In 2005, the world watched as France was rocked by a series of arson-inflected riots that started in Paris and spread quickly across the whole country. Angry, alienated youths from the remote outer suburbs of Paris, Lyon, and other major cities — the banlieues — burned cars and looted shops, ostensibly in response to the deaths of two young Paris teenagers who had been electrocuted in a power station while fleeing police.
In The French Intifada: The Long War between France and Its Arabs, Andrew Hussey, a journalist and academic who heads the University of London Institute in Paris, seeks to explain the unseen currents that contributed to this wave of violence and subsequent upheavals. Weaving together references from history, literature, and philosophy, along with personal anecdotes and original reportage, he seeks to lay bare “the unacknowledged civil war between France and its disturbed suburbs.” In the process, he draws upon the ideas of Freud, Sartre, Camus, and Frantz Fanon to illuminate the social and ideological underpinnings of the conflict.
The book begins with an account of a riot Hussey witnessed firsthand in March 2007, outside Paris’s Gare du Nord, involving “black or Arab, boys and girls, dressed in hip-hop fashion, singing, laughing and throwing stuff…taking on the whole world around them — the police, the train authorities, passersby — wrecking the station, the shops and the offices.” He remarks that although France’s left-wing press tried to frame the riot as “une émeute populaire,” a term with class conflict connotations, the youths weren’t chanting about poverty — they were shouting “Na’al abouk la France!” a French-Arabic hybrid expression meaning “Fuck France!”
France has the distinction of being home to 5 million Muslims, the largest population of its kind in Europe. To explain the source of the violent disaffection some of them feel toward the country of their birth, Hussey highlights the French insistence on laïcité, which stipulates that Muslims must be citizens of the Republic first and believers second. This effort to superimpose a French identity on former colonial refugees and migrant workers creates what Hussey calls a “dysfunctional family structure” defined by a “sense of ownership that France has felt and still feels towards the Arab world.” As he explains, it also ignores the violent history of colonial oppression that contextualizes the Muslim presence in France to begin with.
Hussey describes the troubled outer suburbs of Paris and Lyon as “vast prison camps” whose populations are kept physically separate from the city centers in a kind of social and economic limbo: “It is simple in that the people who live there are angry and unhappy,” he writes. “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.” The young people there communicate using English and Arab slang, borrowing equally from American hip-hop and the traumatic legacy of North African colonial history. For example, the term harki is a common insult, designating Algerians who fought on the French side during the war, a stark reminder of unhealed historical wounds: “During the infamous France-Algeria football match at the Stade de France in September 2001, the Algerian supporters taunted the French superstar Zinédine Zidane, who is of Algerian origin, with cries of ‘Zidane-harki.’As riots broke up the match, Zidane left the pitch in tears.” These linguistic trends are deliberate markers of difference: “They don’t like us in Paris,” says one of Hussey’s interview subjects, “so we don’t have to pretend to be like them.”
The French Intifada traces France’s current tensions to the country’s bloody 130-year history in its North African colonies of Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria, focusing primarily on the latter, the only territory of its kind to be considered politically and legally unified with metropolitan France. France first annexed Algeria in 1834 to protect the highly profitable trading outpost at Bône from raids originating on the coast. For those unfamiliar with this chapter of French (or rather Western European) history, the sheer scale of eliminationist violence that marked the efforts to bring the territory under control and repeatedly punctuated its colonial administration until 1963 is shocking, running from the enfumades, or “smoking attacks,” used by the French army in the 1840s to wipe out whole villages that showed resistance, to French warplanes firebombing Algerian mountain communities during the War of Independence in the 1950s.
Hussey also gives a comprehensive picture of the means, both barbaric and bureaucratic, by which France maintained control; throughout the nineteenth century, Muslims were given a choice between citizenship and continued practice of their faith, effectively barring the devout from civic participation. In the twentieth century, fraudulent elections ensured that power stayed in the hands of the European minority, despite public rhetoric about civic equality. Order was kept with brutal violence, usually perpetrated by the police, who were trained in elaborate methods of torture, which Hussey describes in detail.
I spent two years researching Italy and Spain’s ill-fated turn-of-the-century forays into colonial conquest in Libya and Morocco, for Canada’s Royal Military College. To me, Hussey’s account of France’s use of torture, blackmail, and collective punishment is sadly familiar — these are the basic tools of counter-insurgency employed by most military-colonial occupiers. What Hussey highlights so skillfully is the unique psychological damage caused by the infamously centralized French state’s efforts to effectively erase the identity of its colonial subjects through its secular republican ethos — while simultaneously treating them as second- or third-class citizens.
There are moments when Hussey’s psychoanalytic and philosophical flourishes seem to overshadow the essentially geopolitical conflict that he otherwise documents so well. In one passage he refers to Algeria’s turbulent post-independence history as the “endless trauma of a nation in mourning for the loss of its parent figure.” That characterization might be appropriate in Freudian literary criticism, but it doesn’t do justice to the complexity of nation and institution building in the wake of more than a hundred years of brutal occupation and oppression.
Nonetheless, The French Intifada is a fascinating and troubling study of a conflict at the heart of Europe that belongs as much to the century just beginning as to the one recently concluded.