After Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, Andrew Hussey’s The French Intifada—on France, its Muslim population and the challenge of Islamism—is the most interesting book about France to have been published in English for many years. Hussey runs the University of London institute in Paris. He is serious about France and the French. Like French political sociologists such as Alain Touraine, Michel Wieviorka or Gilles Kepel, he believes in getting out of his study and into the rough streets of the French banlieues.
Hussey writes down what he sees, hears and is told. For example, he is not afraid to report the extraordinary levels of anti-semitism among France’s disaffected Arab and Muslim population. Most bien-pensant English writers gloss over the vitriolic Jew-hatred that informs Islamist ideology. Dislike of Netanyahu and Israel’s settlement policies blinds many to the extent to which anti-semitism has become entrenched as a core element of 21st-century ideology in much of the Arab and wider Muslim world.
The French Intifada is an unusual mixture of reportage and history. Its first three chapters on disaffected communities of North African origin in France are vivid journalism far removed from the sex scandals and boring Peter Mayle retreads that is the staple diet of most British writers and journalists operating out of France. In fact, our main papers have some high quality correspondents but their task is to please their monolingual editors in London. Then there’s the tried and trusted “the French don’t have a word for entrepreneur” kind of story beloved of British and American correspondents which, for the past 25 years, has presented France as an economic basket-case that compares unfavourably with the self-proclaimed (though not always evident) success of Anglo-American neoliberalism.
As in Britain, there is a great deal of discussion and writing about France’s Muslim communities. But unlike Britain, where British Muslims tend to have travelled thousands of miles to arrive from Pakistan, Kashmir, Bangladesh and India, France’s Muslims are more akin to the Irish, who came to Britain across a short stretch of sea. Unlike many of Britain’s Muslims, especially those in poorer communities, who watch Pakistani TV at home and speak Mirpuri as a first and sometimes only language, the southern Mediterranean Muslims in France have imbibed French culture and language through watching French television or reading newspapers and books in French as often as Arabic.
In the summer, at the border crossings into Spain you’ll see cars packed with men, women and children going to North Africa for a holiday. On the car roofs, fridges or washing machines are roped down to be handed over to families back home in Morocco or Tunisia. Members of the Paris political and business elite such as Dominque Strauss Kahn have holiday homes in Marrakech or along the Tunisian coastline, with its stunning Roman amphitheatres. Many of the stars of French journalism or politics—men like Jean Daniel, Jacques Attali and Dominique de Villepin—have family roots in North Africa. Daniel, still writing elegantly and with passion in his nineties in the Nouvel Observateur, can find some consideration for the Algerian leader, President Bouteflika, who, though barely alive, was re-elected recently for a fourth term. Daniel wrote recently: “I love this country (Algeria) where I was born.”
There are 5m Muslims in France compared to 2.5m in Britain and 3m (mainly Turks) in Germany. Hussey provides a readable history of France’s invasion, colonisation and exploitation of Algeria, Tunisa and Morocco. Compared with the longer, slower process of British colonisation and the subsequent winding down of the empire after 1945, France’s relationship with its three North African colonies was more intense, brutal and closer to home.
Over Easter, I listened to an erudite discussion on France Culture, the French radio channel which has no equivalent in Britain, about Marshal Hubert Lyautey, French Governor General of Morocco for the first quarter of the 20th century. The participants in the discussion praised Lyautey as a brave soldier who loved Moorish culture and sought to rule through the Bey (later King) and generally respected Moroccan traditions. Hussey points out that this highly regarded French statesman-soldier was a prolific sodomite and paedophile who buggered everyone from his military aides-de-camp to passing Arab urchins.
Colonial France was at war almost permanently with the Arabs who lived across the Mediterannean. Marshal Pétain led an invading army and airforce to “pacify” Algeria in the 1920s. The 1954-1962 war in Algeria was far more brutal than Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Some 1.5m Algerians were killed, many after the most brutal torture; France suffered 90,000 killed and wounded.
In the 1990s, Algeria, which won its independence in 1962, lost 200,000 after an Islamist uprising against the army which, rather like the Egyptian military more recently, refused to accept a democratically elected Islamist party (the FIS) which sought to impose ultra right-wing religious conservatism on a populace which had tasted certain aspects of European secularism.
The brutality of Islamists who butchered women in Morocoo for not wearing hijabs in 2003 or those who told the mother of the Islamist-influenced killer Mohammed Merah that she should weep tears of pride and joy at her son’s murder of Jewish school teachers and children in Toulouse in 2012, have had a great impact in France. Merah was a French citizen of Algerian background who had converted to Islamism while serving a prison sentence for robbery. He had gone on the grand tour of Islamist jihad, visiting Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria before returning to south-west France. Before the killing in Toulouse, he had shot dead two Muslim soldiers serving in the French army. This recalled the mass killings of the “Harkis,” the Algerian soldiers in the French army who were seen as traitors and collaborators after independence. The government refused to allow them to enter France, whereupon the Algerian nationalists massacred them, butchered their families and expelled survivors to the desert wilderness of southern Algeria.
In targeting both Jews and Muslims in French army uniform, Merah was aiming at two objects of Islamist hate. As with the Islamist killers of the off-duty British soldier, Lee Rigby, in Woolwich in 2013, there is a reluctance to accept that Europe, and especially France, is living with a powerful new ideological force in its midst, one that has a theory about how the world should be organised and a willingness to commit acts of political violence to achieve its ends.
It is easier to relapse into the language of lone killers, deranged individuals, brainwashed drifters rather than accept we are dealing with a coherent ideology. No one is comfortable at anything that hints at “Islamaphobia.” This is a curious formulation. Christophobia is deeply fashionable, as the commercial success of books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens attacking and ridiculing the Christian faith suggests. But in a clever sleight-of-hand, it is deemed that to criticise Islam or the Koran or the words of the Prophet Mohammed is to commit a racist assault rather than to engage in a Voltairean questioning of faith.
Similarly, state authorities bend over backwards to avoid discussing Islamist ideology. When sentencing the murderers of Lee Rigby, the judge, Sir Nigel Sweeney, told the two killers: “You each converted to Islam some years ago. Thereafter you were radicalised and each became an extremist—espousing a cause and views which, as has been said elsewhere, are a betrayal of Islam and of the peaceful Muslim communities which give so much to our country.” These are the clichés of an officialdom which sees Islamist ideological violence as a kind of deranged betrayal of a religion. Judge Sweeney went on to say that the killers “decided to advance [their] extremist cause” without ever telling the court and public what that extremist cause was. And he concluded that the men wanted to be shot dead by the police as they were “expecting to become martyrs and each gain a place in paradise.”
It is doubtful that a member of the more intellectually sophisticated French judiciary would use such banalities—gaining “a place in paradise” indeed!—to describe a violent act in conformity with a new global ideology which, after the demise of fascism and communism, now has a grip on millions, including many fellow-travellers in Europe. Hussey examines the deep historical roots of the hatred that animates Islamists in France and which deeply worries the French authorities, who have seen hundreds of young French citizens going to practice Islamist jihad in Syria. The French prefer to deal with the problem by counter-espionage, cyber-surveillance, and infiltration techniques unlike the British, who try to persuade faith leaders to lecture their flock on the criminality of violence.
Hussey’s book make a persuasive link between the violence of France’s war on her Arab neighbours from Napoleon’s foray into Egypt, through the long and brutal treatment of southern Mediterranean Arabs, until de Gaulle’s capitulation to Algerian nationalists in 1962. In the half century since, Hussey argues, the war has continued in the form of the humiliation and subordination of Arab Muslims living in France, either as full French citizens or as immigrants retaining citizenship of their home nations in the Maghreb.
Part of this argument is challenged by a new book by Gilles Kepel, the best European scholar on Islamist ideology and its impact on Arab countries as well as Europe. In his book Passion française: Les voix des cités, Kepel examines 400 candidates from France’s Muslim communities who stood for the National Assembly in the French parliamentary election of 2012. Only a handful got elected but, Kepel argues, their participation in electoral politics on behalf of different parties means that French Muslims, like their British equivalents, are now leaving the mosque to take part in mainstream political activity. This may indeed be happening, but, paradoxically, Muslims in France who used to identify with the Socialists on anti-racist grounds are now tempted to support rightist political formations which oppose gay marriage. French Muslims today are more at ease with political Catholicism than secular socialism.
Kepel worries that political Islam in France has become detached from the broad anti-racist coalition and is now making specific Muslim demands—for halal food, headscarves for women and acceptance of the quenelle, the half-Nazi salute regularly used by the anti-semitic “comedian” Dieudonné and made notorious in Britain by the footballer Nicolas Anelka. Politicised Muslims are being courted by ideologues like Alain Soral, who calls himself a “national-socialiste” and argues that mass unemployment in the banlieues is caused by globalisation, the existence of the European Union and the power of Zionism. The objective is to persuade French Muslim citizens that part of what attracts some of them to Islamism can be catered for in a new politics of national identity opposed to the EU and cosmopolitan global capitalism.
Kepel gives a qualified welcome to these developments, seeing them as preferable to pure communitarisme, Muslim or Islamist identity politics. Having to choose between Islamism and warmed up 21st-century national socialism seems like the old choice between cholera and the plague, but Kepel should be read alongside Hussey, whose book asserts that there is an unresolved tension between French Muslims and France. Calling this a “war” or “intifada” may be an exaggeration designed to achieve an effect, but many serious people in France are worried that a French 9/11 is possible and worry about the backlash against French Muslims if Islamism continues to attract devotees.
If I were teaching contemporary France to students anywhere in the English-speaking world, Hussey’s book would be top of my reading list.
The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and its Arabs
By Andrew Hussey (Granta Books, £25)