The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and Its Arabs
(Faber & Faber, 2014)
Andrew Hussey’s The French Intifada is the second book in a row I’ve reviewed that at least partially addresses the Arab Spring. Its subject is France’s current domestic struggles with “its Arabs,” as Hussey terms it, as well as a history of France’s relations with what are now its former Maghreb colonies: Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia—which was ground zero for the Arab Spring. But unlike Emily Parker’s Now I Know Who My Comrades Are (reviewed March 2014), an astute and patient analysis of digital activism, The French Intifada lacks focus and rigor. Perhaps a need for timeliness rushed publication of the book.
Hussey begins with a discussion of France’s current social and political landscape to lay the foundation for his argument. He contends that, in the face of consistent riots since 2005, the country exists in a state of denial, struggling to understand the persistent threat of upheaval in its banlieues, the suburbs around major cities. These areas are more akin to America’s housing projects than its suburbs and are populated largely by Muslims who have moved there from France’s former colonies. Hussey asserts that these are not demonstrations whose goal is integration in French society, but demonstrations against it. Part of the problem is that in contrast to the Anglo-American celebration of diversity, France asks its citizens to define themselves first and foremost as French; integration comes at the cost of one’s own identity. This demand is not tenable for a population that is not even physically integrated. Hussey argues that the riots represent the profound alienation of these ex-colonial Muslim populations in France: “They are fighting to let us know that they exist and that they hate society as it is.” Essentially they do not feel at home anywhere but the banlieues, which are themselves inescapable.
Instead of acknowledging that these riots are anti-French, the government and the non-right wing media attempt to domesticate the narrative of the banlieues’ volatility by placing it within the French tradition of rebellion and pursuit of social justice. Indeed, Hussey’s occasional treatment of this history in terms of warring cultural narratives is one of the most successful aspects of the book. Consider the juxtaposition of former French President Pierre Mendes-France saying, “The Algerian departments are part of the French Republic … Ici, c’est la France!” and of Shayk Ben Badis—a forefather of the Algerian independence movement—declaring, “This Algerian nation is not France, cannot be France, and does not want to be France.” The actions of a movement or a country reflect some kind of ethos or worldview. France’s understanding of itself as a civilizing power legitimized its colonial mission. And those national narratives, in turn, shape reality. Thus, “the greatest danger of … French Orientalism,” Hussey writes, “was that, while it wished to be sympathetic to Algerian culture, it froze the everyday life of the Casbah in an imagined past … reduc[ing] real life to folklore.”
This kind of cultural analysis is Hussey’s strength: he uses literature written by the colonists to demonstrate how powerful representation can be in shaping perception. For example, the myth of the European settler in Algeria was furnished by novelist Louis Bertrand, who wrote in his memoirs:
I believe I introduced into novelistic literature the notion of a
wholly contemporary Latin Africa … I pushed aside the Islamic and pseudo-Arab decor which fascinated superficial viewers and showed, behind these sham appearances, a living Africa barely distinguishable from the other Latin countries of the Mediterranean … all Africans who wish to live modern life … will have to enter into the framework of this new Africa.
Although Bertrand’s vision opposes visitors’ standard expectations of exoticism, it is the other side of the same coin—it is a projection. To demonstrate the extent to which that is the case, Hussey contrasts European perceptions with the realities of life for natives. In Tangier, Hussey interviews novelist Mohamed Choukri who recalls his friendship with Jean Genet. Genet saw Tangier as the opposite of bourgeois France. Choukri, however:
thought [Genet] had a falsely romantic view of the city and knew nothing about the realities of life there. Where Genet saw freedom, Choukri saw exploitation. [Choukri] told me about the first time that he performed fellatio on a rich foreigner … He was in his late teens and starving … This was … a life that the French masters of Morocco could never understand.
It follows, then, that part of the struggle for independence and in France must be concerned with making visible alternate perceptions.
The French Intifada effectively depicts the hopelessness of the situation when the wounds of war are fresh and the spectre of France—both as enemy and promised land—still looms large. And yet Hussey does not do enough. He ends the book with a chapter on how French prisons, whose populations are an estimated 70 percent Muslim, are the engine-rooms of radicalization. But he only devotes 12 pages to this thesis without addressing crucial questions: Why is the crime rate among Muslims in France so high? How does this radicalization take place? And why does radical Islam become the answer? Part of the problem is that Hussey makes too many assumptions about his audience. We do not know what the education system is like in France. We do not know why employment opportunities are much lower for young men growing up in the banlieues. But there is an even larger issue hindering the entire book: Hussey does not define his terms and does not explain the theoretical lens through which he interprets the relationship between France and the Maghreb. He freely uses the terms “Orientalism” and “radical Islam” without explaining what they mean. He clearly relies on Frantz Fanon’s psychological explanation of colonial and postcolonial relationships—he refers to the “psychic trauma” of the colonial subject’s split identity, to the “motherless rage” of the former colony, to France and Algeria’s relationships as a process of bereavement—but gives these fascinating interpretations very little space. A paragraph is not enough to make such an important point. This type of historical analysis requires contextualization, which is exactly why the scope of this project is much too large. Hussey would have been better served writing solely about France and Algeria (whose history and relationship he explores to the fullest extent).
Perhaps with a narrower focus he would have had the space to discuss what kind of presence France has in the Maghrebin mind two generations after decolonization. What kind of promises does France continue to make (and betray) and through what channels are they made? Education? Mass media? Maghreb emigrants? Hussey often speaks of how, due to high unemployment, young men are bored, leading them down the path of Salafi Islam. He quotes a young Tunisian man named Omar, who tells him, “I can’t get to France. There’s nothing else here now. Why not fight for God?” Hussey presents this quote as explanation, but it demands elaboration. Why does it seem, from Hussey’s research and reporting, that there are no alternative attractive ideologies? The book’s subject is extraordinarily fertile and relevant, so it is a shame that Hussey has not given it the thorough and consistent examination it deserves.