”hosts of colonial and anti-colonial assassins.” It follows that there is no obvious political panacea for France’s difficulties with its Arabs. Hussey’s extraordinary, not to say portentous, conclusion is that what is required to remedy those difficulties is an exorcist, a specialist in casting out demons.

Written for an anglophone readership, The French Intifada is targeted at an Anglo-American media culture that views everything to do with Muslims through the prism of the “war on terror.” The book’s very title smacks of hyperbole, likening France to Israel as a racially defined state facing the permanent threat of a Palestinian-style “intifada” by a subjugated Arab population seeking a state of its own.

What the book fails to acknowledge is that alienation and anger are increasingly widespread emotions in contemporary western societies, with roots in socioeconomic inequalities that affect people of every race and class.

Nevertheless, there is much to be said for Hussey’s history lesson, his wide-ranging effort to unravel the complicated origins of France’s soured relationship with its Arabs in a colonial project that sprang from white European racial arrogance and territorial aggrandizement.

For the truth is that problems of integrating minorities in post-colonial societies like France and the UK will never be properly resolved until new national identities can be forged based on frankly confronting the exploitation, bad faith and hypocrisy that marked the colonial era.

Hussey’s book appears in Britain at a moment when an anonymous Saudi-born, ex-member of Al-Qaeda is urging the British government to do more to explain why the UK has not intervened in Syria and spell out that it is not to blame for the troubles there — or else run the risk of spawning fresh Islamic extremists. A new narrative is needed, he maintains. A new narrative is indeed needed — but a far bolder, more comprehensive one that finds room to recognize that Britain and France alike have much to answer for with respect to the ills of the region.

With the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 now looming large, conservative British voices are boasting that Britain saved democracy in the 1914-18 conflicts. What this view conveniently ignores is how France and Britain alike used victory over Kaiser Wilhelm 11’s Germany to expand their empires, drawing arbitrary lines in the sand to create French-dominated Syria and British-dominated Iraq and Palestine, with lamentable long-term consequences. Such evasiveness betrays the tenacity with which the countries in question cling to self-serving images of themselves as benign forces in the world.

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