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A provocative rethinking of France’s long relationship with the Arab world
To fully understand both the social and political pressures wracking contemporary France—and, indeed, all of Europe—as well as major events from the Arab Spring in the Middle East to the tensions in Mali, Andrew Hussey believes that we have to look beyond the confines of domestic horizons. As much as unemployment, economic stagnation, and social deprivation exacerbate the ongoing turmoil in the ...
A provocative rethinking of France’s long relationship with the Arab world
To fully understand both the social and political pressures wracking contemporary France—and, indeed, all of Europe—as well as major events from the Arab Spring in the Middle East to the tensions in Mali, Andrew Hussey believes that we have to look beyond the confines of domestic horizons. As much as unemployment, economic stagnation, and social deprivation exacerbate the ongoing turmoil in the banlieues, the root of the problem lies elsewhere: in the continuing fallout from Europe’s colonial era.
Combining a fascinating and compulsively readable mix of history, literature, and politics with his years of personal experience visiting the banlieues and countries across the Arab world, especially Algeria, Hussey attempts to make sense of the present situation. In the course of teasing out the myriad interconnections between past and present in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Beirut, and Western Europe, The French Intifada shows that the defining conflict of the twenty-first century will not be between Islam and the West but between two dramatically different experiences of the world—the colonizers and the colonized.
A New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice Selection
“A bracing mix of journalism and history . . . [The French Intifada] couldn’t be more timely.” —Mitchell Cohen, The New York Times Book Review
“Uncompromising . . . [a] brilliant book.” —Damian Thompson, The Telegraph
“Fascinating and hugely readable . . . Hussey makes a strong case that France’s contemporary malaise can only be understood in the light of this tragic history.” —Matthew Campbell, The Sunday Times
“Refreshing . . . a good introduction to the most sensitive issues of race, religion, citizenship and history that grip modern France.” —Tony Barber, Financial Times
“I admire Andrew Hussey’s book because he has had the courage to go where I didn’t.” —Nick Fraser, The Observer
“Hussey is an engaging guide . . . writing with authority and humour about everything from Zinedine Zidane to architecture. He manages to make what at times is a terrible tale into a fascinating and enjoyable read.” —Rob Dex, Irish Examiner
“The French Intifada mixes lively street reportage with the history of two brutal centuries in France’s former Maghreb territories . . . This is strong stuff.” —Charles Bremner, New Statesman
Praise for Paris: The Secret History
“In his . . . shockingly violent alternative history of Paris, Andrew Hussey illuminates the city’s gutters, stews, slaughters, riots, underbellies, and crimes in the shadowy corners that Balzac relished. The result is . . . a fascinating riot of a book.” —Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Jerusalem
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 Franz 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 B"ne 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.
Reviewer: Charles Reinhardt
Murder in the Suburbs
A few short months after I had watched the riots at the Gare du Nord in 2007, on a cold evening in late November, I left my flat in southern Paris, took the metro to Saint-Denis, a suburb to the north of the city, and then a bus to an outlying council estate, or cité, called Villiers-le-Bel. The journey took little more than an hour but marked a sharp transition between two worlds: the calm centre of the city and the troubled banlieue.
‘Banlieue’ is often mistranslated into English as ‘suburb’, but this conveys nothing of the fear and contempt that many middle-class French people invest in the word. In fact it first became widely used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to describe the areas outside Paris where city-dwellers came and settled and built houses with gardens on the English model.
One of the paradoxes of life in the banlieue is that it was originally about hope and human dignity. To understand the banlieue you should think of central Paris as an oval-shaped haven or fortress, ringed by motorways – the boulevards périphériques (or le périph) – that mark the frontier between the city and the suburbs or banlieue. To live in the centre of Paris (commonly described as intra-muros, within the city walls, in language unchanged from the medieval period) is to be privileged: even if you are not particularly well off, you still have access to all the pleasures and amenities of a great metropolis. By contrast, the banlieue lies ‘out there’, on the other side of le périph. The area is extra-muros – outside the city walls. Transport systems here are limited and confusing. Maps make no sense. No one goes there unless he or she has to. 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.
The banlieues are made up of a population of more than a million immigrants, mostly but not exclusively from North and sub-Saharan Africa. As the population of central Paris has fallen in the early twenty-first century so the population of the banlieues is growing so fast that it will soon outnumber the two million or so inhabitants of central Paris. The banlieue is the very opposite of the bucolic sub-urban fantasy of the English imagination: for most French people these days it means a threat, a very urban form of decay, a place of racial tensions and of deadly if not random violence.
The day before I set off for Villiers-le-Bel, two teenagers of Arab origin had been killed at La Tolinette, one of the toughest parts of this tough neighbourhood, after their moped crashed into a police checkpoint. They had been on their way to do some rough motocross in an outlying field. No one in the area believed that this was an accident but rather a bavure – the kind of police cock-up that regularly ends with an innocent person dying or being injured. Within an hour gangs of youths pulled up their hoods, covered their faces with scarves and went on to the streets to hurl petrol bombs and stones at the police. A McDonald’s and a library were burned down. Streetlights were smashed or taken out so that the only light came from the flames of burning cars. The mayor of Villiers-le-Bel, Didier Vaillant, had tried to negotiate with the gangs but retreated under a hail of stones. A car dealership was set alight. By daybreak as many as seventy policemen had been injured. President Sarkozy, in Beijing, was alerted to the fact that a small but significant part of French territory was beyond control.
By the time I arrived in the banlieue the next day, the scene was set for another confrontation. ‘See, they treat us like fucking bougnoules,’ said Ikram, a young man of Moroccan origin who lived nearby, pointing at the police lines that were blocking access to certain areas. Bougnoule is a racist French term for Arabs that is as offensive as ‘nigger’ and dates back to the Algerian War of Independence, 1954–1962, when the French military used torture and terror against Algerian insurgents. The term bavure, meaning a police fuck-up, also comes from the same period. (The most infamous bavure was the so-called Battle of Paris, in October 1961, when a skirmish on the Pont de Neuilly between demonstrating Algerians and police led to a riot that ended with more than a hundred North Africans dead. Their bodies were thrown into the Seine by the police, under the orders of the Prefect of Police Maurice Papon, whose special brigades were known as ‘les BAVs’. Papon had previously been involved in the deportation of Jews during the German occupation of the early 1940s but was not prosecuted for his crimes until the 1990s.)
At around 5 p.m. it was getting dark and the mood and atmosphere changed in Villiers-le-Bel. Drinkers in the café where I was sitting began smoking harder. Civilians – that is to say, non-rioters – were hurriedly leaving the scene and then, quite without warning, the area was occupied entirely by the police and their opponents. I watched as the gangs moved in predatory packs around the road, the car parks and the shops. I had heard on many occasions their stated aim of shooting a policeman. The rumour was that this time the gangs were armed, with cheap hunting rifles and air pistols. But the only weapons I saw belonged to the police.
Later, on returning to my flat and watching the surprisingly dispassionate television coverage of what was going on in the banlieue, I reflected that Paris had become hardened to levels of violence that, in any other major European capital, would have threatened the survival of the government. The French were used to violence, to mini-riots and clashes between police and disaffected youth. Even in my own neighbourhood, the quiet district of Pernety, armed police regularly sealed off parts of the cité adjacent to the RER railway lines (the RER is the fast commuter train that connects the banlieues with the centre of Paris). Across the city, there were regular battles with police at the Gare du Nord, where an unnamed Algerian had recently been shot during another police bavure in the metro.
In the winter of 2007/8 I set out to learn more. I started by visiting the area around Bagneux, to the south of Paris. This is far from being the worst part of the banlieues: Courneuve and Sarcelles to the north are much more run-down and dangerous. These districts were portrayed in the 1995 film La Haine, in which a black, an Arab and a Jew, all from the banlieues, form an alliance against society. I found 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.
Much more realistic, to my mind, were the intrigue and shocking violence of Michael Haneke’s film Caché (2005). This is a story of murderous revenge in which a middle-class French intellectual is disturbed by memories from a deeply repressed and violent past. His fears are related both to his mistreatment of an Algerian child adopted by his parents and to his complicity as a Frenchman in crimes committed by the French state against Algerians. Caché is set in the southern suburbs of Paris, not too far from Bagneux, the centre of which is much like any small French town. There is a church, a small market, cafés and green spaces. The architecture is not uniformly 1960s brutalism: there are cobbled streets and small, cottage-like houses.
The original meaning of banlieue dates back to the eleventh century, when the term bannileuga was used to denote an area beyond the legal jurisdiction of the city, where the poor lived. In the late fifteenth century, the poet and bandit François Villon described how Parisians feared and despised the coquillards, the army deserters and thieves who lived on the wrong side of the city wall. As Paris grew larger during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the original crumbling walls of the Old City, which marked the city limits, became known as les fortifs or la zone. This was marginal territory, with its own folklore and customs, a world of vagabonds, rag-pickers, drunks and whores. It was also the fertile ground that later produced street singers such as Fréhel and Edith Piaf, who dreamed and sang of le Grand Paris or Paname (slang for Paris), of the rich city centre only a few kilometres away from where they lived but which was as distant and alien as America.
In the 1920s and 1930s, as France began to industrialize rapidly, the population of the banlieues swelled with immigrants, mainly from Italy and Spain. The banlieues rouges (red suburbs), usually led by a Communist council, were key driving forces in the Front Populaire (the Popular Front), the working-class movement that swept to power in May 1936. This was the first truly left-wing government in France since the days of the Commune of 1871 (when a rag-bag of anarchists and workers’ groups held the city between March and May), and its success changed France for ever, with the introduction of paid holidays, a working week of forty hours and the sense that, for the first time, the workers were in control. During the trente glorieuses, the period of rapid economic growth that occurred between the 1950s and 1970s, other major towns across France adopted the Parisian model of building estates far outside the centre. The first developments of the new banlieues were sources of pride to the Parisian, Lyonnais and Marseillais working class, who were often grateful to be evacuated there from their slums in the city centre. Once, long ago, the banlieue was the future.
I remarked on this to Kevin, a rangy black lad of twenty who, with his mate Ludovic (roughly the same age), was showing photographer Nick Danziger and me around Bagneux. ‘I can’t imagine this as anyone’s future,’ Kevin said, gesturing at the car parks and boarded-up shops. ‘All anybody wants to do here is to escape.’
Both of them were obsessed with football, especially with the English Premier League. They were impressed that I had met and interviewed the French footballers Lilian Thuram, who is black, and Zinédine Zidane, who is from an Algerian family. Kevin himself was a footballer of average ability; he had a trial with Northampton Town in England. ‘I hate France sometimes,’ he told me. ‘And, at other times, I just stop thinking about it. But the real thing is that here, when you are born into an area and you are black or Arab, then you will never leave that area. Except maybe through football, and even that is shit in France.’
I asked him about his English name. ‘I like England. And, like everyone here, I don’t feel French, so why should I pretend?’ Ludovic, who has a more conventionally Gallic name but is originally from Mauritius, joined in: ‘They don’t like us in Paris, so we don’t have to pretend to be like them.’ By ‘them’ he means white French natives – Gaulois (Gauls) or fils de Clovis (Sons of Clovis – one of the first kings of France) in the language of the banlieue.
It is this Anglophilia, transmitted via the universal tongues of rap music and football, which explains why so many kids in the banlieues are called Steeve, Marky, Jenyfer, Britney or even Kevin. 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. As we walked and talked we soon entered a dark labyrinth of grey, crumbling concrete. This was ‘Darfour City’, a series of rectangular blocks of mostly boarded-up flats where the local drug dealers gathered. The police call it a quartier orange, largely a no-go area for the police themselves as well as for ordinary citizens.
DARFOUR CITY was scrawled across a door at the entrance to a block of flats. As we wandered deeper into the estate, there was more graffiti, in fractured English: FUCK DA POLICE; MIGHTY GHETTO. Halfway down the street we were hailed by a pack of lads, all black except for one white. They were all smoking spliffs. These were the local dealers, a gang of mates who, according to Kevin, could get you anything you wanted. They delighted in selling dope and coke at wildly inflated prices to wealthy Parisians. They were pleased to hear that I was English. ‘We hate the French press,’ said Charles, who is thin and tall and of Congolese origin. ‘They just think we’re animals.’ They then looked at me with suspicion. ‘No one comes here who isn’t afraid of us,’ said another, Majid. ‘That’s how it should be. That’s how we want it.’ The gang tired of me and my questions and I understood it was time to go.
In January 2006 a mobile-phone salesman named Ilan Halimi, aged twenty-three, was kidnapped in central Paris and driven out here to Darfour City. Halimi, who was Jewish, had been invited out for a drink by a young Iranian woman named Yalda, whom he had met while selling phones. It turned out that it was her mission to trap him and lure him away from safety. Yalda later described how Ilan had been seized by thugs in balaclavas and bundled into a car: ‘He screamed for two minutes with a high-pitched voice like a girl.’1
Three weeks later, Ilan was found naked and tied to a tree near the RER station of Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois. He died on the way to hospital. His body had been mutilated and burned. Since being kidnapped, he had been imprisoned in a flat in Bagneux, starved and tortured. Residents of the block had heard his screams and the laughter of those torturing him, but had done nothing. Fifteen youths from the Bagneux district were arrested. They were members of a gang called the Barbarians, a loose coalition of hard cases, dealers and their girls, who shared a hatred of ‘rich Jews’. The alleged leader of the Barbarians, Youssef Fofana, went on the run to the Ivory Coast. He was later arrested and extradited and is now serving a life sentence in Clairvaux prison in the east of France. In the spring of 2012 he defied the French authorities by smuggling out from his cell videos in which he praises al-Qaeda and describes his capture as a ‘symbolic trophy for the Zionists of New York’. During his trial he described how he had dowsed Ilan in petrol and set fire to him with a cigarette lighter. He said he was ‘proud’ of what he had done.
Theories about the motives for the crime were initially confused. Was it a bungled kidnap? A Clockwork Orange-style act of pure sadism? Or was it the work of hate-fuelled anti-Semitism? The police were, at first, reluctant to admit this possibility. But Yalda, who turned out to be a member of the Barbarians, said in her testimony that the gang had specifically told her to entrap Jews. Her confession was widely reported, as was the fact that she called Fofana ‘Osama’, in homage to Bin Laden.
At the same time, out in the banlieues themselves, the murder took on a skewed new meaning: the word was that what had begun as a heist and kidnap to extort a ransom from ‘rich Jews’ had become a form of revenge for crimes in Iraq and, in particular, for events at Abu Ghraib prison. Bizarrely, in the view of some, this transformed the torturers into martyrs – soldiers in the ‘long war’ against the white Western powers. The kids of Bagneux accordingly gloried in their own ‘intifada’. They openly identified with the Palestinians, whom they saw as prisoners in their own land, like the dispossessed of the banlieues.
* * *
One afternoon back in central Paris, I visited the rue des Rosiers, the Jewish quarter at the heart of the Marais. This is like a little Tel Aviv, a place where French-Israeli waitresses, dressed in combat fatigues, serve up beer and schawarma. It was from here, during the occupation, that French Jews began the final journey to the death camps of eastern Europe or, closer at hand, to the Vél d’Hiv, the sports stadium to the south of Paris where, rounded up the French police and the German authorities, thousands died because of squalid conditions (there was no food and little sanitation: diarrhoea and dysentery arrived swiftly; death was not far behind). The cries of the dying in the stadium, like those of Ilan, were ignored by their Parisian neighbours.
In a coffee shop near the rue des Rosiers, a place owned by Moroccan Jews, I spoke to Myriam Bérrebi, herself a Tunisian Jew, about the killing of Ilan. ‘I have never known such terror and anger in this neighbourhood,’ she said, ‘not since the shootings at Jo Goldenberg’s Deli.’
She was referring to the massacre by Arab gunmen in 1982 of six diners at Goldenberg’s, just across the street from where we were sitting. ‘But, you know,’ she continued, ‘there were other echoes too – especially of the Nazi period, when Jews died and everybody pretended everything was all right.’
After the murder of Ilan, to the anger of many Parisian Jews, the Chirac government dissembled about ‘social problems’ in the banlieues. Only Nicolas Sarkozy, then an ambitious Minister of the Interior, whose mother was a Sephardic Jew, denounced the murder of Ilan as ‘an anti-Semitic crime’. With Sarkozy’s intervention the terms of the debate were changed. Was the killing of Ilan the isolated act of individuals, or was it a political murder in the largest sense: an act that expressed a collective hatred? Did it belong to individuals, or the whole community?
* * *
Despite the murders and the riots, good work is going on in the banlieues. I was discussing this with Hervé Mbuenguen as we sat in his flat in Vache Noire, in what is meant to be a less impoverished neighbourhood of Bagneux. ‘Good stuff happens in bad places,’ I said. ‘That is a very quaint idea,’ he replied. ‘Nowadays the banlieue only means one thing: trouble.’
Hervé’s family is originally from Cameroon but he has lived in the banlieues all his life. He is educated and articulate, a graduate of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, and makes a living as a computer engineer. ‘If you live here, if you speak with a banlieusard accent, you are condemned as an outsider in Paris and in fact in all French cities. It is a double exile – you are already an outsider because you are black or Arab. But then you are an outsider because you are a banlieusard.’
Yet he has chosen to live here. ‘The banlieue is my home. I cannot feel comfortable anywhere else.’ Hervé’s block of flats was rotten; the walls of the lift-shaft were falling apart on the inside. But his apartment was tidy and organized. This was a place where a full, hard-working life was being lived. His flat is the headquarters of Grioo, a website devoted to the African diaspora in France (grioo is a mild corruption of the West African term griot, meaning ‘storyteller’). The success of the website is a testament to the positive side of the banlieues. The only taboo subject between us was that of the Jews. I had asked, innocently, why there were so few, if any, Jews left.
‘They cannot live here,’ Hervé said.
Hervé is not an anti-Semite but his remark reflected a shameful reality about the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the suburbs, a reality that makes even open-minded people like him feel awkward.
During several weeks exploring Bagneux, I chatted to hip-hop kids, footballers, football fans and self-proclaimed casseurs (wreckers, or rioters). I met and talked to them in cafés, at bus stops, in shops and sports centres. It was mostly entertaining and enlightening; there is a lot of serious laughter and benign mischief in the banlieues. But the more time I spent there, the more I began to pick up on the casual references to synagogues, Israelis and Jews, like a secret code being revealed. These references would be refracted through the slang of the banlieues. So 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 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. ‘We don’t need to meet Jews,’ I was told by Grégory, a would-be rapper and Muslim from La Chapelle. ‘We know what they’re like.’
But that was the problem: nobody did actually know what ‘they’ were like. It seemed to me that hating Jews – like supporting Arsenal or listening to the rap band NTM – had become a defining motif of identity in the banlieues.
Hatred of the Jews: this is one of the oldest traditions in Paris, dating back, like the very notion of the banlieue, to the medieval period. In Portrait of an Anti-Semite, written in the wake of the German occupation of Paris, Jean-Paul Sartre was searching for an explanation for his compatriots’ complicity in the crimes against the Jews. From a specifically French perspective, he describes the typical French anti-Semite as driven by his own sense of ‘inauthenticity’2 – a sense of existential and psychological unreality which at once challenges and undermines the anti-Semite’s identity as a middle-class Frenchman. Unconvinced of his own true place in society, he none the less finds comfort in the reality of his Jew-hatred.
Anti-Semitism in France is a phenomenon of the political Left as well as of the Right, of the underclass as well as of the ruling élites. This in part explains, if it does not justify, the writings of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the great chronicler of Parisian working-class life in the twentieth century. Céline hated Sartre. In response to Sartre’s accusation that he had been paid by the Nazis to write anti-Jewish propaganda, Céline retorted with fury that he did not need to be paid to feel hatred for Jews: his hatred was authentic enough. Rather, it was his identity as a petit bourgeois, a member of a class forged in the late nineteenth century and already sinking into history, that felt unreal.
Céline describes the banlieues to the north of city as a kind of inferno. Rancy, the imagined suburb of his 1932 novel Journey to the End of the Night, is as dank and polluted as the Wigan described by George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier. But Céline’s banlieue is infected by a particular kind of metaphysical misery: ‘The sky in Rancy is a smoky soup that bathes the plain all the way down to Levallois. Cast off buildings bogged down in black muck. From a distance, big ones and little ones look like the fat stakes that rise out of the filthy beach at the seaside. And inside it’s us!’3
Céline was a pessimist, obsessed by disease and filth. He saw no hope for the poor of the banlieues. In the end, he blamed nearly everything on the Jews. ‘War in the name of the bourgeoisie was shitty enough,’ he wrote in one of his pamphlets, ‘but now war for the Jews!… half negroid, half Asiatic, mongrel pastiches of the human race whose only aim is to destroy France!’ In recent years, Céline has become an inspiration for rappers in the banlieue, who admire his use of stylized slang and street language. The rapper Abd al Malik has devoted a song on his latest album to Céline. ‘Céline revolutionized literature because he was very close to real people, like us rappers today,’ he said in an interview on his blog. ‘That’s generally a good thing, but there’s a danger about being so close to the people; you can start to embrace all the things that are wrong with society.’4
Today the literary heir to Céline as the chronicler of the Parisian underclass is novelist Michel Houellebecq. His vision of the banlieue is of a failed utopia, a district that has now reverted to wilderness. Houellebecq gives voice to this view in the novel Platform as the businessman Jean-Yves Espitalier muses on the rape of a female colleague by Arab and black youths on a ‘dangerous railway line’ between Paris and the banlieues. ‘As he was stepping out of his office, Jean-Yves looked out over the chaotic landscape of houses, shopping centres, tower blocks and motorway interchanges. Far away, on the horizon, a layer of pollution lent the sunset strange tints of mauve and green. “It’s strange,” he said, “here we are inside the company like well fed beasts of burden. And outside are the predators, the savage world.”’5
One afternoon I visited Jean-Claude Tchicaya, a black official in the mairie, the local town hall. I had read an interview with him in which he had spoken of knowing the murderers of Ilan Halimi. Tchicaya was dressed in a smart suit with a black leather gilet draped over his back. In his office, amid old copies of Jeune-Afrique and Libération, there were portraits of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Wasn’t it a contradiction to admire these ‘heroes of peace’ when the reality of the struggle for racial equality had also involved so much death and conflict?
‘Struggle doesn’t just mean violence,’ Tchicaya said. ‘It also means dignity.’ I asked him how he knew the murderers of Halimi. ‘This is not my milieu,’ he said, ‘but everyone in Bagneux knows everyone.’
Then I asked him if he knew the Tribu Ka, a group of black militants, resident in Bagneux, who openly declared that they hated Jews and had issued messages in support of the Barbarians who had killed Ilan Halimi. ‘Look,’ Tchicaya said, ‘all extreme situations create extremists. It’s the pattern of history. But I don’t want to know about those people.’
Out on the street, the Tribu Ka is in fact a hard-core political movement of black supremacists led by Kémi Séba, whose real name is Stellio Capo Robert Chichi. He was born in Strasbourg in 1981 into a first-generation immigrant family from Benin. Kémi was a clever, restless, angry young man who, at the age of eighteen, began his apprenticeship in radical politics with Nation of Islam’s Parisian chapter, based in Belleville, the traditionally working-class district in the north-east of the city. Founded by Elijah Muhammad in the 1930s and now led by Louis Farrakhan, Nation of Islam has only a tangential relationship with ‘authentic’ Islam. It preaches that the black races are descendants of the Tribe of Shabazz, the lost tribe of Asia.
Nation of Islam gave Kémi a cause and philosophy, but he was determined to lead his own political group. He travelled to Egypt in his twenties, and there he began to construct his own world view, a mix of Islam, black power and revolutionary politics. Kémites are the chosen race of God, or Allah, and will lead the black race out of slavery to their rightful position as masters of the world. The non-violent methods of Martin Luther King (a betrayer of the black race, according to Kémi) and Gandhi (an enemy of Muslims and agent of the British crown) are denounced as ineffectual.
Even when Kémi was imprisoned for five months, in 2007, for inciting racial hatred, he placed his faith in Allah and called himself a martyr. During his most recent prison sentence, in the jail of Bois d’Arcy, to the west of Versailles, until his release in late 2012, Kémi’s blog was regularly updated on his website and his supporters spoke of his being embastillé (locked up in the Bastille).
The Tribu Ka are regarded as the real masters of the Bagneux. ‘Those guys are mad fuckers,’ I was told by Kevin, my guide through the banlieues. And they are having a discernible impact on France: if you are hassled by tough black kids in the Les Halles shopping centre in central Paris, they will often be wearing the Tribu Ka’s colours of black, red and yellow, or the insignia GKS (Génération Kémi Séba). This is less than a kilometre away from the rue des Rosiers where, in May 2006, the Tribu Ka marched, chanting anti-Semitic slogans, and launched ‘a declaration of war against Jews’, while attacking anyone in their path with baseball bats. Two months later, they launched a raid to ‘take back African treasures’ from the new museum of colonial history at Quai Branly.
Tribu Ka are now banned, but Génération Kémi Séba is effectively the Tribu Ka, reinvented and well organized, but with a new media-friendly profile; on their website rappers such as ragga star Princess Erika and Orosko Racim of Ghetto Fabulous Gang profess their support. Another of Kémi’s defenders is the mainstream black comedian Dieudonné, who was once as mild and inoffensive, and as popular, as the black British comic Lenny Henry. Now, Dieudonné is widely known for his virulent anti-Semitism.
Kémi’s website continues to publish his speeches on the end of the white and Jewish races. He still lives in Paris and remains an accomplished public speaker and a master of double-talk. His interviews and speeches on YouTube are models of chilling self-righteousness, and he is seldom seen without two menacing guards at his side. Kémi has a variety of modes of dress, ranging from Afrocentric gear to suits in the style of Afro-American intellectuals of the Black Panther generation. For several weeks I tried to arrange a meeting with him. I was told by an intermediary that ‘Kémi will speak soon. But he doesn’t want to speak to the white press you represent. His time will come later. This will be when the white press is no more.’ I was then told that they knew who I was and it might be wise to leave them alone. Or stay out of Bagneux.
‘I understand Kémi,’ I was told by a friend, a young black woman. She has a degree, a good job in publishing and a white boyfriend, who is a lawyer. ‘Only if you are black or Arab in France can you understand the contempt people feel for you, and the hate and desire for revenge that this inspires in you. Kémi is nasty but I understand his appeal. He is about war and violence. What angry young man in the banlieues doesn’t feel the same at some point? It’s the same for the Taliban as for the youth in the banlieues: they are fighting to let us know that they exist and that they hate society as it is. They feel that the Jews rule the world, and from one point of view it can look that way. They see Iraq and Gaza and Rwanda and Kenya and the Jews of Paris or New York who have profited from their pain. To them, it all makes sense.’
Copyright © 2014 by Andrew Hussey
Maps copyright © 2014 by Vera Brice and Leslie Robinson
Introduction: ‘Fuck France!’
Part One: State of Denial
1 Murder in the Suburbs
2 The Secrets of Lyons
3 A Soldier for God
Part Two: Algeria, Prisoners of Love
4 The Walls of Algeria
6 The Secret World of the ‘Algerines’
7 New America
8 The French Kingdom of the Arabs
9 Latin Africa
11 Enemy States
12 Switching Sides
13 The Reconquest
14 Capitals of Madness
15 De Gaulle and the French Civil War
16 An Experimental Nation
17 The Algerian Intifada
18 The New War with France
19 Mysteries and Martyrs
20 Family Secrets
Part Three: In Morocco
21 Queer Tangier
22 Peaceful Penetration
23 French Friends
24 Modern Times
25 Blank Generation
26 Setting Europe on Fire
27 The Neuilly–Marrakesh Express
Part Four: Tunisia, Made In France
28 The Mysteries of Tunis
29 Stealing Tunisia
30 Holidays in the Sun
31 MiraclesPart Five: Prisoners of War32 Muslims in Prison