- The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and Its Arabs by Andrew Hussey
The “crisis of the banlieues”—the social and economic instability of (some) housing projects on the outskirts of large French cities—has preoccupied [End Page 236] the French state and public for decades. French anxieties have grown more acute since the outbreak of riots in 2005 and, more recently, since the Paris terrorist attacks of January and November 2015. Commentators cite various causes for the crisis: the failure to integrate immigrants, social and economic marginalization, and discrimination. Andrew Hussey’s provocatively titled book suggests a different cause: colonial violence and the uneasy postcolonial relationship between France and “its” Arabs. He seeks to present an “analysis of current tensions of both sides of the Mediterranean, informed by an account of the historical circumstances which have brought us to where we are” (403). The first part of the book introduces some of the issues facing the suburbs of Paris and Lyon, interspersed with accounts of acts of terrorism or extreme violence committed by perpetrators of immigrant origin. The second, third, and fourth parts of the book examine the histories of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia from the French conquest to decolonization and the challenges of the postcolonial period. The book concludes with a section on the disproportionate number of Muslims in French prisons and the role of incarceration in fueling radical Islam.
Hussey is hardly alone in analyzing what the French call the “social fracture” (fracture sociale), its relationship to immigration and integration policies, the debates over secularism, or France’s colonial heritage. He dismisses explanations for this social fracture and resulting unrest that emphasize the economic and social marginalization of residents of the suburban housing estates, and of minority populations more generally. Instead, he argues that the disaffection of the residents stems directly from the inequalities and violence of the colonial era. Few would deny, of course, that the colonial legacy weighs heavily on contemporary French society. Yet Hussey’s argument seems to oversimplify a complex issue.
Hussey contends that the long and frequently violent relationship between France and its North African colonies has shaped contemporary confrontations between French authorities and disaffected youth. He suggests that French citizens and immigrants of North African origin, even those born decades after decolonization, carry with them an intense resentment, if not outright hatred, of France that is rooted in the colonial experience. This is an intriguing claim. Unfortunately, however, Hussey offers little hard evidence that such resentment has been the defining factor in protests and outbursts of violence.
There are other limitations to Hussey’s argument. If, as he posits, colonial violence and postcolonial instability engender violence in French residents with roots in the former colonies, then one might expect to see similar patterns among immigrant groups from other regions of the former empire; after all, the experience of colonialism and decolonization was equally violent in Indochina, Madagascar, and other areas. Hussey focuses almost exclusively on French citizens and immigrants of North African descent, but participants in demonstrations and riots (whether in the banlieues or not) have similarly varied backgrounds, as do those who have perpetrated acts of terror in recent decades. Moreover, he implies that all French citizens of [End Page 237] North African descent fall into the category of the disaffected and angry, when many are well integrated and successful. He argues further for the specificity of the French experience, excluding any real comparison with other European countries that are facing similar challenges of integrating marginalized minority groups, as well as the spread of Islamic radicalism. If French colonial violence is the cause of this instability and violence, how do we explain similar phenomena in other states? Belgium too was a colonial power, but one without a presence in North Africa or the Middle East; and yet it faces many of the same challenges as France.
In addition to such methodological problems, the organization of the book serves Hussey’s argument...