The French Intifada

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When a copy of Andrew Hussey’s The French Intifada, The Long War Between France and Its Arabs, first came across my desk, I set it aside. The cover is of the Eiffel Tower surrounded by Islamic designs, with the French cock, the symbol of revolution, imprisoned in an Arabesque style cage. At the base are rising flames — presumably depicting French society burning from below. But since the Charlie Hebdo killings it provides a useful insight into a mindset that has gripped many intellectuals on the left.

The sum parts of this view are that Muslims are culturally unfit to integrate into European society. This is not totally their fault, as they suffered during the era of colonialism. But it has coloured their view of Europe in general and France in particular. Hussey, the dean of the University of London’s Paris Institute, presents himself as a cultural historian. His knowledge of French culture is impressive, and the book is full of little insights — “Padam” is the old slang word for Paris, apparently.

But his grasp of history is somewhat thin. The Paris Commune gets a mention — “when a rag bag of anarchists and workers’ groups held the city”. The potted histories of France’s former colonial possessions are well written, but reveal nothing new. Instead we are offered a series of impressions that are carelessly written and at points inflammatory. Woven into his observations and conversations are just-so statements on “France’s Arabs”. Algerians have inherited anti-Semitism because Muslim Arabs are jealous of the status France gave North African Jews in the 19th century.

This same cultural inheritance does not extend to Palestine, apparently. In fact Hussey meets a group of young Arabs who like Arsenal football club, and by default England. That is because the English colonialists did not aspire to the “mission civilisatrice” (the mission to civilise the natives) that their French compatriots were so keen on. The English were more interested in making money and did not interfere, so it goes, with the cultural stuff of the colonials. Leaving aside how ridiculous this seems to anyone familiar with British history, it serves to make the point that France is more vulnerable because it tried to do the right thing.

What Hussey captures well is the grand ideological catch all that reinterprets the discredited “clash of civilisations” theory. He wields it to warn that France is about to be overrun by Islamist hordes living in the “banlieues”, the belts of misery that surround major urban centres. This seeps into his reportage. On witnessing an altercation between Arab youths (read Berber and Black African as well) and cops at the Gare du Nord station he is more shocked by the cries of “fuck France” than the reason why people could be angry at another young “immigré” being roughed up by the gendarmes. This disrespect to Mother France, Hussey argues, exposes the real fragility of a country cursed by an underclass that is driven by a cultural hatred of all things French — rather than a cynicism that grows out of the daily humiliations of racism.

This attitude colours his description of violence. Mass murder and torture in the colonies are described in a cold factual way. He describes the 1945 massacre by French forces in Setif in this language, for example: “There were gunshots from the police.” No details of bullets crushing skulls, or ripping through the flesh of defenceless people, while any crime committed by an Arab is told in full lurid detail. After Setif the Algerians were “ferocious”, unleashing a “bloody festival of unexpiated guilt, shame and terror”. In one passage he describes Muslim killers who are “gripped with a frenetic laughter” who “burn the victim alive, feeding the cooked flesh to dogs”. “This is not warfare,” he concludes, “but psychosis” driven by the mass psychological trauma of colonialism.

He recruits Frantz Fanon, a revolutionary who wrote extensively on the impact of violence of the oppressed, to his cause. For Fanon the act of violence in the struggle for liberation is itself liberating because it ends the trauma bred by humiliation. But Hussey attaches the cultural thing to it. This propensity for savage violence is absorbed into a mass cultural psychology that is handed down from generation to generation. The tensions between French Muslims and Jews are rooted in this cultural psychology. For Hussey, the wars in Palestine and Lebanon have little bearing on the rise of anti-Semitism among many Arab youths; while racism, unemployment, harassment by police, bans on the veil and so on, are relegated to a periphery of grievances.

Hussey reinforces this grand narrative of poor France facing its existential threat from “les Arabes” by raising the spectre of Al Qaeda types plotting the downfall of “La Republic” from inside its prisons — the “engine-room of Islamist radicalism in France”. This lazy narrative fits easily into the post-Charlie Hebdo hysteria that has gripped the country. The problem with France and its Arabs, Hussey tells us, is that a cultural time bomb is ticking. He concludes: “The rioters, wreckers, even the killers of the banlieues are not looking for reform or revolution. They are looking for revenge.” What France needs “is not hard-headed political solutions or even psychiatry, but an exorcist”. In a country where the Front National is advancing this is dangerous language to employ.