- Frenchness and the African Diaspora: identity and uprising in contemporary France
Frenchness and the African Diaspora is a volume full of incisive ideas and analyses of the complicated discursive, historical, and political operations that modulate the intersections of race, culture and nation in ways that produce intricate complicities and always shifting topologies of inclusion and exclusion–where disorientation and uncertainty are the critical instruments of power and rule, and where discernible sides, populations and identities are secondary. At the same time, I walk away from reading it with a sense of the slipperiness of the subject. We know what is happening to immigrants, black citizens and residents–whose 'rioting', after all, was in part an incentive to this book–but the 'other' French seem to have slipped out of the back of the picture. This does not mean that these white people can't mix when necessary–Algerians have been thrown into the Seine; black French of Malian descent have been arbitrarily killed; and Muslim girls have been mandated to do some fundamental undressing. But there is an overwhelming sense that there is a French population that lives in its own world, and that this world can be so ephemeral, perhaps empty, that racist reactions to others may be one of the few instruments of self-discovery it has.
As a volume of essays the book's primary value is to deepen a problematic rather than sustain a consistent argument. In the opening chapter, Didier Lapeyronnie identifies the ways in which the modality of youth rioting is replete with meaning and represents an appropriate vehicle of collective articulation given the lived experience of the banlieue–in contrast to the conventional responses by French authorities, which construe rioting as evidence of incapacity to adapt. Powerlessness and exclusion, plus over-dependence upon ineffectual institutions, produce the riot as the only conceivable vehicle of 'conversation' with the state. Of course the rioting opens up spaces that must be filled and domesticated by analysis. So it is no surprise to Mbembe, in his chapter, that in always having to dodge the 'bullet' of race, crises of the banlieue have to be instantiated as a major event, a kind of rupture, even though we know from the work of Mustafa Dikeç that there have been thousands of small 'insurrections' across the Paris metropolitan area during the past two decades. Yet this practice is in line with a certain competence of the French state to play the role of the impresario–its rehearsal of worldliness and engagement with a profusion of cultural events, of being a proficient navigator of cosmopolitan waters, all in an effort to protect itself from being affected by that which it brings to the stage.
Only in this light is it possible to understand why Mbembe calls for individual responsibility as a critical component of an ethics of the banlieue. Ahmed Boubeker then describes how the framing of issues and identities acts against the possibility of real political transactions. As such there is not even the capacity to 'wheel and deal' in the trenches of urban politics, because the state has no idea who the residents of the banlieue 'really are'. Doomed to invisibility by their original exclusion from collective memory and French history, there can be no other 'deal' but banishment. Every time the banlieue makes itself visible, it is immediately understood as a communitarian aberration. Fred Cooper's chapter raises the possibility that the present could have been otherwise, and marshals an impressive historical analysis to prove the point. The colonial history that is the object of either overconfidence or dread proves to be intensely ambivalent, full of complicated deliberations to work out a [End Page 677] more extensive and inclusive citizenship while retaining context-specific civil statutes and differentiated personal statuses. It had seemed possible then to be a French citizen without the obligations attaching to French nationality, including adherence...