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
‘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
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.