The French Intifada review: Jihadists put paid to liberté, égalité, fraternité
Sins of France’s colonial fathers have come back to haunt the country in the form of a remorseless Muslim intifada
Islamist gunmen shoot a wounded police officer on the ground at point-blank range, as they flee the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, in this still image taken from amateur video shot on January 7th, 2015. Photograph: Reuters
The French Intifada; The Long War Between France and its Arabs
The French Intifada is the sort of book that enrages the substantial number of French people who live in a state of denial. Its cover, showing the Eiffel Tower surrounded by flames, might seem sensationalist until one recalls that in the mid 1990s the Armed Islamic Group distributed the image in tracts in Algiers, Paris and London.
Andrew Hussey is a British academic who knows France and its colonial history better than most French people. He tells the ugly truth: that France’s brutal colonisation of Arab north Africa and the subsequent ill treatment of millions of Arab and African immigrants have led to a seemingly endless war between France’s “universal values” and radical Islam.
He wrote The French Intifada before the January attacks that killed 20 people, including three French-born Islamist gunmen. Nonetheless, the book is shot through with precedents and premonitions of the recent violence. The French response has been to ramp up the rhetoric of militant secularism. “The most acute problem for the recent generations of Muslim immigrants to France is that the proclaimed universalism of republican values, and in particular laïcité” – or secularity – “can very quickly resemble the ‘civilising mission’ of colonialism,” Hussey writes.
Hussey begins with a vivid first-hand description of an eight-hour riot in Gare du Nord in Paris by youths from the immigrant banlieues, which was sparked off by the arrest of an African fare-dodger.
It moves quickly to the chilling story of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Jewish mobile-telephone salesman kidnapped by a gang calling itself the Barbarians in 2007. Halimi was starved, mutilated and burned over a three-week period. He was left naked, tied to a tree, near a suburban train station, and died en route to hospital.
Five years after Halimi’s murder a lone gunman on a motor scooter stopped outside a Jewish school near Toulouse. He seized eight-year-old Miriam Monsonego, the daughter of the school’s director, by the hair and fired a bullet into the child’s temple. Mohamed Merah murdered three children and four adults, two of them French soldiers who were, like him, the sons of north African immigrants. He was celebrated as a hero in his neighbourhood in Toulouse, and in Algeria.
We remember the atrocities committed by Islamists but forget those perpetrated by our own governments. Hussey traces the beginning of the French intifada back to June 1830, when French socialites sailed from Marseilles to watch the invasion of Algeria, “which had been planned as an extravagant fête galante . . . The Arab corpses that lay strewn in the streets and along the coast were no more than incidental colour to the Parisian spectators watching the slaughter through opera glasses from the deck of their cruise ships.”
French settlers forced hundreds of thousands of Algerian Muslims off their land. In 1832 the Foreign Legion and Chasseurs d’Afrique, a mixed European and Muslim regiment known as the most efficient “Arab-killers” in the French army, attacked the Ouffia tribe. “The soldiers returned to their camp, caked in blood and with the gory heads of the Ouffia on lances and bayonets. They drank and sang their way through the night. In the morning, bloodied earrings or a bracelet still attached to a severed wrist were on sale at the open market.”
An avenue in Paris’s fashionable 16th district still bears the name of Marshal Thomas-Robert Bugeaud, the 19th-century governor-general of Algeria, who vowed to “exterminate the Arabs to the last man”. Bugeaud’s favourite genocidal technique, known as the enfumade, or smoke-out, was to set a fire in the entrance to caves where Arab fighters, women and children hid. Tens of thousands died of asphyxiation in these early gas chambers.
Hungry and weary of decades of fruitless campaigns for their rights, Algerians blamed the French for the famine that struck their country at the end of the second World War. In May 1945 a 10,000-strong Arab demonstration in Sétif turned violent when police tried to seize the Algerian flag. More than 100 Europeans were killed. In retaliation the French army slaughtered nearly 6,000 Muslims.
If Hussey’s book often reads like a catalogue of savagery on both sides, casualties were invariably higher among Muslims. About one and a half million Algerians and 90,000 French people were killed in the 1954-62 Algerian war.
“The defining and most shocking feature of this war was the extreme violence on both sides,” Hussey writes. “The FLN” – Front de Libération Nationale – “slit throats, decapitated bodies and mutilated genitalia; the French razed whole villages and practised torture as a systematic weapon of war.”
Water-boarding was a standard French interrogation method. So were rape and beatings. More exotic tortures included pushing the victim to sit on a broken bottle, leaving him in terrible pain if he did not die from a perforated intestine. To terrorise the Muslim population Gen Marcel Bigeard threw FLN prisoners from helicopters into the port of Algiers, with cement weights on their feet.
The Algerian war inevitably came to the French mainland. In August and September 1958 alone the FLN staged 181 attacks on buildings and 242 assassination attempts across France, dwarfing the three days of violence in Paris in January 2012.
Islamic extremists invariably use history and contemporary events to justify their actions. The al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri blames France for Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt, as well as for giving Israel a nuclear reactor. The Barbarians who killed Ilan Halimi spoke of US torture at Abu Ghraib. So did Cherif Kouachi, coauthor of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo. Mohamed Merah claimed he killed Jewish children to avenge Palestinian children killed by Israel. The Moroccans who killed 191 people in the 2004 Madrid train bombings reproached the Spanish for occupying once Islamic Al-Andalus.
Lionel Dumont is a blond, blue-eyed native Frenchman who converted to Islam and is now serving 25 years for terrorism. He is venerated by radical French Muslims as “the French Osama”. He said he fought for Islam against France because communism was finished and Muslims were “the only people still fighting for justice”.
A friend of the author’s, a young black woman with a law degree, a good job and a white boyfriend, told him: “Only if you are black or Arab in France can you understand the contempt people feel for you, and the hate and desire for revenge that this inspires in you.”
The director of Fresnes prison told Hussey, “Islam is the best and most effective way of calling into question the entire system.” Revenge, he suggests, is the engine of Islamist violence. France blinkers itself to its causes and motivations, instead vaunting universal values, secularism and the rights of man as a sort of talisman.
The French intifada “demonstrates that this is only one belief system among many others alive” in the 21st century, Hussey writes. He decided “to get nearer to the belief systems which oppose the Republic, to get inside them.”
Hussey is descriptive, not prescriptive. He offers no solutions, but his willingness to delve into other belief systems is a worthwhile, sobering journey. Instead of prosecuting hundreds of their own citizens for “defending terrorism”, French officials should read Hussey’s book.
Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent