Racisme et permanence de la question coloniale

French Suburbia : the return of the political unrecognised

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As Alessandro Dal Lago wrote recently (1), “it is just the beginning”. It concerns Europe. It is only a warning. Angry desolate French males in the depressing suburbia and some city centres have vandalised public or private property, burnt thousands of cars, scorched schools and kindergartens, terrorised their neighbours, public opinion and the well meaning universalist France de souche. Triggered but not caused by the accidental death of two boys probably fleeing the police, the violence is inevitably perceived by the mainstream protectionist discourse, unwilling to catch its political gist, as blind and irrational. To one coming from the former Yugoslavia, the French events and situation is reminiscent of unpleasant recent memories, toute proportion gardée.

The “unexpected” appearance of suddenly visible revolted bodies and of their direct, unmediated violent action beyond language cannot at all be received as carrying political claims within the existing public space. It is a wild demand to topple the existing hegemony and replace it with a new, a just one. The riots were neither communal nor ethnic, nor organised by leaders; no political project came from the rioters who have no representatives, and the ruling class, who predictably tried to speak to some imams, can consider themselves lucky so far. But there is a difference between luck and intelligence. We should not be induced to believe that the problem is not political and also class based. Before the debate about what has happened and what should be done ended, while neither the left nor the right have any political solutions to give, the riots died down. If there are no new riots soon, France will forget again its suburbia, and a very strong additional right wing and repressive turn will have been taken having its effects also in Europe. The repressive move is impressive and unmistakable, and it gives excellent chances to the current interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who positions himself to the right of Chirac and Villepin, not that the latter had anything better to offer. He emerges winning from this episode with his chances for the presidentials boosted, shifting the whole political scene more to the right and comforting significantly the extreme right, whose policies he is introducing, together with a bitter taste of the return of colonial policy. There is no significant political left in France, especially not on these issues, which homogenised the French republican nationalist and xenophobic feeling.

When the government reactivated the law about the state of emergency, passed during the Algerian war in 1955, the French learnt that colonial legislation had never been abrogated. It is no surprise, since, after what was felt as an amputation (Algerian independence), there has never been a renegotiating of a new social and political project for postcolonial France. It makes us think that France still needs to be decolonised, and Europe too. All the colonial generals still have their avenues in Paris, and history teachers have recently been asked to stress the “positive aspects of colonisation”. The emergency law has now been extended for 3 months although the riots have receded. Even during the Algerian war it had never been applied to metropolitan France; it had really been used only once since, in 1984 in Nouvelle Calédonie, again an “extrametropolitan” French territory. Exceptions are thus being introduced all the more inside the country, as so many new borders. This is where and why the French ”troubles” meet the current phenomena in the making of Europe through closure and refusal to face its historic, colonial and other, responsibility: Ceuta and Melilla, Lampedusa, all the unfortunate would-be immigrants drowned in the Mediterranean, the endless refoulements, the invisible detension/retension centres for the undocumented, the exportation of European borders into neighbouring candidate countries as buffer zones policing for us, whose price it is for accession to Europe. But it is also where the French riots meet, in a broader sense, such cases as Guantanamo – extra-constitutional exceptions on a larger scale where political action is bypassed. There is certainly a continuity between the exceptionality of colonies (colonies are extra-constitutional per definitionem) and the generalisation of exception today in terms of internal and international “security”.

Treating the causes would give results only in the long run. It is urgent to stop the disorder, so police have been sent in in impressive numbers, and cases have been witnessed by TV watchers of their brutality beyond what is tolerated in peace. One policeman had been put under arrest for excessive brutality but was soon released, under the pressure of the police union. There are measures to put off the fire while not cutting off the gas: substantially, no serious long term solutions are envisaged, the reaction of the government is purely repressive and treating only the consequences of the riots. Apprenticeship at the age of 14 is introduced for the banlieues instead of 16, which means cutting for the concerned the obligatory general schooling until age16, and deepening a class fracture. Also, government promised that three times more scholarships would be given to those neighbourhoods (what is 3X0 anyway?). The rest, besides the emergency law which meant curfew for youngsters in some 5-8 communes and didn’t prevent the riots: immediate appearance of the rioters in the tribunals was introduced and judgement passed; punishing the parents for not controlling the minors (of course, the demise of parental authority has to do with those parents having no jobs and integration having not worked for them, but the state will not consider itself responsible), cutting aid to families having a rioting son (a sort of collective punishment), expulsion from France of any foreigners in the affair without access to a lawyer, which also amounts to double penalty, all these are some of the new measures. Chirac introduces a voluntary civil service for 50000 suburbia youths over the next two years. Unspecified aid would be given to neighbourhood associations formerly not listened to, the same ones which have been warning for years and had been the only ones in the field. What do those boys react to? They and their parents have no jobs, their habitat is pitiable, the neighbourhood ugly, the suburban schools are bad and poor if existing, transportation to the city centre is too expensive and in any case is not good or sufficient, besides a supermarket there may be nothing at all in the neighbourhood. Dealers and racketeers are all around, the police are the only aspect of the state they have ever seen, they have no vision of a future, no chance to get integrated. They can tell the difference. Calling it “dignity” and asking less than their due because they have no language that can be heard, those boys are unwittingly actually fighting for the possibility to be listened to politically. They want to have access to the citizenship promised them by the universalist horizon of the Constitution and by the Declaration of the rights of man and citizen, but refused them by the practice of that universalism. Citizenship (in a full, and thus wider sense) is also the aim of many legal and most clandestine immigrants into Europe, and it is necessary to see the connection between the two, between trespassing the inner and the outer border, both in relation to history. All this makes those boys wild, unfit for articulating properly their claims should they have access to public space (and they don’t have it), and provokes ever more racist reactions. They affront the “good society” and are the new dangerous classes. Both sides are intolerant, but for different reasons. Those neighbourhoods, however, are mixed “ethnically”, and this is why the revolt has not expressed itself at all along communal lines or religious lines, indeed, some labels of sexist but non racial solidarity “black-blanc-beur” (“black-white-arab”) have appeared. Of course the government worry it may take a religious form, because that would link the inner borders and violence to the outer and international ones, and it would make things much worse. It has been completely avoided this time, but not thanks to any intelligent action of the authorities. It may happen soon enough. The rupture is economic, social, class articulated and in that sense also indirectly but very fundamentally political. But nationalistic public opinion, much of the media, the political class, have been irresponsibly trying all these days to construct the unrest as a communal and religious one, and to identify the rioters as only north African or Muslim, which they are not. Most of them have been French for one or several generations: for how long will they be considered immigrants? As for their parent’s origins, they are very diverse. Nationalistic public opinion is boosted in pointing out at immigration as being the cause of their and all French misfortunes. The riots are welcomed by a xenophobic public. A conservative public discourse uses the case of the riots to corroborate and justify the recent French refusal of the European Constitution, taking it as a proof that it was the right thing to do.

Let’s have a look at the gender structure of the rioters: only boys, under age or just of age. Very macho boys, deprived of any material or language capital, of any material goods or instruments. We should do well to remember that in 2002 the girls of the same French suburbia had also irrupted in public with their own claims. Some of those demands are shared with those of the boy, but there is also an important additional one – gender justice and the end of bullying by the brothers, fathers, community and by a male culture, the end of violence against women, the end of gang rapes (terribly spread in the suburbia) and constant humiliations. Girls went on a march around France, gained considerable national audience, also quite some sympathy, created the movement “Ni putes ni soumises” (“Neither whores, nor submissive”) and where important both symbolically as well as in raising their issues, opening important debates about conditions and culture in the suburbia, about the condition of women. In spite of this, they eventually became established and finally became recuperated by the Socialist party and by the anti-communitarian Franco-French nationalist discourse both left and right. Theirs were also bodies irrupted on the scene which stunned the public. They were used in the anti-scarf hysteria of republican laïcité (the result of which is exclusion by law of the supposed victims of veiling including the collateral damage, which came handy to “prove” the impartiality of law, of some inturbaned Sikhs evicted from school). Ni putes ni soumises were mainly used to divide the new dangerous classes, to separate the good from the bad grain. They were supported against Muslim fundamentalism, against a no doubt existing terrible and violent macho culture not only in those neighbourhoods; support for them was used to depoliticise the problems. Women are traditionally domesticated and considered as domesticable. As we know from experience with the law passed last year prohibiting “ostentatious religious signs” and in particular the “Muslim” headscarf in school by under age girls, but as we know also from any colonial experience and, for that matter, from any nation-building process, the gender stake and women themselves can be raised at any time against dangerous classes, whichever these be, because of the women’s double-bind position. The gender question is an instrument in achieving other political aims than redressing gender justice, though there may also be a side effect on the latter. It is not surprising, therefore, that there should be no significant reaction to the recent riots by the movement Ni putes ni soumises. They, as much as the riots, represent two sides of one and the same medal: there is an in-com-possibility for them to be seen as interlocutors at the same level. This incompossibility, though certainly also internal to the configuration due to the amount of violence, and not only outwardly constructed, is orchestrated, supported and framed by the French political culture, by its incapacity to integrate a population long immigrated and to which it has a historic responsibility, and by its unwillingness to adapt its long insufficient republican principles to post-colonial and post 1989 conditions. The French context of the existing public space should facilitate a debate also between those two expressions of a shared malaise and some other ones too (they are not the only ones here). But that will not happen: associations, NGOs may be doing it in the quartiers, but it will not catch the public eye which prefers a fractured to a compact dangerous class. It needs to be said that the gender fracture is of course very profound and that it really exists, but not only in the suburbia. It is for everyone to see how few women there are in Parliament, in the political class, in leadership or shared responsibilities of any kind, in the governing body of the CNRS (Centre national pour la recherche scientifique) etc.

Why is there no post-colonial studies in France? There is research and there are riots. But in between, no public debate so far, yet an imminent and painful one to come certainly. And a necessary one, in order for the country to re-found itself from a new beginning, after self-examination. Indian historians, to make a comparison, started the critical school of Subaltern Studies called after the series of books they produced in the eighties. For that, an incubation of a few decades after the independence of the forties had been needed. They were helped by the already twenty years old second-wave of 20th century independencies of the sixties, by feminist movements and studies, by critical Marxism, by the deceptions due to independent governments, by third-worldism etc. They dared three critiques: a critical re-reading of colonial and post-colonial history, a re-reading of Marxism (mainly Gramscian and reinterpreted), and a critique of the nationalist liberation movement. These ideas circulated through the English language (and languages that have bridges to it, which excludes French) via US universities, became post colonial studies and were globalised thanks to the globalisation of English. French is not a global language. For one thing it never received, circulated, and could not appreciate or take note of post-colonial concepts or studies – because, being globalised and diversified, these exceeded the French language and culture. Post-colonial studies spread North-South having received a lot of important input from the South. Whatever one may think of them (with drawbacks or advantages) or of the globalisation of and through the English language, these are already a global fact, a fait accompli. The feeble counter-idea of Francophonie, pleading for universalism, can paradoxically only be unveiled as a narrow provincial particularism here. Historically, one might go back and compare the Algerian contribution (French language, over France) and the Indian one (English language, over Great Britain) to a contemporary globalised culture starting with the end of colonisation. There was a war of independence in Algeria, whereas the British had left South Asia with some panache, through an act of partition it is true, but nevertheless after having built elites and institutions there, and handed them over in a sort of devolution once it would have become too expensive for them to keep the colony. This does not mean that British colonialism was less cruel. Indian intellectuals addressed their own as well as the British, USA and world public in a globalised language that they had adopted making it one of the Indian languages. Thanks to that language, they had direct access to USA universities and an international public space, which was not to be the case for Algerian intellectuals for several reasons. The latter did not share with the French a globalised French language – which would have meant also a language accessible round the world. Moreover, Algeria turned to the Arabisation of its public education, loosing even a partially international tool for generations to come. That, added to the fact that, due to the inexistence (or limits) of citizenship for Algerians or of home rule in French Algeria, due to the violence of war and the resulting lack of democracy within the FLN – there was no Algerian elite significant in numbers and in access to publicity – challenging and critiquing the French state and intellectuals or the domestic liberation movement. The French got away with it and the post-colonial question is re-emerging only now. The British too got away with a self-critique and an analysis of colonial history, but for different reasons: their debate was diluted and defused (désamorcé) in its transiting through US campuses and through globalised post-colonial studies. Nothing of the sort defused that topic for France. The problem has much less to do with current immigration than with the colonial past which is at the basis of the construction of the national state as well as of historic capitalism. For the Republic, once colonies and now former colonies (both space and time) are outside the horizon: extra-territorial, extra-constitutional and, today, considered to be a questions of the past. But this considering them of the past locates them in our present as a political issue.

Written for Lettre International, Berlin, n° 71, Winter 2005-06.


(1) “Rogo d’Europa”, Il manifesto, 28-10-2005.

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