Barbarians (or victims) at the gate?

A university dean in Paris grapples with France’s relationship to its Muslim immigrants and to North Africa.

A VAN burns after clashes between French youth and riot police in the Paris suburb of Clichy (photo credit: REUTERS)
A VAN burns after clashes between French youth and riot police in the Paris suburb of Clichy
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Fresnes prison is one of the three main prisons in the Paris area, constructed in 1895 as a model place of incarceration. In the fi- nal chapter of The French Intifada, author John Hussey describes a visit there.
Although he was not allowed to speak to the prisoners – an estimated 70 percent of whom are Muslim – one of the guards described a culture war taking place: “You can speak to the Basques or the Corsicans, have a laugh; you could be friends on the outside. With the Muslims, it’s like they’re a secret army, working against you.”
The prison is an allegory for France and North Africa. In Hussey’s view, the prisons are the “engine room of Islamist radicalism,” which is at the forefront of the latest round of conflict between France and North African Muslims.
In The French Intifada, Hussey – the dean of the University of London Institute in Paris – seeks to tell two interrelated stories through an erudite, semi-chronological history. He claims that “the specific aim of this book is to examine the major role that French colonial wars in North Africa have played in the worldwide process of decolonization,” and to examine how this has led to France’s internal conflict with North African Muslim immigrants, who make up the majority of the country’s five million Muslims.
This is an important book, one of the few in English to grapple with this central question in the wake of the massive 2005 riots in France – most of which took place in the banlieues, or suburbs dominated by urban development projects, where most immigrants and their descendants live.
Hussey’s political views and thesis are hard to pinpoint. On the one hand, he seems to feel sympathy for the disaffected youth, crammed into the projects with no future; he argues that they feel their culture will be annihilated if they embrace the secular “civilizing mission” of France.
However, he also confronts the French left-wing intellectuals, accusing them of being in a state of denial about the true nature of the “rioters rising up against ‘France’” who speak “clearly the language of war.”
His first three chapters cover the current politics of immigrant radicalism, examining the growth of anti-Semitism as he spends time in the banlieues. “I began to pick up on the casual references to synagogues, Israelis and Jews... sale juif [dirty Jew], sale yid, sale reuj, youpin, youtre (this latter term dates from the 1940s and so, with its echoes of Nazi deportations, contains a special poison),” he writes. Yet none of the youth there had met Jewish people; they just hated Jews and blamed them for their problems. Mohammed Merah, the killer of two French soldiers and four Jews at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, was steeped in anti-Semitism, yet Hussey shows how official France, and many intellectuals, sought “to disassociate Merah from anti-semitism and Islam.”
Because the French are militantly secular, any mention of Islam being a motivating factor, or any attempt to look at the religion of the victims, somehow seems to be a threat to the myth of a cohesive society.
The second part of the book takes the reader on a historical journey through North Africa. Much of this is fascinating material, because the history of French Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco is not often well-told in English by an expert. Hussey focuses primarily on the struggle for independence in Algeria. He reveals how brutal aspects of the French colonial regime were, as the security forces regularly used torture, and the massacre of Arabs was typically the response to the killing of French civilians. Some forget today, but Algeria was once home to millions of French settlers, who lived in the country for 100 years. That ended in 1962 as the French fled the country, and with them many Muslims who had worked with the government. The Algerian Jewish community was also shattered at this time.
But the Algerian nightmare didn’t end there. In 1992, an Islamist rebellion resulted in the military taking control of the country. The Groupe islamique armé (GIA) began a war of extermination against all aspects of the state, claiming they were at war with “monkeys, Jews and Crusaders.” Just as in the suburbs of Paris today, where the youth have not met Jews but nonetheless blame them for their problems, the Islamists often mentioned Jews as their enemies. Hussey is nonjudgmental in describing this Algerian civil war, often accepting conspiracy-minded accounts that put the blame on the government for massacres, rather than on the Islamists.
The book has several chapters detailing the history of French Morocco and Tunisia, and analyzing the interplay between Islam and the state after independence.
This, too, is fascinating reading, reminding us of the cultural importance Morocco once had to Western literary elites and even of the brief interlude jazz had in Tunisia.
The author blends history with personal anecdotes of trips to the wide avenues of Tunis and the dive bars of Tangier.
All of this makes for a quick, exciting read. However, the narrative comes apart in the last section of the book, which consists of a half-baked chapter on Muslims in prison. It is as if Hussey got bored and decided not to finish this opus. So the reader is left wandering around Fresnes prison, with the author informing us that the last working guillotine is hidden away there and that the French word for prison is one of the oldest words in the language.
There is no real analysis of how French policy in Morocco, Tunisia or Algeria informs the youth in the suburbs.
This is an obviously skillful account that will ring true for anyone who has visited Paris metro stations like Barbès or been to Tunis. But it seems like Hussey could have taken a little more time to add another chapter or two.