Most French Arabs See Themselves As French and So Should the French
Their poignant literature shows that they are more at home in France than their ancestral lands
The recent riots in France, triggered by the fatal police shooting of a 17-year-old French boy of Algerian and Moroccan descent, have brought to the forefront the old European issue of integrating immigrants, particularly those from parts of the Muslim world. In France, people with Arab roots, usually from the Maghreb in northwest Africa, are not considered as “French” as the white, Christian population.
Moreover, there is widespread concern in mainstream French society, all the way up to President Macron, over what is called “Islamist separatism.” This perception of separatism isn’t entirely wrong; separatism is a reality among certain enclaves of immigrant communities, where groups of Muslims segregate themselves from French society and develop a militant Islamist, anti-Western identity.
But this perception of separatism is also a distortion produced by the authoritarian lens of French centralist state power, a republicanism that leaves little room for individuality or for expressing identities that deviate from the norm. Indeed, as the European University Institute’s Professor Olivier Roy has observed, the French campaign against Islamist separatism “comes at the expense of … liberal values.” It is a mistake to believe that one cannot be French and Muslim, or French and of Maghrebi origin. Most of the Maghrebi immigrant population is born in France. France is the country that has shaped them, educated them and created their frames of reference. French is their first language.
Maghrebi art testifies to this: The Frenchness of the immigrant communities is movingly illustrated in novels written by French-language authors of Maghrebi descent from both sides of the Mediterranean. Maghrebi culture is part of one’s inheritance, the authors tell us, but it is really a variation on a theme of French identity.
Home Is Where the Art Is
This sense of being French despite having a name and face that might indicate otherwise is captured in French author Alice Zeniter’s beautiful, epic novel L’Art de Perdre (The Art of Losing). Zeniter, whose father was Algerian, draws a portrait of a French-Algerian family over three generations. Her novel’s patriarch, Ali, leaves Algeria with his wife and children in the 1960s and settles in France, eventually moving to a small town in Normandy. His son, Hamid, who was a small child when he came to France, quickly integrates into the new country and moves to Paris after high school. He gets a job at a French government agency and marries a French woman. When people ask where he is from, he answers Normandy, where, primarily, he grew up.
Now, a few decades later, Hamid’s daughter Naïma works at an art gallery in Paris and is assigned to go to Algeria to bring home art for an exhibition. With great hesitation, she takes the opportunity to visit the family’s village in the Kabylian mountains and suffers a culture shock that she will not soon forget. Though Naïma does recognize herself in a little girl who looks like her sister did as a child, seeing her own flesh and blood in a setting so different feels absurd. The poverty, the flies, the heat, the subordinate status of the women, the Islamists’ hold over the area and the unfamiliarity of the customs, language and practices make her feel a great sense of alienation.
Despite her obvious kinship ties to the area—her grandfather’s brother and her father’s cousins live there—and despite a shared last name, there is really nothing for Naïma to hold on to or to build a community with. She and her Algerian relatives weren’t just like strangers to each other: They were strangers.
Naïma tells herself that she will never return. And then she realizes: “She no longer [merely] wants to leave. She definitely wants to go home.” Naïma has never felt more French. The Algeria she thought she knew was actually just her grandmother’s kitchen.
Alienation from the Ancestral Land
The German Mujahid, a novel by Algerian writer Boualem Sansal, makes the same point. Sansal, having lived through the atrocious Algerian civil war with the Islamists in the 1990s, is very critical of what he considers a lax attitude towards Islamist radicals in the West. As a result of this and his frequent media appearances in France, Sansal has been embraced by parts of the extreme French right. Sansal himself, however, is an atheist, and he states that he is an Islamistophobe rather than an Islamophobe.
Sansal also understands that the immigrant populations are French. In The German Mujahid, Malrich, a tough French kid of Algerian origin from the banlieue—the working-class suburbs of Paris heavily populated by immigrants—is planning to go to Algeria. The rest of his gang, all of whom are of African origin, are worried, and the following conversation takes place:
“You are crazy, you will have your throat cut!”
“But damn, don’t be silly, stay here with us.”
“You know neither Arabic nor Kabyle, how are you supposed to talk to these people?”
“Pretend you are deaf and mute.”
“Dress like a Taliban, and you will pass unnoticed.”
“Avoid the troubled neighborhoods.”
“Especially the suburbs.”
“Watch out for the cops. It is said that they are mafia.”
“Avoid the bearded ones [the Islamists].”
“They will roast you like a Jew.”
“They will never let you go from there.”
“They will arrest you, they don’t like French people.”
These tough guys in their twenties, with their outsider, Arab identity, see Algeria as far more foreign than they do France. They also have a very shallow knowledge of the country, demonstrating largely the same prejudices about Algeria as other uneducated French. They are, in other words, French, albeit with a somewhat different identity than the majority of the French population. France is where they’ve grown up.
Even if Malrich has flirted with Islamism and is less well integrated into French society than many immigrants, he eventually rejects the Islamists. They have too much in common with the Nazis that his German father fought for: the indiscriminate killing, the violent extremism, the use of genocide as a political tool, and the fanaticism, leadership cult and hatred of the different.
Discretion and Discrimination
The reader learns something similar about Maghrebi immigrants’ Frenchness from Discretion, a novel by France’s foremost banlieue writer, Faïza Guène, whose parents are Algerian.
Again, it is clear in the book that the characters who are second-generation immigrants do not fit into their parents’ Algerian homeland. It is not their country, and this is a source of frustration. On one of her many trips to Algeria, the character Hannah, a French woman of Algerian descent, wonders how it is that the Algerians so easily recognize her and her sisters as French, even though they borrow their cousins’ clothes and wear veils. Omar, her brother, comes up with an answer that is quite obvious.
“Yes, but we recognize them in France,” he observes. “It’s the same thing, isn’t it?”
One of the main themes of the book is everyday humiliation. Guène writes of the women from North Africa who in France accept various forms of discrimination—something that their children, raised in France and infused with self-confidence, do not do. In one instance, a French doctor approaches Yamina, a 70-year-old woman who immigrated from Algeria decades earlier, and speaks to her in a condescending tone. She doesn’t notice anything, or at least pretends not to, because she has been ignored all her life—first by the North African patriarchy, next by the colonial hierarchy and then by France’s everyday ethnocentrism and outright racism.
But then Yamina goes to a French prefecture, a local government office, together with one of her daughters, an adult. The woman behind the cash register speaks to Yamina slowly and loudly, as if she were addressing a child. Yamina’s daughter reacts: “She is not retarded. You don’t have to talk to her like that.” The official answers sourly: “Ah, but don’t start now. It is always the same with you.” The daughter now becomes furious: “Who do you think you’re talking to?” The whole episode escalates step by step and ends with the daughter angrily banging on the Plexiglas window in front of the desk and shouting: “Go to hell, you fat bitch,” as, all the while, Yamina tries to get her to calm down. Ultimately, they walk away.
At the end of the book, a kind of harmonious and hopeful acceptance of the family’s circumstances emerges. Far more French than Algerian, they no longer accompany their parents on summer trips back to Algeria as they did when they were children. Instead, for the first time, the family goes on holiday in France, and Yamina, finds a love for a country that by now is not really so new. She realizes that she will never move back to Algeria: “Her home, she has understood, is the place where her children are.” It’s not more difficult than that, or at least it needn’t be.
Of course, Guène recognizes that it is not only the majority population that keeps the minority away. Sometimes immigrants, of their own free will, stay isolated. Omar, the brother mentioned above, works as an Uber driver. He has just dropped off a customer outside a posh hotel bar when he tells himself he could never go to such a place—not because it’s expensive; a Coca-Cola costs no more than a steep, but affordable 10 euros.
Rather, he thinks: “There are things that are not made for us.” Then he continues: “The others, they barely make an effort to shut us out. We do it so well ourselves.”
Bienvenue: Inviting Immigrants In
What might France do to make immigrants feel more welcome and less hesitant to integrate? In Europe, with its blood-and-soil history, we don’t hyphenate our nationalities. In the U.S., people call themselves, for example, Irish-American. This is something we Europeans should introduce. If everybody involved could agree that people can be something like Algerian-French, differences in cultural inheritance could be recognized while integration of immigrant communities would be as well. As these and other Maghrebi novels show, immigrant populations quickly become European—more than they sometimes believe themselves, and definitely more than the majority populations often think.
And France is, in fact, a much more fluid concept than most people realize. Algeria became French in the 1830s, long before a city like Nice. At the end of the 18th century, after the French revolution, only a minority of the population had French as a first language. France is a country created from the top down—a state that is in constant renegotiation with itself about who and what it is. The presence of large communities of Maghrebi descent is another piece of that puzzle.
Ultimately, as Etienne de Gonneville, the French ambassador to Sweden, so succinctly put it: “France is a Muslim country.” Like the Maghreb, it is now home to many Muslims. Yet it is also France, and most of its Muslims are French.
© The UnPopulist 2023