Past and present, colony and metropolis. By Jim House.

Dr James (Jim) House is a Senior Lecturer in French at Leeds University. With co-author Neil MacMaster (UEA, Norwich) he has published Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and Memory (Oxford University Press, 2006). This book also received a French translation in 2008 (Tallandier publishers). Our thanks goes to Professor Margaret Majumdar for her help.

Past and present, colony and metropolis.

Recent months in France have seen a number of prominent and disturbing cases of alleged police violence against racialized minorities. In circumstances such as these, historians are often asked by journalists and civil society groups to assess how and to what extent the colonial past influences the present, notably here with regard to postcolonial minorities, policing, socio-ethnic segregation, and racism. In discussing these themes, my article will argue that we often need to be cautious when claims are made for a strong similarity (if not identical situation) between past and present, an assumption that seems often to inform many of the questions I receive. It is precisely the historian’s role to examine the ‘space’ that exists between what may indeed be similar yet which is not identical between past and present. Rather like with debates on the usefulness or not of the term ‘fascist’ to describe several prominent politicians and movements today, historical analogies can be suggestive, but we should not collapse distinctions between past and present, the colonial Metropolitan and the colonial in the colonies.

Having recourse to apparent parallels between past and present usually stems from a range of options that are themselves historically informed. The frequency with which analogies are established between the situation in France’s poor outer suburbs today (hereafter banlieues) and various French colonial situations before the 1960s indicates that a particular historical (or memorial) sensibility has now emerged across French society. This development started in the early 1980s, as antiracist activists sought to explain how and why Algerians, and those of Algerian heritage, faced such widespread discrimination, and to challenge these injustices through collective action. Over subsequent decades, it was the lethal repression of the 17 October 1961 Algerian pro-independence Front de libération nationale demonstrations in Paris that became emblematic of colonial state violence and its impunity. Since the 1980s, this interrogation of the past has been combined with a growing recognition of the intrinsically-linked nature of imperial and national histories notably, but not exclusively, due to the Franco-Algerian context. Political and media debates have increasingly been couched in an explicitly as opposed to implicitly postcolonial language. We have also seen a widening out of the colonial problematic to include the colonial situation in the colonial theatre itself: other massacres (Sétif, Thiaroye), often linked to the desire to ‘punish’ collective agency challenging colonial rule, have become better known in France and used by campaigners to symbolise long-standing problems of routinized racism, violence and state impunity. In turn, this wider public awareness of the colonial period has led to as many if not more parallels being made between Metropolitan France today and the colonial theatre, as between Paris during the Algerian war of independence and France in the 21st century.

At this stage, it is important to underline that there are no doubt some strong parallels that can indeed be drawn between (for example) the colonial situation in North Africa and Metropolitan France in the 1950s and today in terms of how racialized groups experience and perceive the difficult political, social or economic situations in which they find themselves. Daily discrimination, fear, feelings of vulnerability, frustration, social suffering and the desire to produce transformative politics can be seen in all these contexts.

There are other parallels between today and the 1950s. For example, we can see this with the spatial dimensions of unequal power relations and the ways in which negative representations of specific urban areas were often linked to negative images of their inhabitants. In the colonial context, there was a strong correlation between social status and ethnicity, leading to residential segregation that was as much the indirect result of the colonial economy and society as it was the direct product of any overtly segregationist policies, the latter always stronger in urban Morocco than in Algeria, for example: in fact, urban segregation in Algeria was extremely complex and in cities such as Algiers can arguably only be understood on the micro-level.[i] With the huge re-housing programmes of the Plan de Constantine (1958-1962), parts of the industrialising suburbs of Algiers (Hussein-Dey and Maison-Carrée), with their housing estates (built to replace shantytowns) often distant from the more ‘European’ town centres, resembled the now-familiar Metropolitan French situation. Here, the sequence is not necessarily that the colonial situation (Algiers) came before the metropolis: we see an almost simultaneous re-defining of socio-ethnic segregation in the two urban contexts.

Thanks to recent scholarship, we now have a much better understanding of the ways in which social housing policy, and municipal intervention targeting informal housing, ultimately led to the redistribution – as opposed to the reduction – of socio-ethnic segregation in France in the period from the 1950s to the 1970s, as part of what could be called the ‘pre-history’ of the banlieues.[ii] The contexts in which space, ethnicity and class came to interact are therefore becoming better known. At a general level, some guarded comparisons between today’s banlieues and the colonial urban situation might thus be usefully made. Even here, we need to keep in mind the different political contexts and statutory rights that, up until the accelerated reformist phase of the decolonisation period narrowed the gap, still distinguished very clearly between colony and metropolis: the sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad reminded us of the indirectly but inherently political nature of migration, as (here Algerian) colonial migrants sought a better future away from the colonial society in the colony.[iii]

Yet we know much less about the specific influence that colonial legacies may play on the policing of the French banlieues today. The impact of colonialism on cultures of policing, on how practices in the colonies changed policing in Metropolitan France – possibly through greater militarization – and the flows of personnel and ideas across the Mediterranean (for example) need much further work.[iv] To be sure, we see some similarities between the 1950s and today regarding law and order operations and wider spatial containment both within and between urban areas judged ‘dangerous’ and between such areas and the central city, as part of highly gendered discourse on who ‘controls’ urban space. Similarly, state agents often act with some impunity against stigmatised groups, and may intervene within a ‘punitive’ logic.

However, the French state uses far less lethal violence and is significantly less unaccountable today than it was in Paris or Algiers in the 1950s: the democratization of access to audio and visual recording material, combined with the development of social media, allow campaigners to discredit official versions of contested events more easily and swiftly than in the past. Those groups being policed – and most are indeed French nationals – are certainly often treated as ‘diminished citizens’ (citoyens diminués), as Emmanuel Blanchard terms them, unable to enjoy the rights from which other citizens benefit, hence some campaigners’ recourse to the term indigènes today:[v] but this should not elide the legal and social differences between colonial and postcolonial situations. A further difference is that, in the colonial theatre, the colonised faced not just colonial state violence, but also European vigilantism. It was precisely in these ‘triangular’ situations such as Sétif, when punitive violence was exercised by both state and European militias against (here) Algerians, that the repression was often so deadly. Yet it is probably due to the more everyday instances of police harassment and other symbolic violence that banlieues residents today make comparisons with their parents’ and grand-parents’ generations.

The most meaningful historical analogies that can be made between past and present arguably relate to the late-colonial period in Metropolitan France but even here, as I have suggested, we should not underestimate the considerable differences. However, we should perhaps be broadening our gaze to set many of these issues within wider geographical contexts. For example, it would be helpful to have more studies of the forms of social and political control – and repression – in the DOM-TOM both today and fifty years ago. Similarly, the problems faced by postcolonial groups in France’s banlieues today probably more closely resemble those experienced by comparable groups in London or Brussels than in urban North American or (post)colonial Algiers. We need more comparative work on the articulation between ethnicity, space, class, and gender in former imperial capitals (and other large urban contexts) to better understand the weight of colonial legacies and the forms of inequalities they produce. In brief, the past can inform but never totally explain the present, but we also need to understand why and how ‘appeals’ to the past are made, by whom, and why such calls might prove meaningful. History as a discipline needs to maintain the delicate balance between demanding the ‘right to complexity’ and informing struggles in the present.

[i] Rachid Sidi Boumedine, Bétonvilles contre bidonvilles. Cents ans de bidonvilles à Alger (Algiers: Apic Éditions, 2016).

[ii] Marie-Claude Blanc-Chaléard, En finir avec les bidonvilles. Immigration et politique du logement dans la France des Trente Glorieuses (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2016).

[iii] Abdelmalek Sayad, ‘Nationalisme et émigration’, chapter in (same author) La Double absence. Des illusions de l’émigré aux souffrances de l’immigré (Paris: Seuil, 1999), pp.133-159.

[iv] See however Mathieu Rigouste, L’ennemi intérieur. La généalogie coloniale et militaire de l’ordre sécuritaire dans la France contemporaine (Paris: La Découverte, 2011).

[v] Emmanuel Blanchard, La Police parisienne et les Algériens, 1944-1962 (Paris: Nouveau monde, 2011).


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