This is a copy of the lecture delivered by Andrew Hussey, professor of cultural history and director of the Centre for Postcolonial Studies, at his inaugural lecture Thursday. 2 February.
His book The French Intifada, published in 2014, was a cultural history of France and its former colonies in North Africa, explicitly attempting to understand present tensions and challenges in both territories. It has been overtaken by recent events in France, most notably the terrorist attacks of 2015 and 2016. Professor Hussey revisits the book’s original research and arguments, and ask what if anything has changed, and what this might tell us about the fast-changing political landscape in France.
In 2014, I published a book called The French Intifada, The Long War between France and its Arabs. The aim was to write a cultural history of France and its former colonies in North Africa. But although the book was explicitly written with a view to understanding present tensions and challenges in both territories, the origins of the book went back to a specific time and place.
This was Lyon in the summer 1982, when as an 18 year-old would-be Francophile and Existentialist philosopher I went there to spend my first extended stay in France, working at a Leftist commune just outside the city, alongside political refugees mainly from Chile and South-East Asia. The whole enterprise was basking in the afterglow of François Mitterrand’s recent victory. In the evening we watched ‘instructive’ films by Costas-Gavras or Jean-Luc Godard. It was in this vaguely euphoric atmosphere that I celebrated my A Level results with a newly acquired Vietnamese girlfriend and a crate of East German lager.
There were however bigger and more dramatic events taking place in Lyon that summer, aside from my exam results and my burgeoning love life. These were the violent disturbances which were taking place almost every night in the suburbs of Vénisseux, Les Minguettes and Le Mas du Taureau. Everyone, including the Mitterrand government, knew that the violence was serious but it was hard to understand; for one thing the anger seemed so very separate from the exultant mood in the rest of the country. Le Monde ran a piece headlined ‘Brixton en France’, making reference to the anti-Thatcher riots which had convulsed Brixton, Toxteth and other parts of the UK in 1981. But this was not at all the same thing. Even I - completely new to France, its culture and its politics - could see that.
One afternoon I took a bus up to the notorious trouble spot of Les Minguettes. I found a reasonably functioning suburb of high rise flats. Everything was modern and clean, a long way from the jagged and broken slums of Liverpool or the grimy streets of Brixton. I noted that nearly everyone was of North African origin; but at the time, naively, I equated this with a kind of ‘Frenchness’.
To anybody who knew Lyons from the inside however, the riots could hardly have come as a surprise. The tension had been building for years, ever since the first wave of immigrants from North Africa in the 1960s were housed in bidonvilles, or shanty towns, outside the city. Some of these bidonvilles still existed in the 1970s as Lyon grew ever more prosperous. During this period, with the development of the out-of-town developments of Les Minguettes and others, tens of thousands of North Africans were cut out of the life of the city. Meanwhile the city centre of Lyon remained as solidly white and right-wing as it had ever been.
These bidonvilles have now gone but there are still bitter divisions here - as I found for myself when I returned recently to Lyon, to Les Minguettes, to see if anything had changed. These days, at first at least, there is not much to suggest urban warfare. There is little visible poverty – the streets are in good order and quite clean. Opposite the main square is a new police station which looms larger than it probably should and is obviously busy. But most people are friendly and well-dressed and going about their business. This is nothing like the poverty I have seen outside Europe and the most frightening parts of American cities.
Nonetheless this is still a strange and disturbed place. Les Minguettes, like nearly all of the French banlieues, has the queasy artificiality of a science-fiction set. This is unsurprising given that it was designed and built when the French embraced a particular form of modernism which looked to the space race, Soviet as well as American, as a model for design. Les Minguettes feels weird and, out of date, and unreal, a stage-set from a forgotten 1960s B-Movie. Thirty years on from the first riots here, this place still doesn’t feel like Lyon. Mostly is doesn’t even feel like France. For this reason, the people who live here feel that they are not wanted, that do not belong here. The truth is that no one does. This is indeed the secret truth of the banlieues of Lyon and its replicas across France. This was the starting-point of my book.
Since it was originally published two years ago, the French Intifada has already been overtaken by big events- first of all the Charlie Hebdo massacre of January 2015 and then the Paris attacks of November that same year. In the meantime, terrorist atrocities have been inflicted on the country on a fairly regular basis – including the Nice murders, the throat-slitting of an elderly priest, the killing of off-duty police officers. A state of emergency is still in place and looks likely to stay there for some time.
It was a grim accident that the French Intifada was published in France in October 2015, only two weeks before the terrible killings of November 13th. By now, however, there was already a complicated back-story. The book had initially been acquired by a major left-leaning French publisher – le Seuil - but ten months before publication the book was suddenly dropped. The head of the published house insisted that this was because that the conflicts it described were exagerrated, or not there at all. The book he said was an insult to France.
The book was then bought then by a small publishing house called Les Editions du Toucan, with a reputation for championing libertarian and contrarian thinkers. I began to worry that having started to write from the Left I would now find now found myself, in France at least, on the Right. This came true: the book was extracted and praised in Right-wing circles – Valeures Actuelles and le Figaro amongst others.. It was hated and cold-shouldered by many on the the Left: In one early interview I was I was interviewed by a young woman from Le Nouvel Observateur whose opening question was :‘Pourquoi, M. Hussey, vous soutenez les thèses de Marine Le Pen?’
Well I don’t, and I hope to explain why not. But its important to put this into a French context. More specifically, even my fearless Right-Wing publisher had baulked at the title ‘French Intifada’, changing it into the more anodyne ‘Insurrections en France’. The reason for his, he said, was that was that readers and critics would focus too much on Jewish issues and not the story of the Muslim population of France. The real issue is, as I argued then and will argue now, is that the histories of these two populations cannot be separated – how could this be the case when, at least since the Second World War, the majority of Muslims and Jew who have settled in France have their common origins in colonial North Africa?
Interestingly, however, if you go looking for anti-Semitism in France right now, you won’t necessarily find it in the traditional places. I’m thinking first of all of Marine Le Pen’s Front National which in the past few years has been reinventing itself – ‘de-demonising itself- its enemies would say – by divesting itself of the familiar paraphernalia of French Fascism, the skinheads, the nostalgia for Algérie Française, and, yes, anti-Semitism. One result of this is that the FN has seen the Jewish share of its vote rise from 4 to 13 per cent in recent years. This is still an electorally insignificant factor, but it is politically important as the FN positions as itself as the defender of the Jews against Muslim violence.
So where is anti-Semitism to be found if not amongst the usual suspects? The answer is that it is still close to home, closer than ever before in fact.
More to the point, in the past few years, for the first time since the Second World War, France has seen the killing of Jews by by its own citizens. These include, as we shall see, the murder of the mobile phone salesman Ilam Halimi in the banlieue of Bagneux in 2006, the murder of a rabbi and three small children in a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 and of course the massacres of 2015, including the Bataclan which was targeted by Islamist radicals as far back as 2008 as a ‘Jewish interest’. These were all organized and executed by French nationals. The ‘French Intifada’ is of course a strong description, but it is not an entirely misleading description of where events have been heading. .
But how ‘new’ is this ‘French Intifada’, which is sometimes also called the ‘new anti-Semitism’ in France? Could it be that it is not that ‘new’ at all, and that it actually has its origins in the deep, tangled roots of French history?
And if this is true, how can it help us, if such a thing is possible at all, to understand the present chaos?
‘Long Live Us !’’
I want to begin by temporarily turning our gaze away from metropolitan France to the other side of the Mediterranean, to Algeria. This because, it was here, in the 19Th Century that the term ‘anti-Semitism’ was given a political legitimacy in French political life by the demagogue Edouard Drumont and his followers.
This hatred had been sharpened by the Crémieux Decrees of 1870 which made Algerian Jews citizens of France. This apparently forward-looking move, engineered by the well-meaning Adolphe Crémieux, had the effect of deepening the divisions between Jews and Muslims, as the Jewish community became citizens and the Muslims were left behind as colonial subjects. The Jews were also blamed by the Muslims for supporting the original colonial project, most probably – it was argued – for commercial reasons.
Many Europeans hated the Jews however with, if anything, even more viciousness. This hatred was indeed an essential ingredient in the formation of a national character amongst the ‘colons’ or ‘pieds noirs’ (they were allegedly given this nickname meaning ‘black foot’ because of the black shoes they wore). It’s worth remembering too that this population was not entirely French but rather a pan-Mediterranean stew of Catalans, Sardinians, Greeks, Maltese and others. The most disparate ethnicities were however united in their contempt for the non-European bloodsucker and betrayer of France: the Jew.
In a best-selling pamphlet ‘La France Juive, (‘Jewish France’) Edouard Drumont, who was – let us not forget - Deputy for Algiers in the 1890s, made a racial opposition between ‘Aryans’ and ‘Jews’, accusing Jews of polluting and weakening the French national character whilst taking control of the economy. In Algiers, Drumont was the inspiration for a new version of the Marseillaise which was loudly sung by the welcoming crowds at the port when Drumont arrived in the city in April 1898, returning from Paris. In this version, the familiar verse which begins ‘Aux armes, citoyens...’ is replaced by:
Français de France d’Algérie,
serrons les poings et terrassons deux fléaux,
les youpins et les franc-maçons
A bas les fourbes et les traîtres
Crachons dans les gueules des juifs
Nous les connaissons à leur pif
Ces salauds qui parlent en maîtres
Frenchmen of France of Algeria
Clench your fists and smash two vermin amongst us
The yids and the free-masons
Down with frauds and traitors
Spit in the faces of Jews
We know them by their big noses
These bastards who speak like masters
The emblem of this form of French Algerian culture was the fictional character Cagayous, a picaresque rogue invented by writer ‘Musette’ (the pseudonomyn of a certain Auguste Robinet, an outwardly respectable pied-noir civil servant). Cagayous appeared in a series of illustrated stories in the popular journals La Révue Algérienne and Turco in the 1880s and soon became a hero to a community of reader across the social spectrum; his adventures were published right into the 1920s.
The fictional world of Cagayous- mainly fighting and whoring, speaking nothing but fluent patatouète, the local dialect, with his band of mates in the Casbah – also reflected the rough politics of the time and place. The story ‘Cagayous anti-juif’ presents him as a supporter of Drumont; with his pals he takes part in anti-Jewish riots, exclaiming, ‘Down with Jews! Smash them all! A good hiding is what they all need!’ There is a strangely prescient moment in this tale when Cagayous watches the lynching of two poor Jews. One is killed and the other is near death, being battered by a crowd who are ‘stronger than a herd of wild bulls’. At this gory spectacle Cagayous is moved to an uncharacteristic moment of pity. ‘Killing two poor Jews, that’s not good,’ he says. The reader draws back at the next sentence: ‘Throw them all into the sea, that’s what should happen,’ he continues. ‘Or if you threw them all into a big box and sealed it up. I’d happily seal it up myself so none is left breathing.’ Intriguingly, what Cagayous actually objects to is homicide, but he has no qualms about genocide.
Cagayous is still a popular figure in Algiers, celebrated by the now mainly Muslim population as part of their own history and folklore. ‘All for Cagayous,’ wrote a journalist in the newspaper El Watan in 2005, in a piece celebrating Cagayous as ‘anti-everything’: the piece finished with his slogan: ‘Long Live us!’
These days, in contrast, there is hardly any visible evidence of the long Jewish presence in Algiers. Most Jews left Algeria, if they could, after the Second World War. There was another great wave of emigration after 1962, when Algeria gained Independence from France. In Post-colonial Algeria, Jewish communities were under attack, synagogues were turned into mosques, libraries destroyed. Those few Jews who remained stayed on until the 1990s, when the vicious spiral of violence in Algeria made life there impossibly dangerous. By 2002, it was estimated that were no more than fifty Jews left in Algeria, which had once been home to more than 150, 000.
The particularity of the Algerian Jews is that, unlike the Jews of Tunisia and Morocco, most of them made for France rather than Israel. This was hardly surprising. Algiers was always the most ‘French’ of all North African cities; France was ‘home’. Even now, in the centre of the city, the signs, the street-lamps, the carefully constructed squares, the blue-shuttered balconies, cobbles and the old tram tracks can make you feel can make you feel that you are in Paris, Bordeaux or Lyon rather than a Muslim city in Africa. On my various visits to Algiers, a few years ago, I always had an eerie feeling in the city, the feeling that I was walking through the wreckage of a recently abandoned civilization, whose citizens have departed in a hurry, leaving behind their most personal possessions which you recognize.
The Jews have long since left Algeria. But there is still Jew-hatred here. Indeed, as we shall see, it may well be one of the most persistent legacies of the French colonial period.
Long before I ever went to Algiers, I found myself again in Lyon. This was in 1984 and this time I was registering as a student in Licence de Lettres Modernes in the University of Lyon 3. What I found there came as a shock.
What I didn’t know at this stage was that Lyon 3 had a subterranean reputation for being the most ‘Fascist’ University in France. This didn’t just mean that the Professors were grumpy and sarcastic and gave out unjustified bad marks to wannabe Leftist intellectuals like myself; no, this was serious, real political Fascism which ended with the University being investigated by the French government in 2001, and being officially described as a national disgrace. This was because, over period of two decades, the University had established itself as the intellectual capital in France of what is called ‘Négationnisme’.
This term was first coined in 1987 by Henri Rousso, the veteran historian of Vichy, to describe a tendency in French historical thinking which actively sought to deny that that the Germans had a policy of extermination towards the Jews and that most of the events described in the camps by eyewitnesses and later historians were all myths or lies.
This strain of thinking in France began in the 1950s with the writings of Paul Rassinier, who argued that the Jews had brought the calamities of the Second World War on themselves and that the gas chambers never existed anyway. For a time these ideas held currency in far-left circles (the big names backing them included Pierre Guillaume, Jacques Vergès and Roger Garaudy) but also found approval in the Front National (Jean-Marie Le Pen’s infamous reference to the gas chambers as a “detail of history”). In Lyon this thinking could be traced back to the late 1970s, when Robert Faurisson, Lyon 3’s Professor of Literary Theory, had declared the Holocaust a ‘myth’ and a ‘hoax’. In his wake came a trail of even more sinister fanatics, writing theses to disprove the gas chambers or to defend Hitler.
In 1990, in an attempt topartly stem this tide, the French government introduced the Loi Gayssot, which places limits on how far an individual can claim that crimes against humanity, as defined at the Nuremberg trials, did not happen. This effectively made Holocaust denial a crime.
This all came to a head in 2001 when the Minister for Education Jack Lang commissioned an official inquiry into Lyon 3 led by Henri Rousso. Amongst other things, Rousso’s report revealed that Bruno Gollnisch, who had been since 2005 Jean-Marie Le Pen’s number two figure in the Front National, a leading figure in the European Parliament, and Professor of Japanese, was at the centre of the ‘negationist cancer’ in the University. This was like having David Irving and his acolytes in charge of Manchester University.
Gollnisch’s public response to the Rousso report was to denounce the inquiry as a politically motivated fraud. In January 2007, partly as a punishment for this statement, Gollnisch was fined 55 thousand Euros and given a three month prison sentence under the loi Gayssot. He was also suspended from the University.
Most recently the Loi Gayssot law has been defied by the comedian Dieudonné, whose audience is mainly comprised from youths from the immigrant banlieues of big French cities – these are the grandsons and grandaughters of the immigrants who originally came to France from the ruins of its colonial Empire. This is an angry and disappointed Post-colonial generation, who are eager to be told that they have been tricked by the governing classes.
One of Dieudonné’s favourite gags is to invite Robert Faurisson on stage with him, sometimes in the striped blue and white pyjamas of a Holocaust victim. Most of Dieudonné’s audience won’t know who Faurisson is, let alone be familiar with his obscure theories. But, they cheer on his rants and claim the old Professor as a martyr.
What Dieudonné is really doing here is creating ‘negationism for the masses’. It is always a dangerous cliché to evoke the 1930s when discussing anti-Semitism – for one thing, for all the pro-Jewish and anti-Jewish arguments made in hindsight, no one really knew what was going to happen in the 1940s. But it is equally clear that patterns do repeat themselves. Like the Nazis in the 1930s Dieudonné is taking an occult belief system - in this case ‘negationism’; for the Nazis it was anti-Semitism - from being an underground conspiracy theory and moving it up into the mainstream. The biggest danger is that, again like the Nazis, Dieudonné has ready and waiting, a mass audience who are ready to hear the bad news - and maybe even act upon its implications.
I first had direct experience of how this might work on the ground, when, in 2008, I spent some time in the banlieue of Bagneux to the south of Paris. I was beginning my research for the French Intifada by investigating the killing in 2006 of a young Jew, a twenty-three year old mobile phone salesman called Ilan Halimi.
The facts of the case are stark. On 20th January Ilan Halimi lured to Bagneux by a young Iranian woman named Yalda, whom he had met while selling phones. It turned out that it was her mission to trap him and lure him away from safety. Yalda later described how Ilan had been seized by thugs in balaclavas and bundled into a car: ‘He screamed for two minutes with a high-pitched voice like a girl.’
Three weeks later, Ilan was found naked and tied to a tree near the RER station of Sainte-Geneviéve-des-Bois. He died on the way to hospital. His body had been mutilated and burned. Since being kidnapped, he had been imprisoned in a flat in Bagneux, starved and tortured. Residents of the block had heard his screams and the laughter of those torturing him, but had done nothing. Fifteen youths from the Bagneux district were arrested. They were members of a gang called ‘the Barbarians’, a loose coalition of hard cases, dealers and their girls who shared a hatred of ‘rich Jews’.
The alleged leader of the Barbarians, Youssef Fofana, went on the run to the Ivory Coast. He was later arrested and extradited and is now serving a life sentence in the prison of Clairvaux in the east of France. In the spring of 2012 he defied the French authorities by smuggling out from his cell videos in which he praises Al Quaeda and describes his capture as a ‘symbolic trophy for the Zionists of New York’. During his trial he described how he had dowsed Ilan in petrol and set fire to him with a cigarette lighter. He said he was ‘proud’ of what he had done.
Theories about motives for the crime were initially confused. Was it a bungled kidnap? A Clockwork Orange-style act of pure sadism? Or was it the work of hate-fuelled anti-Semitism? The police were, at first, reluctant to say that the crime was motivated by anti-Semitism. But Yalda, who turned out to be a member of the Barbarians, said in her testimony that she had been specifically told to entrap Jews by the gang. Her confession was widely reported, as was the fact that she called Fofana ‘Osama’, in homage to Bin Laden.
At the same time, out in the banlieue itself, the murder took on a skewed new meaning: the word was that what had begun as a heist and kidnap to extort a ransom from ‘rich Jews’ had become a form of revenge for crimes in Iraq and, in particular, the scenes from Abu Ghraib. Bizarrely, in the view of some, this made the torturers martyrs, soldiers in what is being called the Long War against the white Western powers. The kids of Bagneux accordingly gloried in their own ‘intifada’. They openly identified with the Palestinians, whom they saw as prisoners in their own land, like the dispossessed of the banlieue.
After the murder of Ilan, to the anger of many Parisian Jews, the Chirac government dissembled about ‘social problems’ in the banlieue. Only Nicolas Sarkozy, then an ambitious Minister of the Interior whose mother was a Sephardic Jew, denounced the murder of Ilan as ‘an anti-Semitic crime’. With Sarkozy’s intervention the terms of the debate were changed. Was the killing of Ilan the isolated act of individuals, or was it a political murder in the largest sense: an act that expressed a collective hatred? Did it belong to individuals, or the whole community?
Through several weeks of my own travels in Bagneux, I chatted to hip-hop kids, footballers, football fans and self-proclaimed casseurs (‘wreckers’ or ‘rioters’). I met and talked to them in cafés, at bus stops, in shops and sports centres. It was mostly entertaining and enlightening; there is a lot of serious laughter and benign mischief in the banlieue. But the more time I spent there, the more, like a secret code being revealed, I began to pick up on the casual references to synagogues, Israelis and Jews. Phrases such as sale juif, sale yid, sale feuj, youpin, youtr - (this latter term dates from the 1940s and so, with its echoes of the Nazi deportations, contains a special poison) - were being widely used. Yet for all I heard about the crimes of the Jews, it was hard to find anyone who had met a Jewish person. ‘We don’t need to meet Jews,’ I was told by Grégory, a would-be rapper and Muslim from La Chapelle. ‘We know what they’re like.’
But that was the problem: nobody knew what ‘they’ were like. It seemed to me that hating Jews – like supporting Arsenal or listening to the rap band NTM – had become a defining motif of identity in the banlieue.; this was anti-Semitism as youth revolt.
This is not quite the same thing as Islamist terrorism. But it does create an atmosphere, a casual form of consensus, and in this context it is only a short slide to a much harder form of hate. This was what happened to Ilan Halimi and then happened again in Toulouse in March 2012, when a 30-year-old man and three small children at were killed at a Jewish school just outside the city
Again the facts are bleak .As Rabbi Jonathan Sandler was dropping off his two boys, aged five and three, at the Ozar HaTorah school at about 8am, all three were shot dead by an armed man on a Yamaha TMax scooter. Other teachers and pupils thought at first that the noise of the shots was fireworks. But as they approached they saw a terrible scene unfold. The gunman had seized on an eight year-old child, Miriam Monsonego, the eight-year-old daughter of the school's director. She was being pulled back by her hair. The gunman then blasted a bullet through her temple. This scene was captured by security cameras at the school. Understandably, very few people have seen this footage. For most of France, imagining the image - even just knowing that it existed - was more than enough.
At first there were theories about a rogue soldier or a neo-Nazi psychopath on the loose. It turned out however that the killer was a young Franco-Algerian called Mohamed Merah. In a statement to police before he was shot, he said that he was linked to al-Qaeda, and that his aim was to protest against the French law banning the veil and to take revenge on the French army for its action in Afghanistan and the Israelis for the killing of Palestinian children. He said he was proud of his actions; that he had bought his weapons in France and that he would "go to prison with his head held high, or die with a smile on his face". He declared that he "wanted to bring France to its knees". He claimed to have filmed the killings at the Jewish school and given the tapes to his "brothers" to distribute on the internet. He said he would trigger assaults in Lyons, Marseilles and Paris.
It was only as these statements were made public that the full complexity of the story now began to take shape. As Le Monde described it, from this point on, the murders were no longer "un fait divers" (a mere news story) but "un fait politique" (a political fact). This much had already been anticipated by President Nicolas Sarkozy who had gone straight to Toulouse on Tuesday afternoon in his traditional role of "protector" of the French nation.
The immediate reaction in the French government and media in the aftermath of the killings was to disassociate Merah from anti-Semitism and Islam. The issues were immigration, unemployment, psychiatric problems. It was pointed out that Merah was ‘un loser’ and a failed petty criminal. He had once tried to kill himself. He found a way out by hanging out with a group of mates who called themselves ‘Knights of Pride’, who described themselves as Salafists, fantasizing that they were an Al-Quaeda affiliate.
By the time of the murders – when in Islamist language, he became ‘operational’ - Merah was a radical with complete ideological beliefs. He was in part ‘inspired’ – if that is the right word - by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the French-speaking successor to Bin Laden, who declared in 2009 that France was now ready for ‘awakening’. But why were French Jews his main targets?
In the mind of an Islamist assassin such as Mohammed Merah, the fact is that to be French and to be a Jew is a double crime. As it was in the 19th century, many Algerian Muslims often still see Jews as traitors who took their country by stealth. It is a short step from believing this to believing, as is argued in Islamist ideology, that with the same occluded tactics, the Jews now control 21st Century France. You can find these arguments very much alive in Dar al Islam, the French Language version of the house magazine of Islamic State. Resistance is a duty, which is why Dar Al Islam regularly threatens attacks on Jewish children and schools.
Much to the horror of the French and Algerian governments, Mohammed Merah was hailed as a saintly warrior in Islamist circles in Algeria, and Algerianized parts of France – including the prison system. Leading the praise in the radical mosques of Algiers was Ali Belhadj, who had led the war in the 1990 against the Algerian government – a French-backed servant of the colonial power in his view.
In a short film still circulating on the internet, Belhadj attacked Sarkozy for not allowing Merah to be buried in Algeria, calling him a ‘despicable man’ and arguing that Merah was not a ‘heretic’ but should be buried in a Muslim cemetery. Prayers should said for him. In the same film, in front of a medium-sized crowd in one of the mosques of the working-class district of Bab-el-Oued, another man (he said he was a lawyer with dual French and Algerian nationality) went one step further. He said that Merah was not wrong in what he done, invoking the ‘scholarly principle’: ‘You kill our women, we kill your women. You kill our children, we kill your children.’
Merah was in fact a ‘lion’ and Sarkozy was ‘a pig, a Jew’. The man cursed the French people: ‘May Allah freeze the blood in their veins!’ He then went on to tear up his French passport to cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’. What is most astonishing about this scene (easily found on YouTube) is that these men are neither monsters nor madmen. Those who speak are fluent, articulate and coherent. Their audience is a perfectly respectful and restrained group of believers. The problem is that they believe something monstrous – that Mohamed Merah was justified by God to murder French Jews.
Hatred of the Jews: this is one of the oldest traditions in France, dating back like the very notion of the banlieue to the medieval period. In his essay Portrait of an Anti-Semite, written in the wake of the German occupation of Paris, and searching for an explanation for his compatriots’ complicity in anti-Semitic crimes, Jean-Paul Sartre describes the typical French anti-Semite as driven by his own sense of ‘inauthenticity’. By this sense of ‘inauthenticity’ Sartre means a sense of existential and psychological unreality which at once challenges and undermines the anti-Semite’s identity as a Frenchman. Unconvinced of his own true place in society, the anti-Semite nonetheless finds comfort in the reality of his Jew-hatred.
Part of my argument in the French Intifada, and indeed this lecture, is that the same applies to the contemporary Islamist in France – who is as much the product of French history: of failed colonialism and its aftermaths - as he or she is the creature of Global Jihad. In my mind, little has happened since I wrote the book to contradict this view. From Cagayous to Dieudonné, from the Algerian War to Holocaust denial, right down to the killings in 2015, it as if the same bad memories keep coming to the surface.
They often take different forms but they are all always rooted in the poisoned soil of French history. Suddenly, from this point of view, the ‘French Intifada’, or the ‘new anti-Semitism’ suddenly seems not so ‘new’ at all.
And so back to Sartre : he writes : ‘Pas un Francais ne sera en securité tant un Juif, en France et dans le monde entier, pourra craindre sa vie.’ (No French person will be safe so long a Jew, in France and in the whole world, fears for his or her life’). He was writing this in 1946 as Europe was still discovering the full horror of the death camps.
Seventy years on I would argue, Sartre’s argument is truer than ever. And that is one of the reasons why these are such dangerous days for France. This of course applies to the rest of Europe .