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Historicizing Antiracism and Racism in Post-Colonial France

0 Comments 🕔11.Aug 2015

This article is part of our feature Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo.

Signs at the Marche Republicaine, Paris, January 2015. Photo credit: abac077


by Jim House

While historians are usually on safer ground when examining the distant causes of current events, it is also possible to invoke history to assess the probable long-term outcomes of these events. At least, this is the case with the January attacks in Paris, where the history of antiracism can potentially serve as a guide to anticipating likely future events. In particular, given the recent increase in targeted murders of Jewish people – especially the 9 January 2015 attack on the kosher supermarket in Paris – some antiracist organizations may now have to give greater prominence to the fight against anti-Semitism (both as discourse and practice) than they have in recent years.

The reason for this is that antiracism is not linear. Historically, republican antiracism in the French context was formed around the time of the Dreyfus affair (1894-1906) to protest anti-Semitism and defend the Republic. Given the centrality of anti-Semitism to the far-right, this type of racism continued to be the primary concern of self-defining republican antiracist groups until the late 1940s/early 1950s. Yet one of the key effects of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962) was the slow displacement of anti-Semitism in much of their antiracist campaigning. In a context of racially-inspired violence by security forces (both during the war itself and then most notably in the 1970s and 80s), forms of principally anti-Algerian and wider anti-Arab racism took center stage, and anti-Semitism ceased to be central to anti-racist French discourse. Just as antiracist mobilizations of the 1980s struggled, partly successfully, to consider racist attacks central to the wider antiracist agenda, so earlier pro-independence Algerian nationalism had fought to ensure that the forms of racism from which the colonized suffered would be included in the preoccupations of the majoritarian left. However, the same French Left, as is well known, often remained profoundly ambivalent towards the idea of Algerian independence. Indeed, today it frequently remains at best confused about Islam as religion and cultural practice, in part because colonial governance itself had sought to manipulate religion in many problematic ways.

The post-Shoah context, also one of decolonization, favored comparisons between different forms of racism, such as is found in the writings of Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi and Jean-Paul Sartre, and antiracist organizations such as the MRAP. This notwithstanding, anti-racism after 1945 probably lost an important opportunity to fully figure anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim Arab racism within the same conceptual framework, since ‘colonial racism’, as the term emerged within the republican left, usually did not include forms of anti-Semitism also prevalent within colonial North Africa. Clearly, meaningful antiracism today needs to address racism in all of its ever-evolving manifestations and be adaptive to new socio-political realities. Some of the strongest voices to have emerged since the 7-9 January 2015 attacks refuse an ‘either/or’ perspective: the causes behind anti-Jewish attacks on the one hand, and both violence against Muslims and emergence of an increasingly Islamophobic culture on the other, may not be identical today, nor are the forms taken by such attacks the same as in the past. However, they can arguably be most powerfully opposed together, though not necessarily by a vaguely self-proclaimed ‘universalism’ that may obscure socio-political and economic realities.

The way in which the past weighs on the present has itself been a key theme of postcolonial debates in France over the past fifteen years. In reality, the Algerian war of independence has occupied such a central space in these reflections that the diversity of both colonial and postcolonial experiences may have been lost. For example, today, the much larger place of West Africans and their descendants in France in relation to the 1970s is often hidden by the social and political construction of North Africans’ visibility. Naturally, links – sometimes strong – between past and present forms of racism and state policy do exist. Yet much remains to be discovered in this academic field that is only slowly emerging (for example, regarding socio-ethnic segregation), with its authors often having trouble accessing mainstream opinion-makers. However, such cross-fertilizations between past and present should not serve to ‘collapse’ intrinsic differences between the colonial period and France in the 21st century, and this observation applies to the post-colonialism of all the former European empires.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls speaking about the plan to combat racism and anti-semitism in Créteil on April 17, 2015. Photo credit: Alain Bachellier

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls speaking in Créteil about the plan to combat racism and anti-semitism on April 17, 2015. Photo credit: Alain Bachellier

In brief, we should perhaps not overplay apparent similarities with the past. Indeed, the major task for historians, sociologists and political scientists is precisely to address this space that exists between what may be superficially similar in the past and present (attitudes, policies) and that which is not identical. More specifically, this means being fully cognizant of how transnational geopolitical events of the past few decades weigh on longer-standing factors when examining, for example, what might motivate disaffection from racialized groups and the repertoires and channels (or lack thereof) through which such grievances can be expressed. Such anger may lead, in a very small number of cases, to the production of lethal violence amongst marginalized and radicalized young men: levels of frustration at discrimination, essentialization and police harassment experienced on a daily basis were probably as strong among those of Algerian heritage in France in the 1980s as they are today, but violent extremism was not an outcome, since no organizations promoted this response.

Indeed, given that the ‘postcolonial’ (here chronologically defined) is itself now such a historically dense era, we should perhaps identify key micro-periods within it, such as the aforementioned antiracist movements of the 1980s, the ‘reframing’ process by which religion (Islam) became such a central factor in racializing discourses (note the Front national’s recent adoption of a more secularist agenda, at least with regard to Islam), the generational factors within the (re)turn to Islam as a marker of identification, and the consequential greater sensitivity to some portrayals of Islam (in the left-leaning as well as far-right and right-wing media) seen as demeaning. The past decade has also been one of repeated socio-economic crises and of leading politicians repeatedly invoking a ‘national identity’ tailored to appeal to majoritarian audiences, an identity so formulated to exclude as well as include, often through inference rather than explicit discrimination. Such discourses, most prevalent in the 2002-2012 period of Right hegemony, but certainly not exclusive to the Right or Far Right, have co-existed with the banning of certain religious symbols under the guise of universalism.

Again, these are certainly not questions limited to France, and there is an urgent need to understand developments outside of France which have an impact within the country. However, these processes are necessarily inflected through a specific political culture and postcolonial French history. It is perhaps unsurprising that the ambivalence with which some people from racialized groups may consider the Republic results from the profound ambivalence in which the Republic treated their ancestors and is perceived as treating them today. The challenge for the analyst is to correctly calibrate the weighting when assigning causality to an event, whether in relation to longer/shorter-term factors or the extent to which sometimes highly local, as well as national and international causes, can intersect to produce violence in various forms – physical, symbolic or verbal.

Finally, there are also important questions of perspective to consider. Both Etienne Balibar and Paul A. Silverstein have suggestively argued that Algeria and France constitute linked social, and in some respects, political spheres.[1] Consequently, it might be useful, both academically and politically, to examine the experiences of Algerian society during the conflict of the 1990s (a period when many journalists there were assassinated) and to accept that voices from Algeria may perceive the recent events in France from linked but non-identical perspectives and, therefore, may have an important contribution to make in understanding the France of today. To access some of those voices, the number of Arabic-speakers and readers of Arabic in France must significantly increase, highlighting the need for educational provision to foster greater linguistic prowess that can only build inter-cultural understanding well beyond the Franco-Algerian dynamic.


Jim House teaches French colonial and post-colonial history in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Leeds (UK). He has published widely on the histories of racism, antiracism and colonial violence: with Neil MacMaster, he is the author of Paris 1961. Algerians, State Terror, and Memory (Oxford University Press, 2006) and is currently writing a book for Oxford University Press on the history of shantytowns in colonial-era Algiers and Casablanca.


This article is part of our feature Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo.


[1] Etienne Balibar, “Algérie, France : une ou deux nations ?,” in Droit de cité. Culture et politique en démocratie (La Tour d’Aigues, 1998), 73-88; Silverstein, Paul A., Algeria in France. Transpolitics, Race and Nation (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004).

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