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Algeria, football, and France's "black box"

The political misuse and misreading of events involving Algerians in France are an obstacle to true understanding.

Francis Ghilès
3 August 2014

When Algeria qualified for the knockout stage of the World Cup by drawing against Russia, the Algerian press celebrated their team’s qualification as the greatest victory ever. In France there were large street celebrations, accompanied by firecrackers and the waving of Algerian flags. These were followed by clashes between groups of so-called supporters and the police, though no really serious incident occurred.

This did not prevent extreme-right groups such as Bloc Identitaire from conducting a "toxification" campaign based on circulating wild rumours and manipulated images. Its supporters claimed that in the Lyon suburb of La Duchère, a church had been set on fire and that a building in the Barbès district of Paris was festooned with Algerian flags. No church had been set on fire and the building turned out to be in Algiers.

The extreme-right National Front, which topped the poll in France's European election in May 2014, was happy to exploit the moment, with its leader Marine Le Pen asking that Algerian bi-nationals be deprived of their French citizenship. The interior ministry, fearing greater violence after the Algeria-Germany match on 30 June, deployed 25,000 police to the streets of major cities and the mayor of Nice banned the “ostentatious deployment” of foreign (i.e. Algerian) flags. Algeria went down to an honourable defeat and the streets of France remained quiet.

Algeria’s victory against South Korea and draw with Russia brought out the dormant pétainisme which characterises part of the French right. Arthur Asseraf explains that many French scholars and commentators only approach French colonies (and mainly Algeria) as a "black box" to solve problems of French history. “This is dangerous because Algeria ceases to be a real place where people live, breathe, hope, dream, and die, and instead becomes a mere problem or concept of French history. Approaching this subject through the prism of an interest in France, the kind of scholarship tends to exceptionalize France’s colonial and postcolonial history, without connecting it to developments elsewhere” (see Arthur Asseraf, "The Black Box of French History", Jadaliyya, 29 May 2014). The French team's winning of the World Cup in 1998 allowed France to dream, briefly as it turned out, of la France Black, Blanc, Beur - a country that had integrated its many African and north African immigrants.

In the wake of 9/11 and the violent riots which engulfed France in autumn 2005, the mood changed as the French right took to wallowing and . More recently, many French media outlets have indulged in an orgy of self-flagellation, with weeklies like Le Point decrying the country's decadence and even collapse. Radio commentators such as Éric Zemmour compliment the French football coach Didier Deschamps for having re-established “rigour, order and hard work... traditional values of French peasant society”, oblivious to the fact that many of the French players are immigrants from Africa. The philosopher Alain Finkielkraut scorns the delinquent suburbs where these players were brought up for destroying the spirit of the city. The non-assimilated immigrant (in 1939 it would have been the Jew) is the perfect foil for such feelings. Algeria's close ties with France since its conquest in 1830 and colonisation until 1962 make it the inevitable “black box of French history”.

Asseraf rightly points out that the emergence of Islam as “one of the several languages of protest in the western world is not confined to France, for it "draws on Europe’s colonial past" as well as "contemporary global trends”. In addition, it presents a subtle analysis of the deeper context - both psychological and historical - of France’s relations with its former colonial subjects (millions of them now its citizens).

A fantasy war

A sharp contrast with this analysis is Andrew Hussey’s overview, The French Intifada: the long war between France and its Arabs (Granta 2014). The book is full of factual mistakes on modern north African history and very unhelpful for anyone trying to understand the complex layering of plots and sub-plots which characterises the relationship between France and Algeria. 

The author says that French Muslims are “at war with France”, an extraordinary statement to make about 8 million people of very mixed social character and countries of origin. Nowhere does he mention that the Imazighen (Berbers) are not Arabs, and he seems to think a majority of north Africans in France and in the Maghreb are anti-Semite, which is simply not true. The assertion that that Algiers shuts down at night, with Gaza the sole exceptions in the Mediterranean, is simply absurd. He also summons up many ghosts - colonialism, the Algerian war, Palestine, Islam - though is at a loss to know what to make of them except that the Arabs are involved in a vaguely outlined “global insurrection.” He claims that Algerian football supporters shouted “yaya djezair” (instead of tahya al-djazair, long live Algeria). It leaves the reader wondering whether he really cares what they are saying in a language he does not understand.

What is happening in France is not unique to that country nor is it part of a global “Fourth World War.” France, the reader is told, might need not “a psychiatrist but an exorcist” to shoo away the ghost of Algeria. As he resorts to a supernatural analysis in the first place, that is hardly surprising. His misreading of modern north African history is breathtaking. To suggest that the Tunisian people only evicted Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali as a way of getting back at France is absurd and tragically reductive. His sweeping conclusions from talking to a Moroccan in a bar in Tangiers and a taxi-driver in Algiers create the impression that north Africans are not agents of their own history. Yet in much of this he is in good company. France has the intellectuals it deserves: the would-be successors of towering figures such as Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and Claude Levi-Strauss are miniscule by comparison.

None of those who seem to fear an invasion of France by its colonial subjects, not least the Algerians, cares to remind their audience that the poor banlieues include millions of impoverished Portuguese and French people; that millions of young men and women whose origins lie in north Africa and other African regions are married to people who have been French for generations; that millions of them have managed to get a good education and hold good jobs; that the mixes of Algerian and black African hip-hop songs often top the charts, pointing to a rich culture that deserves respect not contempt.

The current attempts to frame every single action of north Africans as a violent insurrection against civilisation is a profound misreading of current events in France which is oblivious of the rich shared life between France and north Africa. It is as if history has been frozen since Charles Martel famously stopped the Arab armies at Poitiers in 732 AD; there can be no cohabitation and no forgiveness.

Football has offered a means of social advancement to the children of immigrants. The French team and its leagues boast ever more children from the banlieues; Algeria's football federation encourages players of Algerian origin who live abroad to turn out for the "mother country" on grand occasions such as the World Cup. Recognising what its diaspora can offer Algeria should be extended to other professional sectors of Algerian life, notably in economic and business matters.

It would be naïve to think that, in a world of multiple identities, football and politics can be kept apart. But millions of spectators on both sides of the Mediterranean enjoy the spectacle it affords and, as everywhere else, are brought closer rather than split apart by it. The idea that it forms the backdrop to some ill-defined intifada against la belle France is but one of the myths that get in the way of true understanding.  

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