In 2008, British cultural historian, biographer and broadcaster Andrew Hussey traveled to a Paris suburb while researching an article on Ilan Halimi, the 23-year-old French Jew who had been murdered there two years previously.
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What Prof. Hussey found, he says today, shocked him profoundly. It wasn’t just the gruesome circumstances surrounding the mobile-phone salesman’s death – he was kidnapped and tortured for three weeks – but rather what Hussey describes as the attitude of residents of the neighborhood where it occurred.
“I spoke to people involved in the killing, to people in the community and who lived in the block of flats where it had happened,” he says. “Everybody knew [something], but no one wanted to speak out. They argued that it was revenge for the invasion of Iraq, that it was a war against the West, a war against Jews.”
That was what got Hussey started, he explains, on his latest book: “The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and Its Arabs" (Faber & Faber; forthcoming in April). It is an attempt to unravel the complicated relationship between France, its former colonies in North Africa and a legacy of immigration, which has left entire generations disenfranchised and suffused with loathing for the French republic.
Articulate and entertaining, Hussey, born in Liverpool in 1963, is one of the United Kingdom’s foremost commentators on French affairs, and his fascination with every aspect of Gallic culture is clear. Indeed, he was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2011 for his service on behalf of British-French relations. Yet his latest book was dropped by his French publisher, and deemed too “anti-French.”
Hussey – who will be speaking at London's Jewish Book Week on Sunday, March 2 – says he is simply reflecting uncomfortable truths in the book about the country’s post-colonial situation, about a conflict that's played out through social dysfunction, bad governance and blighted urbanism.
Traveling through France and North Africa to research the "French Intifada," Hussey noted what he describes as a nebulous kind of jihadi philosophy among young men who simultaneously embraced elements of radical Salafi ideology while taking drugs, chasing women and indulging in petty crime. And what has united these men, from Algiers to Lyons, he says, is hatred of Jews as a cipher for the French state.
Hussey is at pains to emphasize that he doesn’t buy in to the right-wing narrative – widespread among certain elements in Israel – that Muslims are swamping Europe today, presenting a demographic threat that will lead to its ultimate downfall.
Proponents of that theory point to France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, as an example of Islam’s incompatibility with Western democracy.
“I don’t make the case for a clash of civilizations,” Hussey says, arguing that France’s current problems are uniquely French, and that the country has its own long tradition of hating Jews.
“I think anti-Semitism is a fundamental part of French history and culture in a very damaging way,” he explains. “At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the petite bourgeoisie felt under threat from the Catholic Church and socialist movements. They turned to the Jews to blame them for every fault in French society, which culminated in the Dreyfus Affair.” (This famous historical case involved Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army who was scandalously framed in 1894 for another man’s crime, but eventually spared from death thanks to the efforts of a fellow officer.)
Suburbs as 'sci-fi colonies'
The disenfranchised and the dispossessed of modern French society, Hussey says, are the youth from the banlieues, the infamous suburbs outside French cities that are largely populated by people of North African origin.
“The banlieues are badly designed and disconnected from the center of French cities,” he explains. “They feel like strange science-fiction colonies grafted onto French society. The real danger is not physical degradation but psychological alienation.”
And such young people have again found a convenient scapegoat in the form of the Jews. At the vanguard of this movement, Hussey sees Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, the polemical French comedian who has become notorious for his repeated Holocaust denial – a criminal offense in France – and his Nazi-like “quenelle” salute.
Dieudonné, says the author, is “a very sinister figure” who is aiming to bring Holocaust denial – or negationisme, as it is known in France – into the mainstream.
“Part of his propaganda is aimed squarely at mainly male youth in the banlieues, who believe, to quote one of his fans, that 'France is an Israeli-occupied country.' So that’s why they are discriminated and excluded, because Jews control everything. Dieudonné speaks to this. Jews don’t have a monopoly on suffering, other French colonial experiences have the same resonance as the Holocaust. And French people who aren’t Muslim have a lot of guilt and shame toward World War II, so if the Holocaust didn’t happen then there’s nothing to feel guilty about.”
This kind of rhetoric, along with incidents such as Halimi’s killing, or the 2012 murder of a rabbi and three children by an Islamic extremist in Toulouse, has cast a long shadow over France’s Jewish community.
Aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel) figures are markedly on the rise: Last year saw 3,120 French Jews move to Israel, up from 1,916 in 2012, and estimates are that the number may be as high as 5,000 this year. Whether this is because of rising anti-Semitism or economic reasons, or a combination of both, is impossible to tell.
But for all the doomful reality he sees, Hussey stops far short of predicting the end of French society. The answers to its problems are as practical as they are ideological – more employment opportunities, better assimilation – and he says change is already happening.
With urbanism a central element in both France's problems and solutions, he highlights the “Grand Paris” plan, announced by President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 – an ambitious scheme for comprehensive metropolitan development – as a potential blueprint for societal regeneration.
Hussey also refuses to herald the demise or mass exodus of French Jewry which remains, at 600,000-strong, the third-largest Jewish community in the world.
“Jews are a vital and integral part of French culture and society. I believe Muslims, Europeans and Jews have always lived together and can always live together," he sums up. "It’s not about race and religion – it’s about politics, and an emerging matrix of post-colonial failures.”