Pandaemonium

CIVILIZED FRANCE AND SAVAGE FRANCE

la haine 1

I wrote in a previous post about the process by which French citizens of North African origin were pushed out to the banlieues, redefined as ‘Muslims’ and cast as the ‘Other’, as not really part of the French nation. What this process revealed, I suggested, were then anxieties of the French elite about the values and identity of the nation.  I am publishing here three passages from writers of very different perspectives who speak to those anxieties, from both sides of the fracture. The first is an extract from Andrew Hussey’s recent book The French Intifada, which links the revolt in the banlieues to France’s colonial history. Here, Hussey explores the role of the banlieue in French social imagination.

The second passage is from Michel Houellebecq’s 1999 novel Platform. Houellebecq’s latest novel, Soumission (Submission), just published in French, and shortly to be published in English, has caused considerable controversy with its depiction of a future France under Muslim rule. Fear of Islam has been  thread that runs through much of Houellebecq’s work. So has fear of banlieues and of what used to be called the ‘dangerous classes’. In this extract from Platform, one of the key characters looks upon the Parisian banlieues as akin to Brazilian favelas, and both as the wildness beyond civilization.

The final extract is from an article by Karim Miské that was published in Le Monde in 2011. Miské is a film-maker and novelist, much of whose work has explored the experience both of banlieues and of North Africans in France. His debut novel, Arab Jazz, has just been published in French (the English version is due out next month). It is a thriller in which the main character bears some resemblance to Cherif Kouachi, the gunman who masterminded the Charlie Hedbo killings. I am taking part next month in a discussion with Miské (and Suzanne Moore) at Institut Français in London that will debate questions of  Islam, radicalisation, racism, identity and social policy. I will also, hopefully, review both Submission and Arab Jazz. The images are from Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film La Haine,  one of the best cinematic explorations of banlieue life.

 


From Andrew Hussey, The French Intifada, pp19-20

la haine 2

Banlieue’ is often mistranslated into English as ‘suburb’, but this conveys nothing of the fear and contempt that many middle-class French people invest in the word. In fact it became widely used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to describe the areas outside Paris where city dwellers came and settled and built houses with gardens on the English model.

One of the paradoxes of life in the banlieue is that it was originally about hope and human dignity. To understand the banlieue you should think of central Paris as an oval-shaped haven or fortress, ringed by motorways – the boulevards périphériques (or le periph) – that mark the frontier between the city and the suburbs or banlieue. To live in the centre of Paris (commonly described as intra-muros, within the city walls, in language unchanged from the medieval period) is to be privileged: even if you are not particularly well off, you still have access to all the pleasures and amenities of a great metropolis. By contrast, the banlieue lies ‘out there’, on the other side of le periph. The area is extra-muros – outside the city walls. Transport systems here are limited and confusing. Maps make no sense. No one goes there unless he or she has to. It’s not uncommon for contemporary Parisians to talk about la banlieue in terms that make it seem as unknowable and terrifying as the forests that surrounded Paris in the Middle Ages.

The banlieues are made up on a population of more than a million immigrants, mostly but not exclusively from North and sub-Saharan Africa. As the population of central Paris has fallen in the early twenty-first century, so the population of the banlieues is growing so fast that it will soon outnumber the 2 million or so inhabitants of central Paris. The banlieue is the very opposite of the bucolic sub-urban fantasy of the English imagination: for most French people these days it means a threat, a very urban form of decay, a place of racial tensions and of deadly if not random violence.

 


From Michel Houellebecq, Platform, pp 198-99

That evening, as her car was being repaired, Jean-Yves drove Valérie home. As he was stepping out of his office, he looked out over the chaotic landscape of houses, shopping centres, tower-blocks and motorway interchanges. Far away, on the horizon, a layer of pollution lent the sunset strange tints of mauve and green. ‘It’s strange’, he said to her, here we are inside the company like well-fed beasts of burden. And outside are the predators, the savage world. I was in São Pailo once, that’s where evolution has really been pushed to its limits. It’s not even a city anymore, it’s a sort of urban territory which extends as far as the eye can see, with its favelas, its huge office blocks, its luxury housing surrounded by guards armed to the teeth. It has a population of more than twenty million, many of whom are born, live and die without ever stepping outside the limits of its terrain… Businessmen and rich use helicopters to get around almost all the time… At ground level, the street is left to the poor – and the gangs.’

As he turned on to the motorway heading south, he added in a low voice: ‘I’ve been having doubts lately. More and more now I have doubts about the sort of world we’re creating.’

 


From Karim Miské in Le Monde, 31 March 2011

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In 1944, Jean-Paul Sartre argued that ‘It is the anti-Semite who makes the Jew’; in 2011, we might say that ‘It is the Islamophobe who makes the Muslim’.

What, in today’s France, unites the pious Algerian retired worker, the atheist French-Mauritanian director that I am, the Fulani Sufi bank employee from Mantes-la-Jolie, the social worker from Burgundy who has converted to Islam, and the agnostic male nurse who has never set foot in his grandparents’ home in Oujda?  What brings us together if not the fact that we live within a society which thinks of us as Muslims? We are reminded every day – during conversations around the coffee machine, in news reports and in magazines – that we share a part of responsibility for such phenomena as the wearing of the burqa and praying in the street, today conceived to be fundamental to the future of the nation. Further, it is potentially our fault if the republican pact is undermined, and if the identity of France is in danger; and, incidentally, if little Afghan girls don’t go to school or if building churches in Saudi Arabia is banned. All this because we ‘look’ Muslim or have a ‘Muslim name’.

Of course, we can feign indifference; we can appear to be French, secularist and republican, devoted lovers of our land and our territories. But how long can we seriously hold on to this voluntary position when we are constantly sent back to our ‘Muslim’ identity?

In Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate, Sartre made a distinction between those he calls ‘authentic’ and ‘non-authentic’ Jews. Authentic Jews take into account the way in which society sees them, while non-authentic Jews carry on as if they were not affected by this regard. As Muslims of France and the West, we are today faced with the same existential choice between authenticity and inauthenticity. This choice has nothing to do with our beliefs, religious affiliation, or our relation to history and cultural references. It refers to how to think and act if we want to regain possession of our diminished existences without trying to fit into the mould of a pseudo-republican universality which is nothing more than a barefaced lie; it involves investing in the space which is really ours rather than acting as we are told. This space could also be that of the Protestant, the Jew, the Black or the Roma; it is simply the position of the Other, the one against which the dominant society tries to define itself.

12 comments

  1. Fayyaz

    French society thought that it will get away with discrimination against minority in the name of “Laïcité’, but now ” Laïcité ” has turned into a curse. There are no free lunches. Welcome to real world.

  2. De Te Fabula Narratur

    I wrote in a previous post about the process by which French citizens of North African origin were pushed out to the banlieues, redefined as ‘Muslims’ and cast as the ‘Other’, as not really part of the French nation.

    Did these French citizens of N.A. origin play any role in this process themselves? As you know, in Muslim countries, there’s a long tradition of memorizing the Qur’an and of exquisite calligraphy. When Muslims immigrate into the West, it’s no surprise that they reproduce these noble traditions in their new homes. But there are other traditions in Muslim countries. For example, clannishness, corruption and misogyny. Of course, because these are ignoble traditions, it would be surprising if they were reproduced in the West. Nevertheless, the possibility must be faced that the problems affecting Muslim communities in the West are not wholly the fault of the elite and its racist malevolence.

    What this process revealed, I suggested, were then anxieties of the French elite about the values and identity of the nation.

    Why did the elite allow mass immigration if it intended to do this to its new French citizens? Also: was it easy to do? Did the elite have to struggle to turn people from the Third World into otherized outsiders?

    It’s almost as tho’, looking at the United States and the Otherization of the vibrant Black community there, the French elite decided that they wanted the same problems. Given this obviously dysfunctional elite — which exists in Sweden, Germany and Britain too, so the rumours run — was mass immigration such a good idea after all?

    • So, let me this straight. I publish a post last week in which I point out that ‘Migrants from North African have been broadly secular, indeed often hostile to religion’. I note that even today only a minority call themselves ‘observant Muslims’, and that an even smaller minority actually attend Friday prayers. I point that, nevertheless, there has been a growing tendency for the French state and for French society at large to treat North African communities as a singular ‘Muslim’ community. I then quote in this post from an article by Karim Miské in which he observes that what unites the variety of migrants of North African descent in France is not the fact that they are Muslim but the fact that they ‘live within a society which thinks of us as Muslims’.

      And what’s your response? To talk of ‘traditions in Muslim countries’. One might almost imagine that you are so obsessed with Muslims that you don’t bother to read anything that I’ve actually written, but just wait for that trigger word and then launch into the same old tirade. As I wrote when you made much the same point in response to my article on Charlie Hebdo, ‘You have obsessively made this point again and again on Pandaemonium. I have shredded it many times; but you continue to repeat the same idiocies.’ I somehow suspect that that’s not going to change.

      • De Te Fabula Narratur

        And what’s your response? To talk of ‘traditions in Muslim countries’. One might almost imagine that you are so obsessed with Muslims…

        England is a Protestant country. Ireland is a Catholic country. It’s a shorthand. What’s wrong with referring to Algeria or Iran or Pakistan as “Muslim countries”? Or Iran as a “Shiah country”? What other shorthand do you want me to use? Is it wrong to call France and Italy “Catholic countries” because that doesn’t cover Voltaire and Giordano Bruno?

        Islam helps explain the culture and behaviour of North African immigrants to France, whether or not they are practising Muslims. I have known decidedly secular British Pakistanis in the UK whose attitudes to women are not informed by “secularism”, to put it mildly. But they are informed by Islam. Oh, and gangsta rap. People from the clannish, feuding, honour-bound, patriarchal cultures characteristic of many countries-of-Muslim-heritage are more readily attracted to gangsta rap and Islamism than to Enlightenment values. That’s why numbers matter. And origins. Pakistani Muslims are not the same as Bangladeshi Muslims or Indian Muslims.

        I somehow suspect that that’s not going to change.

        The problems you refer to in France also exist in Sweden. Two advanced industrial nations have been unable to solve the problem of mass immigration from countries-of-Muslim-heritage. When I see evidence that it is possible, I will adjust my opinions accordingly. At the moment, I see a lot of evidence — historical, cultural and biological — that it is not possible.

        • You reject my observation, and indeed that of most sociologists, demographers and historians in this field, that most French citizens of North African origins are broadly secular, and indeed hostile to religion, and that ‘Muslim’ is not a suitable label for a such a diverse set of communities; and you believe, that on the contrary, ‘Islam helps explain the culture and behaviour of North African immigrants to France, whether or not they are practising Muslims’. And your evidence? Ah, I see:

          I have known decidedly secular British Pakistanis in the UK whose attitudes to women are not informed by “secularism”, to put it mildly. But they are informed by Islam. Oh, and gangsta rap. People from the clannish, feuding, honour-bound, patriarchal cultures characteristic of many countries-of-Muslim-heritage are more readily attracted to gangsta rap and Islamism than to Enlightenment values.

          So, a personal observation about ‘British Pakistanis’ and about gangsta rap is sufficient to inform you about the nature of North African communities in France and to demolish the evidence, data, field observation and social and historical analyses of most people who have studied the issue. Perhaps when you discover what ‘evidence’ actually means, then you can lecture the rest of us about it, and we might even listen.

        • De Te Fabula Narratur

          So, a personal observation about ‘British Pakistanis’ and about gangsta rap…

          About Islam too. Jack Straw in the Guardian in 2008:

          White girls seen as ‘easy meat’ by Pakistani rapists, says Jack Straw

          Row erupts after former home secretary says grooming for sexual abuse is a problem among some Pakistani men

          http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jan/08/jack-straw-white-girls-easy-meat

          Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Independent in 2014:

          I partly blame their families and communities. Too many Asian mothers spoil their boys, undervalue their girls, and demean their daughters-in-law. Within some British Asian circles, the West is considered degenerate and immoral. So it’s OK to take their girls and ruin them further. Some of the most fierce rows I have ever had have been with Asian women who hold these disgusting views.

          http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/rotherham-child-abuse-scandal-apologists-misogyny-and-double-standards-9692497.html

          Perhaps when you discover what ‘evidence’ actually means, then you can lecture the rest of us about it, and we might even listen.

          Presumably Jack Straw and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown don’t know what evidence means either. The behaviour they’ve mistakenly identified is also mistakenly alleged to take place in France:

          Gang-rape trial shocks France and sparks row over justice system

          Two girls say they were raped almost daily by large groups of men in run-down estates outside Paris

          http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/oct/09/french-gang-rape-trial-suburbs

          Obviously, racism and the French elite would be to blame if this behaviour were actually taking place. It would have no relation to Islam, because the perpetrators would be “broadly secular” Just like the notorious gang-rapists of Reykjavik.

          You reject my observation, and indeed that of most sociologists,

          Oh dear. I’ve got sociologists against me.

          demographers and historians in this field, that most French citizens of North African origins are broadly secular, and indeed hostile to religion…

          No, I don’t reject your observation: I merely point out what is obvious: that immigrants from historically Muslim countries will have cultures that are shaped by Islam, whether or not they are “hostile to religion”. I also point out that Arabs and Hispanics have low average IQs compared to the white majority of France and America. Whereas Chinese and Koreans have high average IQs compared to the white average. As these are scientific facts related to genetics, rather than crypto-Marxist rhetoric, you will of course dismiss them as irrelevant to the way Arabs and Hispanics under-achieve in the west, while Chinese and Koreans over-achieve. Blaming “racism” and “official policies” is your up-dated version of blaming witchcraft.

          http://www.photius.com/rankings/national_iq_scores_country_ranks.html

        • You don’t get it do you? When I questioned you using a ‘personal observation’ about the behaviour of some British men of Paksitani descent, I wasn’t questioning the fact that the observation was ‘personal’ but the claim that an observation about ‘British Pakistanis’ provides ‘evidence’ for how we should categorize the very different and very diverse North African communities in France. Adding a couple of links to articles by Jack Straw and Yasmin Alibhai Brown criticising certain behaviours among certain groups within certain British communities of Pakistani descent has absolutely no bearing on the issue (apart from revealing yet again that you don’t know what the issue is).

          You then add a link to a gang rape case in Paris. It’s a case that shows that men from North African communities in Paris can be as brutal and sadistic as men in any other community. And nothing else.

          Then you throw in some claim about ‘low average IQs’ of Arabs (now we’ve moved from ‘British Pakistanis’ to ‘North Africans in France’ to ‘Arabs’ as if all refer to equivalent groups of people). And finally, for good measure, you decide that Hispanics must also be drawn into your weird world view. (Anyone else but you might recognize that the fact that Hispanics are predominantly Christian and come from nations with entrenched Christian cultures might not sit easily with your other claim about the peculiar causal character of ‘Muslim culture’.)

          All of which is revealing of your various prejudices, but tell us little about the issue of North African communities in France. You seem incapable of actually debating the issue at hand. So let me say again what I’ve had to say a dozen times on various threads on Pandaemonium, in which you continually make exactly the same points, whatever the debate, whatever the issue: I am bringing this thread to a close as I have better things on which to waste my time.

  3. Katherine Woo

    I would like to remind you that Sartre was typical of contemporary leftists, in romanticizing Muslim resistance to the Western order without serious contemplation of whether the end results would be worse than continued Western hegemony. His talk of “authentic Jews” also rings familiar in leftwing fetishization of non-white cultural authenticity that strengthens conservatism at the expense of reformers. It was Camus who more accurately predicted that the post-colonial situation would be even worse.

    • There are many issues on which I might be critical of Sartre. But, if what you are referring to here is Sartre’s support for the Algerian national struggle, then that definitely is not one of them. Far from being ‘typical of contemporary leftists’, Sartre’s was a lonely voice in 1950s in supporting the Algerian war for independence. And that war was not by any stretch of the imagination ‘Muslim resistance to the Western order’ but a staunchly secular struggle for national liberation against colonial rule. The idea that the post-independence corruption of the FLN is reason to retrospectively defend colonial rule is, to my mind, untenable.

      Sartre’s concept of identity (for instance in relation to the Negritude movement) was indeed sometimes problematic. But he is not defending here a romantic notion of Jewishness. Rather, he is suggesting that it is through anti-Semitism that the idea of the authentic Jew becomes manifest.

  4. Tony Buck

    Talking about “the Other” and people defining themselves against it, is rather missing the point.

    The Muslims are in the banlieus because they’re poor, and are left to rot there, because France is a very selfish country.

    Why ? Because it’s divided between hollow people on the Left winding-on about humanist virtues (but never practising them) and Catholic(-heritage) people on the Right for whom Catholicism has always been about French nationalism and culture (+ money + power), not – perish the thought – about Christianity.

  5. Keith

    If you’re going to reference Sartre you have to bring up Fanon and if you bring up Fanon then you better invite Mignolo and Dussel. The fighting you are witnessing is about two world hegemonies. Those which want to rewesternize and those which want to dewesternize. The colonial matrix of control has lost it’s universal truth and is now regional. Welcome to global futures with the decolonial option. Ziziek, Marx and Hegel for the Occidental and Mignolo, Benoist and Dugin, Escobar and Hui for the Orientalists. Context is now God and content is still king.

  6. damon

    This is such a complex subject that I don’t think it can be discussed fully on a blog like this.
    First of all, Paris itself is quite small – and expensive. So they built housing estates around the edges, the same as has been done all over the world. Even Stockholm has its Glasgow style housing estates far from the centre of city life.These are often grim places that seem to concentrate poverty.
    That’s before you add in disadvantage due to issues of exclusion because of race.

    But when you do add in race, you complicate things by a factor of maybe ten.
    Just look at the USA both historically and contemporary for examples of how things go wrong.
    The prison system in the US, the ‘war on drugs’, housing and ghetto areas.
    The ”racism” of the police, like shown recently where black people were killed.
    And the popular responses to those police killings.

    France has some of these problems too now – and I don’t think it’s good enough to point out that most people of Muslim backgrounds there are secular. They may be secular, but still be prone to turning to extremism, or being fans of Dieudonné.
    Three quarters of people in prison in France are of Muslim background and are then at risk of becoming radicalised, or reading too much of the Koran while they serve their time.
    Or just having their idea of victimhood being reinforced by the prison culture.

    From just visiting France you can see the problem with segregation, with young disadvantaged men being prone to producing antisocial behaviour. There is clear division in how people mix and socialise and you see it immediately if you look at the types of people sitting in different cafes and restaurants.
    Middle class French people dining together at big tables on the one hand, and other cafes that cater to Arab people where they only drink tea and coffee, or when they do want to eat, they do so at the back on their own. Like it was a private thing to be doing and not something they want to do at the front of the cafe or at a street table.
    Because many of these young men feel affronted by racism in France, they project a moody and surly persona as a defence mechanism I think. You can see it everywhere there are enough of a minority community for them to band together. It’s quite obvious by their body language that they see themselves as people you shouldn’t mess with.
    Michel Houellebecq has written about this in his own distopian way. In one book, he wrote from the point of view of a white college teacher who felt goaded in the classroom by a black student sexually pawing a white female student in front of him while he was trying to teach the class.
    It was racist in the way he was describing the teacher’s emotions, but there was a point there all the same. The teacher was sexually frustrated, and all the ”hot” young female students would go for the black guy before they ever looked at him. Even though the young man was pretty dumb, he had the charisma the teacher lacked. And part of his charisma was his race and attitude. Where having street credibility was far more important than being educated in any of the things they teach in school.
    This anger and jealousy at his black pupil, ”made him” racist, or think racist thoughts.

    Even though it’s only a novel, I think it can explain why the Front National get so many votes.
    People see the situation many of their towns and cities are in with these issues and vote for the far right.

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