France’s turbulent history with North Africa, and its refusal to recognise immigrants as French, have resulted in widespread alienation and violence. From colonialism’s scars to modern-day terrorism, says Ed West in the Spectator, the ‘French Intifada’ grapples with integration, identity, and a nation at odds with itself. Here’s an excerpt:
Seven years ago on Friday, a 31 year-old man got behind the wheel of a 19-tonne lorry and purposefully drove it down Nice’s Promenade des Anglais at speed as crowds celebrated France’s Bastille Day. Eighty-six people were killed, including 14 children, the image of an infant’s corpse wrapped in foil beside a toy shocking a country that had grown wearily used to violence.
The previous November, 130 people had been murdered across Paris in a series of attacks which reached their most intense savagery at the Bataclan. This followed earlier atrocities that year at the Charlie Hebdo office and a Jewish supermarket in the French capital. In all cases the attackers were of North African origin, although often born and raised in France.
Visiting the country that summer felt quite strange, with soldiers stationed at every conceivable public place amid a sense of acute tension. Even in a small village fête in Provence, four soldiers and four armed police walked around guarding all entrances. It brought back childhood memories of Northern Ireland, and of visiting Israel during the Second Intifada. Indeed, this was the phrase that had started to be used to describe the state of emergency: the French Intifada.
France’s refusal to recognise immigrants as anything but French has often been blamed for the widespread sense of alienation
The recent violence in Paris and elsewhere, which saw attempts to ram the home of a mayor, once again highlighted the trouble the country has with integration. But the French police union describing themselves as being ‘at war with vermin’ illustrated a different mindset to the English-speaking world, and a far more belligerent approach to the problems of diversity.
Like Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden, France has had difficulties assimilating the children of immigrants from beyond Europe, yet its recent history has proved especially violent and troubled. Britain has jihadi terrorism – 2017 was especially grim – but it has never reached such intensity. Last week, as over 130,000 police officers stood guard to protect the Republic on the day of its celebration, it is worth considering the journey that brought it to such a state.
Analysts have often compared Britain’s state multiculturalism with France’s system of laïcité, which tends to downplay the existence of ‘communities’ even to the point of not taking demographic statistics. Although neither country’s approach has entirely been a success, France’s refusal to recognise immigrants as anything but French has often been blamed for the widespread sense of alienation. Others point to the housing system, which tends towards concentrations of North and West Africans in suburban banlieues, or the less laissez-faire economic policy which results in higher unemployment (in exchange for better social security).
While they no doubt play a part, the biggest single difference is history, as Andrew Hussey recounted back in 2014 in The French Intifada, in particular France’s history with North Africa. To put it in British terms, imagine that Britain’s rule in Pakistan had involved not a small number of administrators and soldiers but instead hundreds of thousands of British settlers arriving in the country, many with the intention of making it a ‘new America’ (i.e., driving the natives out).
That Britain had declared Pakistan an integral part of the country, and that, rather than scarpering in indecent haste when the empire began to disintegrate, Britain had dug in to preserve its rule in a sadistic war of independence, one in which natives and white settlers committed countless atrocities against each other. And that this violence had spilled into Britain with assassination attempts and terrorism, by both sides, destabilising the country to the point where there was talk of a coup. And that this was happening just as large-scale immigration to the colonial power was taking place.
Britain experienced nothing like as much violence in the dying days of empire, and indeed the only real comparison with our history was the moment when there was almost all-out conflict between Britain’s Protestant and Irish Catholic populations before the First World War.
If French politicians so casually talk of ‘civil war’ between its right wing and the Algerian-descended population, it is because it has already played out this conflict before – one that was never healed, and so invites a sequel.
Worth reading in full.