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Experience and reflection,
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This review is from: The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and its Arabs (Hardcover)
One of my first experiences of living in Paris was taking the stopping train from the centre of the city back out to CDG airport for a flight home to London. The carriage was crowded, standing room only, meaning it held maybe sixty or eighty or one hundred people. I was the only white person. Notwithstanding, the courtesy I was afforded, when to my surprise a young man was told to stand up and offer me his seat, I was left with the shocking sense of the racial separation that characterises France’s capital city. I learned later that a faster, non-stop train goes straight to CDG airport. You will hardly find a black person on it.
Andrew Hussey’s book begins with a chilling description of the realities of life of the black and Arab-origin populations in the banlieues north of Paris through which my stopping train travelled, cross-referenced to the comparable realities of the outskirts of Lyon and Marseille. The strength of his writing is not just that he gives a sense of how and why the young men of these districts have come into the centre of these cities to burn cars and riot, and sometimes to kill, but he makes you wonder why there isn’t more of it.
It would be easy but wrong to dismiss the challenges in France as comparable to the ones we face in England. Hussey shows how French republican fervour, the determined belief that everyone is not only free but equal – the same - means that the colour of someone’s skin is considered irrelevant. Under republican orthodoxy, the separation of whites in the centre of the city and blacks around the outside is not a legitimate concern.
The French experience of colonialism was very different from ours, especially where its relations with its North African neighbours were concerned. Geographical proximity, the short distance of a narrow sea, makes comparisons with the British experience in Ireland valid to some extent. Hussey gives a brief account of the recent history of the Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia from where the immigrant communities are descended. One result being that the disenfranchised diaspora in the banlieues of Paris is Muslim by background, in a contemporary world where the call of Islamist insurrection is loud and the threat of terrorism very real. Hussey argues that the official response, of arrest and imprisonment, not only fails to deal with this threat but actively creates a school of radicalisation.
What do they think, and how do they feel? Not many white people have taken the time and trouble, and the risk, to go into the banlieues and the prisons to try and find out. The strength of non-identity of second and third generation immigrant French men, educated in France, yet who truly hate the country of their birth is placed in the context of the history of their parents and grandparents. The quality of the pied noir experience in the Maghreb, and the viciousness of the breaking of this recent history, creates a negativity and menace which, in a world where Islamist philosophy remains a determined threat to the West, is something we all need to understand better, before it is too late.
The French Intifada is an account by someone who has gone there, seen it, and reflected with intelligent concern. Hussey’s engaging and highly readable mix of personal experience and contemporary reporting, combined with the reflective eye of historian, literary critic and cultural commentator, helps to address the question of how we have all reached the point we are at today. Leading to the profoundly worrying question of where are we going?