Battle of Algiers on Paris Metro: France Faces Its Muslims

By Singer, Daniel | The Nation, November 6, 1995 | Go to article overview

Battle of Algiers on Paris Metro: France Faces Its Muslims


Singer, Daniel, The Nation


On September 29 French viewers watching the news were offered a bloody Hollywood thriller as an extra. It was the end of a long manhunt. The villain was finally cornered in a dark provincial street and, after a shootout, a cop kicked the body to check whether the man was really dead. It was gruesome but, we were assured, the police had acted in "legitimate self-defense." Doubts crept in when it was learned that the film had been edited to cut out the sound of an unknown voice yelling, "Finish him off! Finish him off!" In any case, Jean-Louis Debre, the bungling Interior Minister, at once proclaimed not only that it was all perfectly legal but also that the victim, the 24-year-old Khaled Kelkal, brought to France from Algeria as a baby, had been a key figure in all the bombings that had shaken France in the preceding couple of months. The implication was that the French could now take the Metro in peace. Wiser commentators pondered whether the authorities were not building Kelkal--a bright student turned delinquent, converted to fundamentalism in jail, yet clearly no more than a cog in the terrorist machine--into an Islamic hero and role model for young rebels. Clearly, France did not get rid of its Algerian connection through an execution; a new gas canister filled with bolts and nails exploded in Paris the day of Kelkal's funeral, and twenty-nine were injured by a similar device on the Metro October 17. While this brought out soldiers on the street corners, the suggestion that French suburbs are swept by a fundamentalist wave is, to say the least, premature.

Algeria's undeclared civil war, with its 40,000 dead, is now well into its fourth year; it is certain that the country's November 16 presidential poll, which will be boycotted by the Islamists and the key opposition parties, will not bring it to a close. France was bound to be affected because of the links forged during 130 years of colonial rule, including the traumatic eight years of the war of national liberation; because it is Algeria's primary trading partner and therefore the chief backer of the ruling military junta; and last but not least, because of the large population of Algerian origin living here. Yet it wasn't until July 25 that the war crossed the Mediterranean, literally with a bang, when a bomb exploded in the heart of Paris--at a subway station in the Latin Quarter--killing seven and wounding nearly ninety. There followed a series of explosions with fewer casualties, the bombs fortunately misfiring, exploding not on time or not at all (like the one found on the railroad tracks near Lyons, which was actually linked to Kelkal by fingerprints). Those in the know claim that the Latin Quarter job was the work of professionals brought from abroad, whereas the other, more amateurish attempts were carried out by local squads. The Armed Islamic Group, the most ruthless opponent of the regime in Algeria, was reported in October to have claimed responsibility and made demands, though such is the ambiguity of this civil war that many people still see the hand of the Algerian secret services behind the whole operation. (They would do it, in this version, to provoke popular indignation in France and thus strengthen French backing for the military regime in Algeria. The Islamic Salvation Front, the more moderate antigovernment movement in Algeria, has made this accusation publicly.)

At least one casualty of this conflict is plain to see. Despite official proclamations that one should not confuse Islam and fundamentalism, Arabs and terror, the omnipresent police in their inevitable street checks are instinctively guided by skin color. Once again, as with the Gulf War, a section of the population is under suspicion and must prove its allegiance. Behind these troubles loom two wider questions: Can Europe, torn by the current structural economic crisis, cope with immigrant workers, brought in under different circumstances as cheap temporary labor but who are now here to stay? Can France, for a century a champion of assimilation, now absorb such a large number of "Islamic" immigrants? Before we can answer these questions we must look at the size and shape of this so-called Muslim community.

Beurs in France

Strange nicknames abound in Franco-algerian relations. The pieds noirs, you may recall, were not Indians; they were French (or European) settlers in North Africa, a tribe that went back to the home country where, alas, many of them joined the xenophobic battalions of National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. The beurs are the opposite. In the reverse slang of the young (known as Verlan for l'envers) it means Arabs" and refers to young people of North African origin living in France (the nicer-sounding feminine is beurette). The difficulty lies in calculating their number.

Islam is now described as France's second-largest religion; Muslims are estimated at between 3.5 million and 4 million, out of a total population of 57 million. The estimates are vague because ethnic and religious questions are forbidden in the French census. Thus the only firm figures from the last census (1990) refer to foreign nationals. If you add to the 616,000 Algerian nationals the 572,000 Moroccans, and also the Tunisians, Turks and Muslims from black Africa who are now living in France, you will get altogether less than 1.8 million. Thus, there must be close to 2 million French citizens who are Muslims, most of them of Algerian origin (until they won their independence in 1962, Algerians on both sides of the sea were, at least nominally, fully fledged French citizens). The very concept of a Muslim community, however, is an invention. The Algerians themselves are split, the Turks differ from the North Africans and so on. The religious link, too, is artificial. The young of Algerian origin are no more Muslim than their French equivalents are Catholic. The latest survey suggests that in both cases nearly 70 percent are not practicing. The number of Muslims is greatly inflated by Le Pen to frighten people with the specter of an "Islamic invasion." Here they are lumped together simply to examine whether French society is still capable of absorbing both a new immigrant population and an additional religion.

As assimilationists the French are second to none. Their Jacobin centralism has its ridiculous side. The best-known example is of school textbooks imposed throughout the empire so that black children in Africa could learn that "our ancestors the Gauls had blue eyes and blond hair." The steamroller, however, was fairly efficient. My wife's Breton parents learned French at school; their children know no Breton. And what the French did to their inner minorities, they repeated with successive waves of Italians, Spaniards and Poles. And these are now convinced of their Frenchness. Among Le Pen's followers you find many whose name makes it plain they would not be here if their party's policy against foreigners had been applied in the past.

But the newcomers are not the same, object the reactionaries. They have a different religion; they don't mix or intermarry; they don't eat like us or live as we do. You let them develop their argument and then slyly reply, The same used to be said about Jews in the thirties. It is a good blow because, while it is already widely acceptable to be anti-arab, making anti-Jewish remarks still requires caution. Yet the point is valid and the only difference is one of numbers. There were about 300,000 predominantly Ashkenazi Jews in France before the war; now, with the arrival of Sephardic Jews from North Africa, there are slightly more than twice that figure. What the numbers suggest is that assimilation could take longer to add more color to French culture. But problems lie elsewhere: Even if France were still an efficient machine for absorbing outsiders--and it is now caught up in economic, social and political crisis--cultural clashes are arising as Islam's tendency to move beyond the religious comes into conflict with French laicite, the strong secular tradition based on the separation between church and state.

Veiled Contradictions

The most publicized confrontation first erupted in 1989, when the head of a provincial high school banned three pupils who insisted on wearing a veil, or hedjab, inside the building. Though conflicting legal decisions have since been given and the ministerial recommendation now is to ban only "ostentatious signs"(?!) of one's beliefs, the matter still arouses passion, as I discovered when raising the issue among friends of Algerian origin. Djamilla, who studied in France, taught in Algiers and left when she found life there unbearable, was against yielding an inch: You give them a finger, they take the whole arm; you allow them to wear a veil, they shoot you because you are not wearing one. Malika, a beurette who knows Algeria only through family and holidays, was less categorical. Though herself against allowing the veil, she noticed that school authorities were more lenient in permitting Catholic or Jewish signs of distinction. Above all, like many progressive schoolteachers, she felt that to kick the girls out was to hand them over to fanatics. But the opposite case was also argued with passion, particularly by feminists, since the hedjab is a symbol of women's subservience. I must confess I felt sympathy for a beur who, summoned to take sides in a public debate, simply hedged: I am against the veil and against the ban.

This debate, while dramatized by the media, also reflects the country's changing mood. The French left, centralist by tradition and favoring an egalitarian uniformity, after 1968 discovered both roots and the right to be different. Then, with unemployment rising, Le Pen pushed this to a perverse conclusion: Immigrants are so different they should get out. The pendulum of leftist opinion then swung back toward equal rights and the struggle against discrimination. However, movements identified with that line, like SOS Racisme, did not manage to consolidate their position among immigrants because the Socialists, with whom they were connected, did not dare to face squarely the rising tide of jingoism. Conservative governments that followed actually swam with the current and pandered to xenophobia, insisting on their strong stand against immigration. If you add that immigrant workers, brought here mainly to perform unskilled jobs, were the main victims of restructuring, foreigners and their children have plenty of motives for discontent.

Yet it would be wrong to conclude that the social and cultural gap between communities is widening. Some beurs are entering the trades and teaching, the media and the arts. The number of mixed couples is increasing. A poll shows that more French (38 percent) are opposed to intermarriage than Muslim are 29 percent of Muslims are opposed if the Muslim is a woman, 18 percent if it is a man). With Algeria torn by civil war, the temptation to migrate there, never very strong among those born in France, has vanished altogether. The only "elsewhere" now is a mythical Islam. Quite a lot was also made here of Muslim quiescence during the Gulf War, though it would be unwise to read too much into this silence. One point Malika made did strike me: "I don't speak of such subjects in the office with my colleagues, Francais de souche" (best translated as "French of old stock").

'Allah's Suburbs'?

What the inner cities are to America, the suburbs--to which the poor are driven from the heart of the town--are to Europe. By high-speed subway you can travel quickly from the center of Paris to La Courneuve, in what used to be the "red belt" and is still the last French department under Communist control. From there you go to the city of Four Thousand (the original number of apartments), a depressing combination of fifteen-story blocks of flats. The staircases look drab and the space for garbage cans is dirty, but there are TV satellite dishes all over the place (you can catch Arabic programs from overseas; the dishes apparently mushroomed after the Gulf War). There is a very nice public library with a good section for children, though otherwise the social amenities are few. The supermarket, with long lines dominated by beurs and blacks, is full of junk food. In the yard idle young men ask me, "You looking for somebody?" Clearly they don't want anyone snooping on their turf. It's all dreary and predictable.

The subsidized "accommodation with moderate rents " or H.L.M., is an important part of French postwar history. Between 1957 and 1975, the years of glorious expansion, about 2.9 million such apartments were built. Now France has to cope with these rabbit warrens. Experts say that to repaint, improve acoustics and modernize would help but would not solve the problem. At stake is the very function of the institution. At one stage the H.L.M. was a place of social promotion--for immigrant workers moving from shantytowns and French on the way to owning their own house. Since the economic crisis of the mid-seventies and the ban on immigration, foreign workers stay put, while the French left behind feel downgraded. Unemployment has risen steadily and is now around 12 percent. It is double that level for those under 25 and double again for the young from North Africa. An H.L.M. is quite often a place of exclusion and despondency: no hope, no future and a deep thirst for dignity.

Such fortresses of frustration are to be found around most industrial cities. The two terrorists who shot tourists in Morocco last year were recruited at the Four Thousand. Khaled Kelkal and his companions were brought up in a similar suburb outside Lyons. One can read the past thoughts of the dead youngster, since a German researcher interviewed Kelkal a couple of years ago and Le Monde published three pages of extracts. He is symptomatic in his almost cliche-like emphasis on the wall separating the suburb from the town, on the injustice called justice, on violence as the only accepted language, on the quest for acceptance and recognition, which in his case only the family and Islam provided. But he is also highly atypical--not every kid who feels like an outsider attends a posh high school and turns to robbery, and not every rebel reaches the point of planting bombs. It is important to stress that whereas during the war of independence the National Liberation Front was among Algerian workers in France like fish in water, neither the Armed Islamic Group nor the Islamic Salvation Front enjoys comparable support. The bombers are rejected by most Muslims in France for selfish as well as moral reasons--they spell trouble. Yet will not circumstances breed a growing number of Kelkals?

My instinct tells me that, given time, the French will absorb yet another wave of immigrants. This hunch, however, rests on my refusal to accept that our future will be barbarian. The smoothness of the transition is less determined by the customs of the migrants than by the nature of the receiving society. Muslims do not have a monopoly on fundamentalism or irrationality. Le Pen's xenophobic National Front has spread faster in France than Islamic "fanatics." A genuine integration, allowing for cultural and religious freedoms, depends on Europe's capacity to emerge from the current crisis, on the ability of the Western left to raise class solidarity above ethnic prejudices and to provide solutions that require no scapegoats. It depends, as was so often heard in this French debate, on our being able to avoid an American future." We cannot get away by shifting the blame to the victims. Shakespeare, as so often, had something to say about it:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves. . . .

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Battle of Algiers on Paris Metro: France Faces Its Muslims
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