The French Intifada: The Long War between France and its Arabs

British historian Andrew Hussey delves deep into the tinderbox relationship between France and its large Arab minority

Young residents of Villiers-le-Bel, a northern Paris suburb, vandalize an abandoned police car during clashes, November 26, 2007, the second night of street violence after two local teens were killed in a crash with a police patrol car (photo credit: ALEXANDRE GUY / ABACA PRESS / MCT)
Young residents of Villiers-le-Bel, a northern Paris suburb, vandalize an abandoned police car during clashes, November 26, 2007, the second night of street violence after two local teens were killed in a crash with a police patrol car
THE REGULAR fl are-ups o f violence i n many Arab-inhabited banlieues (suburbs) around major French cities are only the latest chapter in a two century-long conflict between France and the peoples of its former North African possessions of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, according to a new book by British historian and journalist Andrew Hussey.
According to Hussey’s “The French Intifada,” there is a running guerrilla war between Muslim Arab (and sub-Saharan black African) youths and the police, which, in the eyes of the youths, “is only the latest and most dramatic form of engagement with ‘the enemy.”
Hardly a week goes by without clashes between police and youths of Arab origin somewhere in France, often in the Paris area.
On March 17 this year, dozens of firebombs caused major damage at a police station in the outer Paris suburb of Chanteloup-les-Vignes, which was attacked after the arrest of a local Arab teenager for an alleged robbery. There followed a confrontation between arresting officers – six of whom were injured – and dozens of masked youths.
Sometimes, an eruption of violence leads to copycat events, which spread to other areas.
The biggest such outbreak to rock France lasted for three weeks from October 27, 2005, when two youths running away from police were electrocuted and killed while hiding inside an installation housing an electric transformer in the rundown Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois.
Within days, riots swept through immigrant-dominated neighborhoods on the edges of more than 100 French cities and towns. Some 10,000 cars and multiple public buildings were burned. The government instituted night curfews and was on the verge of calling the army to back up exhausted police forces when the riots finally died out.
“The war began with Napoleon’s cynical aggression in Egypt in the early 1800s, marking the start of a French lust for all things Oriental that culminated in the acquisition – by force – of Algeria, Tunis and Morocco…” writes Hussey.
Dean of the University of London Institute in Paris and a contributor to such British media as the “Guardian,” the “New Statesman” and the BBC, Hussey writes that memories of the past, particularly Algeria’s bloody War of Independence (1954-1962) still influence both French and Muslim Arab minds.
Events in the Arab world are closely followed by the five to six million people of Muslim Arab origin in France, approximately 10 percent of the total population.
“At the time of writing, as Syria collapses into carnage and chaos, it seems as if the Arab Spring may well become the Arab Holocaust. The French of course do not want this to happen but as they struggle to maintain order there is growing disorder in their own banlieues: the anger and violence is matched on both sides of the Mediterranean,” writes Hussey.
Hussey recalls that he got caught up in a now notorious riot, which erupted in Paris’s Gare du Nord railway station on March 2007 when police arrested a young Congolese delinquent who was dodging a ticket barrier.
The Gare du Nord is more or less on adividing line between traditional Paris neighborhoods and immigrant districts, and is a “hanging out” place for youngsters from immigrant communities.
The arrest triggered an orgy of destruction and looting inside the station together with confrontations between youths and riot police before the eyes of terrified commuters.
“The chanting I heard was mostly in French; “Nik les schmitts” (slang for ‘Fuck the cops’)… But there was another slogan, chanted in colloquial Arabic, which seemed to hit the hardest of all: ‘Na’al abouk la France’ (‘Fuck France’). This slogan – it is in fact more of a curse – has nothing to do with any French tradition of revolt,” he writes.
Hussey says the conflict is one between the former colonizers and the former colonized, although the French establishment steadfastly refuses to define it that way.
There have been North African Arab migrant worker communities in France since World War I but the major influx started in the mid-1950s when France began enjoying a major economic boom since described as “Les 30 Glorieuses” (The Glorious 30 Years), during which factories were in desperate need of huge amounts of unskilled workers who poured in from the poorest rural areas of North Africa.
French authorities kept a tight grip on the migrant workers who were generally lawabiding and feared deportation back home if they stepped out of line. Their Frenchborn children, who enjoy automatic French citizenship and therefore cannot be deported, have since often been at odds with the state and society at large because they resent the lowly status their parents had, and they reject factory-type work, which they identify – as many white French people do – as being associated with the lower rungs of society.
RECALLING THE manner in which the French press described the 2005 riots, Hussey states, “There was broad agreement that the riots had little or nothing to do with Islam or the historical French presence in parts of the Islamic world. Leftist intellectuals, in the pages of Le Monde and Libération (influential daily newspapers) fell over themselves to distance the riots from any connection with the same anger that radicalized Islamists.
According to these journalists, the riots were caused by a “fracture sociale” and lack of “justice sociale.” There was an almost complete denial that what was happening might be a new form of politics that was a direct challenge to the French state.”
However, one French political commentator, Gilles Kepel, who specializes in Arab affairs, told the author, “Many French political commentators are blind. They do not want to see the world beyond France.
And they do not understand that what happens here is because of our relationship with the Arab world and our history there.”
Hussey traveled to Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, and some of the best parts of his book are descriptions pointing out how France still remains both a magnet and a target for anger for many people in those countries.
He refers particularly to the controversy, which broke out in January 2011, at the onset of the “Arab Spring” when French Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie defended France’s offer of crowd-control equipment to the regime of unpopular Tunisian strongman Zine Ben Ali. “It was hard to imagine a more arrogant and self-serving statement, as the people of Tunisia were fighting for their freedom,” writes Hussey. He says Tunisian bloggers reacted with fury and sarcasm on Facebook with the reply, “Merci la France” while the Algerian press said local peoples had bitter memories of French military practices Oddly enough, Hussey describes Alliot- Marie as “Minister of State for Justice, Defense and Home Affairs,” a ministrywhich never existed, although she held each of those separate portfolios at other times in her career. This is the one disappointing aspect of the book – sloppy editing. The book is rife with silly historical mistakes such as stating that the 1944 Allied landings in Normandy took place in August instead of June, describing Guy Mollet as the President of France during the Algerian war (he was actually Prime Minister) and stating that he held office until 1959 instead of 1957, and describing then-justice minister Adolphe Crémieux, who granted French citizenship to Algerian Jews in 1870, as a Catholic, when in fact he was one of the best-known Jewish figures in France at the time.
On the other hand, Hussey captures well the hatred of Arabs for Jews in France, recorded in interviews he conducts in immigrant ghettos. He writes that “the more time I spent in the banlieues, the more I began to pick up on casual references to synagogues, Israelis and Jews. These references would be refracted through the slang of the banlieues. So phrases such as sale juif, sale yid, sale feuj, youpin, youtre, all racist epithets were widely used.”
But again, oddly, Hussey says he doesn’t know of a single Jew who lives in the suburbs of Paris although about half of the Paris area’s estimated 250,000- 300,000 Jews live outside the city limits, sometimes in such rough areas as Sarcelles and Créteil which are often the site of anti- Semitic attacks.
Nonetheless, he has got the idea right: “Until the inhabitants of the Arab ghettos of France cease to feel excluded, repressed, feared and despised, “the unacknowledged war between France and its disturbed suburbs – one of the most complex and fragile front lines in (this)… World War (between radical Islam and the West) – will go on. The positions and tactics of the immigrants of the banlieues – their identification with Palestine, their hatred of France – reveal the struggle to be part of the ‘long war’, just like those caught up in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Hussey writes.
Until both the authorities and the Arabs revisit their entrenched mindsets, he suggests, matters will only get worse.