Moses Ochonu, Africans and the Revenge of History

In 1991, Alex Calinicos published The Revenge of History. In it, he essentially argues that the collapse of Soviet Socialism and the attendant anti-socialist revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989-1990 were the result of the insistence of the Bolsheviks on launching and spreading a revolution from above; supplanting socialist internationalism with socialism-in-one-country doctrines; passing off Stalinism as socialism; and ignoring the classical Marxist tradition of a revolution from below-driven by the working class. The collapse of actually existing socialisms in Eastern Europe was, according to Calinicos, the chickens coming home to roost, a revenge of history.

The analogy between the socialist meltdown of 1989 and the on-going French underclass revolt is imperfect at best. However, the concept of the revenge of history applies perfectly to the French social meltdown taking place before our very eyes. The empire is striking back, and the children of empire, long hidden away in the dingy slums of Paris and Marseille under a peculiarly French variety of segregation pretentiously called multiculturalism, are revolting openly. The chickens of years of pretending that the African immigrants in France do not exist or are undesirable reminders of French colonialism are coming home to roost.

History always wins; it always exacts its pound of flesh from those who refuse to respect its inexorable laws of causation and effect. The French thought that they could will away their colonial past by ignoring the visible human artifacts of that inglorious history, and by pretending to a doctrine of post-imperial inclusion and solidarity without actually living up to its more practical, financially-demanding aspects.

The French have always been a sanctimonious imperial power, playing the imperial game by refusing to match lofty rhetoric drawn from the French Revolution with actions which bear out that rhetoric. In Africa, they inaugurated their imperial history by pretending to an administrative policy which ostensibly aimed at making African French subjects into Frenchmen. The Africans would only have to acquire the accoutrements of Frenchness, defined in strictly Euro-modernist terms. Frenchified Africans would be entitled to the same rights and privileges as white Frenchmen in the French metropole. The policy was aptly called assimilation. We may disagree with its results and intentions, but there was nothing inherently wrong with such a system as long as the assimilation was voluntary-if one could talk about voluntarism in a situation of colonial domination. However, as we know, when assimilation was abandoned for a French version of Indirect Rule called association after World War I, less than 50,000 African French subjects, mostly from the four French Communes of Goree, Dakar, Rufisque, and Saint Louis, had actually become French citizens.

The disparity between seemingly revolutionary proclamations and tokenistic window dressing was palpable. Nonetheless, the French realized that, even under the most stringent of conditions, assimilation was expensive and would "blacken" and complicate the social dynamics of the French heartland as assimilated Black French citizens, the evolues, began to emigrate to Paris and sought to carve political, economic, and social niches for themselves. The half-hearted French commitment to assimilation was consumed by a realization of the potential social, economic, and political costs of sustained assimilation. The French moved away from assimilation, failing to match glib pontifications about imperial citizenship with concrete action towards its realization.

When the French embraced Indirect Rule by another name, the British, who had been more pragmatic in their colonial administrative policies, and had been put on the defensive by the seemingly-ambitious and integrationist French policy of assimilation, had the last laugh. It was an eloquent testament to French pretense. But the French never learned. They would repeat the same mistake of raising the hope of universal French citizenship only to dash it once again.

French colonialism in Africa was a litany of French proclamations which conveyed the intention of doing good things without necessarily ushering in significant social change. The French colonialists had a habit of beating a retreat when the full obligations of their laudable pronouncements hit them-when the financial cost of reconciling actuality to appearance are calculated. It is a history of mismanaging imperial problems under the pretense and idealism of preserving a mythical oneness of a French Union that purportedly included both France and its empire.

This imperial historical cycle played out once again in France's African colonies after World War II. Harassed by post-war African labor cum nationalist agitation, the French attempted to undercut and preempt African anti-colonial mobilization by extending French citizenship to all African colonial subjects in 1947. Frederick Cooper put it succinctly in African Decolonization. The French, Cooper asserts, "insisted-as British officials did not-that colonies and metropole were part of an indissoluble whole, and they thought that extending citizenship to all [Africans], while limiting representation to a small number of elected deputies, would channel the energies of the "evolues" into the imperial system, without upsetting the life of the "paysans (Cooper, 1986:18)."

This enduring idealism and pretense soon returned home to roost. The extension of French citizenship to all only served to increase the intensity and frequency of African agitations and labor demands as African laborers in the colonies began to demand the rewards of citizenship: the wages paid to French workers in France. Africans also began to emigrate to France throughout 1950s by invoking the their imperial citizenship rights to emigration. Much of the African immigrant populations in France originate from this post-war, pre-independence migration.

Once again, the French retreat was swift. They moved quickly to grant independence to their African colonies, a move which was designed to, and did, invalidate the notion of imperial citizenship, which was helping, for good or ill, to populate the ports, docks, and cities of France with an unwelcome, potentially disruptive African presence. Independence having legally stopped the migration of Africans to France under the imperial citizenship system, the African population in French cities grew naturally and through illegal immigration.

The irruption of this discontented African community in France must be understood partly as the inevitable but unintended consequence of the escapist and pretentious "solution" of 1947: the extension of French citizenship to all African French subjects in order to avoid having to pragmatically confront a growing African labor and nationalist uprising.

This lack of pragmatism and sincerity in French policy towards colonial peoples has characterized the French treatment of the African immigrant community in France. Plagued by unemployment, poverty, discrimination, and ostracism, this community has lived in economic and political abeyance for much of its existence in France. The French have refused to confront the African presence realistically with a view to integrating it into the socio-political and economic fabric of French society. Instead, there has been a subtle effort to write the African community off French patrimony through a combination of willful ignorance and tokenistic, half-hearted, and escapist acts. This neglect of the African community has been matched only by the occasional rhetoric of deracialized Frenchness that co-habits uneasily with the less pretentious Le Penist ideology of French racial nationalism.

Say what you may about British colonialism. But the British, however imperfectly, have since made peace with the children of its empire resident in Britain. They have redefined Britishness in ways that allow for entry by the formally colonized, even though the current anti-terrorist climate threatens this British effort to exorcize its imperial ghosts.

Tokenism, denial, the multiplication of slum shelters, and a policy of pretending that if a situation or problem is ignored it will cease to exist have all failed. Nor has the selective assimilation of skillful French footballers of African origin helped to articulate the message that the French desperately want to convey: that all is well between France and her African community. The current uprising is the price of pretence and escapism.

A country which denies its imperial history; ignores the human consequence of its empire; deemphasizes the tragedies of its imperial involvements; actively suppresses lingering post-imperial traumas and legacies; enacts laws to sanitize its imperial acts through pedagogic reforms and distortion-such a country hardly deserves the sympathy of history.

This is why one is tempted to gloat over the unfolding tragedy as a revenge of history. And, to respond to Prof. Aluko's poser, there is a fundamental disconnect between the Franco-African footballers that are the most visible symbols of the African community in France, and average members of that community. Marcel Dessaily is hardly a representative of the French African community and cannot therefore act as their social conscience or spokesperson. What's more, the African community sees through the charade of what the French routinely do: tout the individual success of the Franco-African footballers as stand-ins for collective success.