French Lessons

REVIEW: The French Intifada by Andrew Hussey

French riot police officers run past a burning truck in Paris suburb, Aulnay-sous-Bois
French riot police officers run past a burning truck in Paris suburb, Aulnay-sous-Bois / AP
July 12, 2014

"Paris is both near and distant; it is a few short steps away, but in terms of jobs, housing, making a life, for these young people it is as inaccessible and far away as America."

Andrew Hussey’s main point is pretty simple.

France has a big problem.

Charting a course between former French colonies and the poor banlieues (suburbs) that ring Paris and other major French cities, Hussey paints a nation at war—with itself.

The author’s aim is to show us how the legacies of the predecessors of the Fifth Republic have caught up with it. French society now includes a class of dispossessed separated from national identity. These citizens, predominantly young Muslims, with ancestry in France’s former North African colonial possessions such as Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, exist in a state of "spiritual poverty."

Facing a stagnating economy (a topic I’ve written on here), lacking self-belief, and regarded with fear by the broader society, Hussey identifies a tragic, angry underclass seemingly destined to rot in bleak housing projects. As one man puts it: "In the banlieue we are separated from France by … an enormous wall." This wall is both physical—access to Parisian wealth centers are hindered by long train journeys—and psychological.

Speaking of the housing projects, Hussey says their inhabitants "do not belong here. No one does." Moreover, via his extensive interviews, Hussey shines a light on the exculpatory culture of victimhood by which many banlieuesards consider their plight: "They openly identified with the Palestinians, whom they saw as prisoners in their own land, like the dispossessed of the banlieues." For Hussey, this combustible mix of absent opportunity and social alienation causes regular rioting in major French cities.

With remarkable depth for a comparatively short book, Hussey considers the disastrous French experience in Algeria. Noting the arrogance and brutality of French occupying forces, Hussey explains the birth of a horrific insurgency. Then, with meticulous description, he shows us how Algeria descended into a "psychotic state" where no one was safe or neutral. "The FLN [insurgents] slit throats, decapitated bodies and mutilated genitalia; the French razed whole villages and practised torture as a systematic weapon of war." We see how the conflict evolved into new grotesque forms with each passing year. Indeed, the French government also fought with its expatriate citizens. As Hussey also notes, France then shamefully abandoned the Algerians who had served in its military.

Hussey’s focus on Algeria is by far the most useful of his three colonial studies. Though his consideration of the French experiences in Tunisia and Morocco are interesting, their length distracts from his political analysis. Hussey should have kept these chapters shorter and tighter.

To be sure, his analysis is often compelling. He repudiates the casual simplicity with which many Westerners viewed pre-Arab Spring Tunisia: "Below the surface" was a "bitter version of Tunisian reality … within the nation’s psyche." Sometimes Hussey seems to get lost in his many historical anecdotes. At one point, he spends a page forcibly extracting a political lesson from a battle between soccer thugs.

Ultimately, this limits the potential of his examination of French instability. And that’s a shame, because, while Hussey’s book deals excessively in his colonial-blame thesis, Hussey does broach into other important issues. He outlines the casual but increasingly virulent anti-Semitism of many French Muslims. He examines the darker side of the 1960s culture wars, and the Westerners who used Tangiers as a city-size brothel.

Still, the author could have spent more time examining how Salafi Jihadist preachers and terrorists win recruits. On this issue, Hussey correctly identifies the main source of extremism—a desire for purpose among disillusioned young men—but he exaggerates the legacy of colonialism in fueling this extremism. With violent instability wreaking havoc in the Middle East, and with many French citizens operating in Syria, jihadism deserves more attention. Hussey finishes his book with an insightful study of how France’s massive Muslim prison population is being radicalized. His message here is hard to repudiate: prison alone cannot address these social ills.

In the end, Hussey’s book is worth reading—just not for the reasons Hussey would submit. In its rich descriptions of dilapidated French communities and boiling social tensions, Hussey’s book carries a warning for America.