PTZ @ 12:16 am
The Postcolonial Uprising in France
For more than two weeks now, fires of postcolonial fury have been raging across France, burning public buildings and private businesses, torching schools and police stations, incinerating cars and the conceits of this proud post-imperial country, exposing its contradictions and conflicts hidden deep in the suburbs-the banlieues-of post-industrial squalor and the national psyche of racial and religious intolerance. The state is shaken, so is the society, and both are desperately seeking to explain and contain the crisis, shifting from one characterization to another, one strategy to another. It is not just the banlieues that are in flames, but the very idea, the cherished ideal, the illusions of French republicanism. Memories of May 1968 are mined for illuminating parallels. But this civil unrest appears different, it is more widespread and more destructive than the student revolt of thirty-seven years ago, with a cast of actors unfamiliar in a country so enamored by its revolutionary traditions and its bequest of human rights to the world. The social crisis triggered by the riots evokes another history, the history of empire and anti-colonial struggles. It is a postcolonial uprising: Africa striking back.
The flames were sparked by the deaths of two youths of Tunisian and Mauritanian descent on October 27, who were electrocuted in a power substation while fleeing the police. From the shabby, segregated suburbs of the unglamorous Paris visitors and the smart classes never see, the explosion quickly spread to hundreds of cities and towns. By the end of the first two weeks of the uprising more than 7,000 vehicles and dozens of buildings had been destroyed, more than 2,500 people arrested, thousands of police were mobilized to patrol the restive streets, and a state of emergency was declared. Not even elegant, tourist Paris could escape as police ringed the Eiffel Tower and Champs Elysees and nervous western governments issued travel warnings. Already reeling from losses of the EU constitution referendum and the Paris bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, the French establishment went into panic with emergency cabinet meetings, although President Jacques Chirac uncharacteristically disappeared from public view leaving the stage to the good-cop-bad-cop routine of his two aspiring successors: the second generation immigrant interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, with his inflammatory disdainful rhetoric and vague noises about “positive discrimination” and the unelected aristocratic prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, with his more diplomatic utterances and promises of more jobs and services.
The street battles have helped frame the uprising, or riots as the media prefers to name and contain them, as a duel between the repressive police and rampaging youths. The French police are notorious for their harsh treatment of youths of African descent, which escalated after the current rightwing government launched its so-called zero-tolerance anti-crime campaign as it lurched further to the right in an effort to appeal to an electorate increasingly frightened by globalization, ‘Islamic’ terrorism, and ‘foreigners.’ The political class was alarmed by the 2002 presidential elections. In the first round, and for the first time in the forty-four year history of the Fifth Republic, a neo-fascist party, the National Front, came second by winning nearly one-fifth of the votes cast and beating the socialists, and its leader Jean-Marie Le Pen proceeded to run against Chirac in the runoff elections. This is the political context in which the uprising has been taking place-a country that has been drifting steadily more rightwards since the 1990s.
It should not be surprising that the lead in the uprising has been taken by the youth because it is they who have borne the brunt of social and economic marginalization. Children of various generations of African immigrants, the youths have been trapped in a vortex of high unemployment, impoverishment, discrimination, disaffection, hopelessness, and isolation. They are an alienated diaspora for whom the dualities of culture and citizenship are particularly agonizing in a society that refuses to recognize difference in principle or uphold equality in practice for its minorities. Their weapons of struggle are as characteristically French as they are reminiscent of anti-colonial protest-streets are their theatres of demonstration, violent demonstrations. And they resort to the old technologies of firebombs for attack and the new technologies of mobile phones and the Internet for organization.
Attempts, quite predictable ones, have been made by ideologues of the regime and frightened observers elsewhere to dismiss the riots as rampages orchestrated by criminal gangs, or to see the sinister hand of Islamic extremism behind them, as the outbreak of the French intifada. It is a fact, of course, that a large proportion of the African diaspora population in France, the largest in Europe, is Muslim, but this is not a religious rebellion. Indeed, the Islamic Organization of France, an umbrella organization that was only allowed to form as late as 2003, issued a fatwa prohibiting Muslims from taking part in the riots, and many Muslims have participated in multi-religious and multi-cultural marches against the violence. Nor is the uprising, ultimately, simply a youth rebellion, the violent irruption of youth into the public sphere of rigid social immobility and righteous secular indifference. It is about the failure of the French model of citizenship and integration rooted in the history of French colonialism and its unresolved aftermath.
The uprising of 2005 is the latest in a cycle of postcolonial revolts in France. Riots broke out at regular intervals in the 1990s in various French cities, among them the riots in Lyon in 1991 and 1996, in Paris in 1997 and 2000, and in Toulouse in 1998. The summer of 1983 was also rocked by riots in minority neighborhoods of several cities. But 2005 is the year of the most widespread civil unrest in recent French history. The declaration of a state of emergency in a major European country shows the gravity of the crisis confronting the French state and society. It is instructive that the law used to proclaim curfews was originally drawn up in 1955 to suppress unrest in Algeria during the liberation war, and it was last used in 1984 to quell turmoil in the French Pacific Ocean territory of New Caledonia. The archives of colonial repression have been reopened and come home to roost. It is a poignant, tragic irony: the African youths seeking freedom in postcolonial France are being fought with the same law used to fight their grandparents’ or parents’ generation seeking freedom in colonial Africa.
France has always prided itself on its revolutionary and republican traditions that gave the world the slogans of liberté, égalité, fraternité (freedom, equality, brotherhood). Missing was the idea of diversity. National myths reveal the virtues as much as they hide the vices that are embedded in a country’s collective consciousness. French republicanism claims to recognize individuals, not groups; it promotes an integration model of common citizenship unmarked by ethnic, racial or religious differences. It allows no room for identity politics. For immigrants it means that their cultural origin, religious orientation, and racial classification is ignored at best and actively suppressed at worst. There is no place for multiculturalism in this model, for affirmative action for historically oppressed groups, no institutional and ideological mechanisms to acknowledge and address social inequality that more often than not is based on group identities, however tenuous or stereotypical, imagined or real those identities are, rather than on the content of an individual’s character. Denying the social existence of races and racism in a multicultural society is a foolish fetish at best and a dangerous dogma at worst.
In a country where it is even illegal to collect or keep statistics on race or religion (so that the population of ‘blacks’ or Muslims in France is often based on educated guesses rather than official census data), there can be no systematic programs to rescue ethnic minorities out of their economic and political ghettoes. Not surprisingly, despite having the largest non-European immigrant population in Europe, outside of sports and entertainment, the number of minorities in senior positions in the public and private sectors is miniscule even by the abysmal standards of much of Europe. Minorities are largely invisible on television and there are none in parliament, but they make up more than half of the prison population. An integration model that claims color-blindness in a society where overt racism is rampant offers a recipe for institutionalized racism. Denied recognition and redress through the law and state institutions Muslims, for example, are forced to focus their energies on such highly symbolic, but significant, issues as the right of girls to wear the hij b in public schools. Predictably, frustration and anger among the diasporan Africans is vented, periodically, through riots. The 2005 uprising only came as a surprise to those whose heads are buried deep in the fantasies of French republicanism.
According to its patriotic defenders, the French tradition of racial tolerance was born during the Enlightenment and articulated in the work of the celebrated eighteenth century thinkers-the philosophes-and sanctified by the revolution that ended the ancien régime and gave way to democracy and republicanism. This, the story goes, marked the rise of the free citizen. Yet, revolutionary France was no less beholden to African slavery than its western European rivals, and later no less imperialist and colonialist. The philosphes were advancing doctrines of biological racism while at the same time they were proclaiming human equality. In short, negative attitudes towards Africans are as firmly embedded in French culture as elsewhere in Europe. France may be different only in the degree to which it refuses to recognize that it has a racial problem deeply rooted in its modern history.
Colonialism reinforced the contradiction at the heart of twentieth century France and imperial Europe as a whole: the self-aggrandizing conceits of civilization wrapped in the silenced or sanitized barbarities of colonialism. Despite self-serving claims to the contrary, French colonialism was no less racist than that of the other European powers. Assimilation, the official French policy of colonial governance, was not a doctrine of racial equality, but of African inferiority; it was based on the arrogance that only those Africans who whitewashed themselves into Frenchness could be accorded full human rights and social recognition. But French colonialism was not a humanist project, so assimilation always remained confined to a tiny elite: the bulk of the masses in the colonies were “subjects” prey to the abuses of forced labor and summary justice. But even the evolues-the assimilated elites-discovered the cruel fiction of assimilation when they went to France where they were recast as despised natives, as mimic men from an inferior race. They channeled their anger and angst into negritude, the poetry and philosophy of African self-affirmation.
Assimilation failed in colonial Africa; the uprising shows it has failed in postcolonial France. French colonialism denied separate identities to the colonies claiming they were an indissoluble part of France, postcolonial France denies multicultural identities to its citizens from the former colonies claiming they are individual citizens. Such are the depths of denial that a law was recently passed making it mandatory for school textbooks to put a positive spin on French colonialism, to extol its benevolence and the benefits it bestowed on Africa including North Africa-a blatant attempt to wish away the Algerian war (which was not officially called a “war” until 1999), the bloodiest war of African liberation that killed more than a million people and tore France itself apart and ushered in the Fourth Republic.
It was colonialism that gave France its African diaspora that it has had so much difficulty in integrating and whose uprising we have been witnessing. The first African migrants in modern times to arrive in France came following the conquest of Algeria in 1830. The African presence grew during the First World War when tens of thousands of workers and troops were recruited from the French African empire, some of whom remained in France after the war. African migration increased during and after the Second World War as more workers were recruited and some demobilized soldiers settled in France and the country sought to marshal cheap labor from its colonies for economic reconstruction and the postwar economic boom, which lasted until the early 1970s. In the 1960s there was widespread confidence in the country’s capacity to absorb and integrate the newcomers.
But the consensus for an open immigration regime crumbled as both the postwar boom and the self-assured Gaulist era came to an end at the turn of the 1970s. Ironically, as immigration restrictions were imposed African migrants in France increasingly took citizenship and brought their families, thereby not only swelling their numbers but also turning themselves from temporary immigrants into a permanent diaspora. Immigration played an important role in the rise of the right-wing National Front whose electoral victories, in turn, facilitated the drift towards conservatism in French politics even during Francois Mitterrand’s ostensibly socialist era in the 1980s and early 1990s. Immigration was embroiled in concerns about French national identity being decomposed and reconfigured by the forces of European integration and globalization at a time of slow economic growth and massive cultural transformation.
In the 1980s and 1990s African migrations continued, indeed accelerated, when African economies began reeling from the recessions of structural adjustment programs and several Francophone countries such as Algeria and Cote d’Ivoire erupted into bloody civil wars. This ensured that the African immigrants would be at the center of painful debates about French identity and citizenship, especially since, like in the other industrialized countries, it reflected important shifts in the composition of previous flows dominated by fellow Europeans and Christians. The imposition of tighter immigration controls were accompanied by increased regulation of labor markets, which were reinforced by a new strategy of attacking and limiting the rights of established immigrants.
Clearly, the current uprising led by the African diaspora in France is rooted in the complex and combustible mix of a long history of racism that has diluted the promises of citizenship for the African French and exposed them to discriminatory policing, harassment and violence; a sluggish economy that has left high rates of unemployment for them especially the male youth; and a rigid model of integration that fails to recognize that France is no longer a monolithic country, if it ever was, but a multicultural country which is home to millions of Africans from the ex-French colonies in North, West and Central Africa.
It is easy to see the uprising as a reflection of the peculiar failings of the French state and society, as chauvinistic commentators from countries that have no love lost for France have been wont to. For some it is payback time, for French commentators are often quick to point fingers when other western countries are in trouble from their restive minorities. But the problem goes beyond the rigidities of the French republican model of integration. Other models have been no less fraught with problems and eruptions of racial violence and social conflict-not the multicultural model of Britain and the United States, not the discredited guest-worker model of Germany. At heart is the fundamental inability of Euro-American societies to accept racial difference without stigmatizing it, without marginalizing, alienating, and criminalizing racial or religious minority populations. Neither the model of color-blind equality nor lip-service multiculturalism can succeed as long as each retains the stubborn virus of social and spatial apartheid. What is needed is genuine equality.
It follows that the solutions to the social crisis exposed by the uprising lie in a multiplicity of state policies and societal responses. There can be little doubt that the economic and social alienation of minorities would diminish and integration would accelerate with full employment, and the provision of better housing, social services and community policing. But the rioters who have been burning French cities and perhaps burying the cherished myths of the French nation are seeking more than access to jobs and less harassment from the police. They are demanding mutual respect, social recognition, and the full rights of citizenship based on equality of opportunity and power. If the Europe of African and Asian diasporas remains separate, unequal, and unhappy the other Europe of imagined purity will periodically pay high material, political, social, and moral costs.
The French uprising is not only a wake up call to France but to the whole of Europe where the populations of African and Asian Europeans will increase regardless of efforts to create “fortress” Europe. Europe’s aging and diminishing population needs, notwithstanding periodic fluctuations in the labor market and of economic cycles, workers from the global South. For their part, African countries will continue to export their labor and cultures to the global North including Europe. This is not new: Africans have been exporting their labor and cultures since the grim days of the Atlantic slave trade. What is new is that Africans in Europe are demanding recognition as Europeans, African Europeans. It is a moment made possible by the conjunctures of postcolonialism and globalization. If the underlying fury behind the fires this time is not addressed once the uprising comes to an end, sooner or later there will be other uprisings in France and in other European countries as well. This is the opportunity France must seize from the tragedy of the postcolonial uprising that has gripped world attention since the flames of rage began sweeping across the country from the banlieues of Paris.
First Written November 15, 2005