France’s Intifada: Rocking the Casbah, From Paris to Algiers

(Image: Faber and Faber)(Image: Faber & Faber)The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and Its Arabs, Andrew Hussey, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

On a cold day in March 2007, Andrew Hussey was returning from work on the Paris metro and, as usual, got off at the Gare du Nord station to change trains. On this day, something very unusual was happening.

In the introduction to his book, The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and Its Arabs, Hussey writes:

As I walked up the exit stairs I could smell smoke and hear shouting…. I could see armed police and dogs…. I pushed my way through the crowd, burst into the empty piazza, and found myself in dead space, caught in a stand-off between two battle lines – on one side police in blue-black riot gear, drumming batons on their clear, hard shields, and on the other a rough assembly of kids and young adults, mainly black or Arab, boys and girls, dressed in hip-hop fashion, singing, laughing and throwing stuff. You could tell from their accents and manners that these were not Parisians; they were kids from the banlieues – the poor suburbs to the north of Paris, connected to the city by the trains running into the Gare du Nord.

The situation, which lasted many hours, was chaotic and violent. The media made a beeline to the station and, surprising to Hussey, a veteran journalist, the reporting was “mainly calm,” almost matter of fact.

Was it calm because reporters misunderstood the situation or purposefully understated the gravity of it?

Today, France has the largest Muslim population in Europe with more than 5 million people from North Africa, the Middle East and the so-called “Black Atlantic,” which includes West African “stretches from Mali to Senegal.” Most Muslims were former subjects of the French empire. They live in the banlieues, the abominable high-rises built “outside the city, and the relative affluence of central Paris,” and for most people visiting the country, are only seen when they ride in from the airport.

Hussey, the director of the Centre for Post-Colonial Studies at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, and a regular contributor to The Guardian and the New Statesman, points out that the “rioters at Gare du Nord … often describe themselves as soldiers in a ‘long war’ against France and Europe.”

It’s a war between the former subjects of the French empire now living in France, and the French state. While this war is certainly fueled by crushing poverty, massive youth unemployment, hopelessness, “the otherness of exclusion” and the appalling situation of the banlieues, it is intimately connected to French history and to ever-changing events in the Arab world.

And, quite significantly, it is also a “conflict between the opposing principles of laïcité and communautarisme,” Hussey writes.

Laïcité “means that under French law it is illegal to distinguish individuals on the basis of religion … it blocks religious interference in the affairs of state…. [which], it is argued, guarantees the moral unity of the French nation – the ‘République indivisible.'”

Communautarisme “sets the needs of the ‘community’ against the needs of ‘society.'” Thus identity, “whether of sexuality, religion or disability … is seen as a form of sectarianism and a threat to the Republic.”

Hussey maintains that “[t]he most acute problem for the recent generations of Muslim immigrants to France is that the proclaimed universalism of republican values, and in particular laïcité, can very quickly resemble the ‘civilizing mission’ of colonialism. In other words, if Muslims want to be ‘French,’ they must learn to be citizens of the Republic first and Muslims second; for many this is an impossible task, hence the anxieties over whether Muslims in France are muselmans de France or muselmans en France.”

It is one thing to be reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, as I did more than three decades ago, while speeding through the Cuban countryside on a bus whose future possibilities seemed to embody Gabriel García Márquez’s fantastical magical realism. It is altogether different to read The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and Its Arabs (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), while in Paris for six weeks only a few months after the murders at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket. Hussey weaves a story of murderous realism, which examines the current crisis in France, and takes an uncompromising look at France’s colonial record in North Africa.

He takes readers to uncomfortable places, places you wouldn’t normally think of going while on a trip to France. Maybe you’d rather not go there, satisfied instead with the casual and secure ambience of the tourist sections, the accommodating restaurants, the lovely parks, the dazzling architecture and the many museums filled with art, sculpture, photography and historical exhibits. Certainly you’d be just as happy sitting in a café pondering which chocolate shop to visit or what scarf to buy for a friend back home.

There is no doubt, however, that learning about France’s brutal colonial history helps illuminate and explain events over the past few decades, including the riots in the banlieues, the then unfolding Arab Spring and this year’s horrific murders at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket in eastern Paris.

In June 1830, French ships were anchored in the bay of Sidi-Ferruch, a small town some 25 kilometers from Algiers. A landing party led the charge, and while the French lost a reported 50 men, “the Arabs were disorganized and there were too few of them to offer any convincing resistance.” The ultimate goal was to stage a massive military expedition that would overwhelm the country’s people. Behind the attacking navel vessels was a fleet of “pleasure ships” containing the French elite. They were there to see a show “bombardment” – in this case the canons from the French war ships lighting up the night with fires from the houses they were destroying in the town.

The “first invasion of an Arab country by a European power since the Crusades” began “as an elegant entertainment and fireworks display,” Hussey writes. The ugly, but oft-repeated scene had “Parisian spectators watching the slaughter through opera glasses from the deck of their cruise ships.”

Hussey takes readers on a pretty straight journey from the invasion of Algeria and its colonization in the name of “civilization,” to subsequent events in Morocco and Tunisia, and the process of imposing “civilization” on the colonized, including turning Algerian cities into replicas of the homeland. For the colonized, resistance was futile and costly. There was a seemingly never-ending series of French-led massacres of Algerians; you can almost smell the dead bodies lying on the streets of the Casbah.

After a long and brutal war, Algerians won their independence. Much like the US experience in Vietnam, the Algerian war for independence severely divided the French people. “In today’s Algiers,” Hussey writes, “the French may have left, but France is still the enemy.”

The road to independence in Morocco and Tunisia was decidedly different from Algeria. While both countries had serious independence movements, they weren’t as violent or bloody as the war over Algeria. In 1955, as the war in Algeria was heating up, France, needing to avoid a two-front war, “cynically” granted Morocco its independence. Tunisia’s independence was also granted during that same period, following nearly 50 years of an active independence movement.

Hussey provides updates on the volatile and difficult political realities facing those countries at the time of writing the book.

It closes with a stark and sober look at the prisons of France, particularly of Paris, where today, approximately 70 percent of prisoners in France are Muslim. The prisons, many experts point out, have become breeding grounds of religious extremism.

The French Intifada is a “tour around some of the most important and dangerous front lines of what many historians now call the ‘Fourth World War,’ from the banlieues of France to Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, and back again to the banlieues and prisons in France,” Hussey writes. “This war is not just a conflict between Islam and the West or the rich North and the globalized South, but a conflict between two very different experiences of the world – the colonizers and the colonized.”