Many readers recall demonstrations that followed a recent French law banning the Islamic veil. According to Guardian and New Statesman contributor Hussey (Dean, Univ. of London Institute in Paris; Paris: The Secret History, 2008), these merely continue France’s two centuries of conflict with the Arab world and the nation’s growing Muslim population, now the largest in Europe.
The author begins this perceptive but disturbing account with the 1830 conquest of Algeria, which lasted nearly two decades. Immediately, a flood of French and European settlers poured in, expelled Arabs from their farms and villages, reduced them to a semiserf status, and successfully frustrated sincere efforts from Paris to introduce the purported benefits of French civilization. Arab resentment seethed and finally exploded in 1954 in an uprising that featured unspeakable atrocities on both sides. In July 1962, Algerian independence resulted in the expulsion of more than 1 million Europeans, and the French occupation of Morocco and Tunisia occurred later. Both achieved independence with less violence, but all three nations remain impoverished and poorly governed, and the recent “Arab awakening” has proven to be a bit of a disappointment. Persistent French influence guarantees that North Africans will continue to harbor ill feelings toward France but yearn to emigrate north (now almost impossible), where there are jobs but little sympathy. Although lowbrow racism ruled in its colonies and enjoys growing support at home, educated Frenchmen despise intolerance but dismiss American-style individualism. Americans venerate “diversity.” Frenchmen consider differences sectarian, a threat to French ideals. To be French is to be a citizen of the republic first. Everything else, religion included, comes second. As can be expected, Muslims find this attitude problematic.
A vivid illumination of the ongoing, painful and perhaps insoluble French dilemma.