Penser l’émancipation, closing plenary, Nanterre, on February 22, 2014
Houria Bouteldja, member of the PIR1
Before I begin, I would like to give a small introduction, emphasizing four points:
1/ I would like to warn that my discourse is not Leftist. It is not Rightist either. However, it is not from outer space. It is decolonial. I am inclined to say that, after I finish, it would be up to you to decide if it is leftist or not, or in other words whether it could belong to you, or in other words whether you think it can be incorporated in the political programs of the radical Left.
2/ I would also like to ask you to keep in mind that I am an indigène of the Republic, that this constitutes a political and social status, and that my speech is therefore rooted in the social and historical experience of a colonial subject. This positionality introducing paradoxical conflictualities and a certain dialectic within the struggle, revealing a social divide along a different axis: one of race and coloniality of power, which often blurs the Right/Left divide. This blurring is what we attempt to explain through the concept of “space/time”, which I will not have enough time to develop here.
3/ I would like to add that I belong to a political organization, within which we think in terms of political stakes, power relations, and strategy and not in terms of abstract morality and principle.
4/ Last, keep in mind the following quote by Sadri Khiari2: “Because it is the indigènes’ indispensable partner, the Left is their primary adversary.”
In “Français d’origine contrôlée”3, a recent documentary by Mustapha Kessous broadcasted on France 2 on the 30-year anniversary of the March for Equality and Against Racism, which retraces the trajectory of immigrant activists, one of the interviewed activists, Hanifa Taguelmint explains: “In 83, we offered ourselves to France. We gave ourselves to her. I’m pretty sure that if on that day we had been told ‘Go ahead, eat ham!’, I don’t think we would have refused. We offered ourselves to France and she didn’t want us. She didn’t want us. But we were really willing… The French national motto4 was the most beautiful motto in the world in our eyes. The most beautiful. Something went wrong. Terribly wrong. There was like a ‘system failure’ in history at that moment. We got up to tell France we love you, love us back. And we went back home with our tails between our legs. So I think something happened”.
I would like to pause at two powerful points in this quote:
1/ “We were ready to eat pork”: Today, this kind of talk would be unthinkable. No muslim, even the least practicing muslim would dare, or want, or contemplate making such a statement. Such an integrationist/assimilationist project would be perceived as high treason, a form of alienation, and a serious renouncement of oneself, one’s history, and one’s cultural heritage. 30 years after, we are in a different world.
2/ “We got up to tell France ‘we love you, love us back’.” I interpret this as follows: We who are not legitimate in your eyes, who are towel-heads, who are not real French “de souche”, mold us into French people. Indeed, the March for Equality and Against Racism was not a struggle for wage equality, or for raising the minimum wage, or for retirement pensions. It was a struggle of colonial subjects demanding to be treated as legitimate citizens. Plainly, to become French just like everybody else. The first necessary step would have been to end criminal police brutality. “We are not hunting game animals for the police”, they used to say. Their demands were not met, since instead of true citizenship they were only given the right to be immigrants for a longer period of time. They obtained the new 10-year residency permit. This was not what they were demanding. Their true demand was to “be loved”. And I must tell you that it is still the case. And believe me it saddens me to say it. However, the radical and progressive Left, wary of anything that does not fit neatly in socioeconomic frames, does not understand this. Alain Soral, however, understood. And in his own way, he is giving the children of post-colonial immigration the possibility to become the true French citizens they dreamed of becoming. And a considerable segment of this youth is receptive to his call. Of course, he sets some conditions: the defense of the flag and the nation, and a patriotic, strong and manly Islam. But in the process he fulfills a central social need. I must add that it is the best offer that the white political realm has made towards them. Not that I adhere to it myself, but one cannot deny that no other offer is coming from the white political realm in their direction. Moreover, Soral’s offer has come after thirty inglorious years for the institutional Left on the one hand, and for the radical Left on the other.
So what has happened between these two generations: the potentially pork-eating immigrants who were tied to the Left and the non-pork-eating immigrants drifting towards the Right? We have just celebrated the 30-year anniversary of the March for Equality and Against Racism. But the big celebration did not take place. The autonomous immigrant movements missed the mark. It was an anniversary that we should have celebrated with great pomp, because it marks the moment when the immigration question forced itself into the white political realm, and because it marks the first blows against the white and immaculate republic.
Certain immigrant spaces have tried to celebrate, but their lackluster attempts did not resonate. The PS5 tried as well, and struggled to ride the wave of the Taubira affair last autumn, but their worn-out moral anti-racism, in the style of SOS Racisme, is at death’s door. Indeed, for the past thirty years we have been witnessing a general shift to the right in french politics. The consequence: most of the official representatives of anti-racism have followed this trend, and most of them have supported the racist law “against religious symbols in schools”.
So the legitimate anniversary did not take place. Neither did a co-opted version of the anniversary. But the candles were blown. And who blew them? Dieudonné and Farida Belghoul! Thirty years after the spectacular entrance of the indigènes on the French political stage in the company of their friends on the Left, here we are again: a new occurrence in the political arena. As spectacular and resounding as ever. Only this time with “our friends” who are not on the left, and not only on the right, but on the far-right. That is a middle finger, a big “f*ck” to the Left. Or if you prefer, a quenelle. This pendulum swing to the right, contrary to appearances, is one of liberation. We are freeing ourselves from an embrace that has suffocated us, crushed us even. A group rarely vows eternal loyalty to political organizations that do not serve that group’s interests. From this materialist point of view, populations coming from immigration or from the popular neighborhoods have no reason to stay loyal to the Left. And they are right. Their fault lies not in freeing themselves from the Left. It lies in the fact that they are going from one master to another; of changing guardians. Their mistake is that they chose the easier path, and avoided the paths of autonomy. Of course, we in the PIR know that it is immoral and suicidal to conflate left and right, and especially to conflate radical left with far-right. We know that the latter carried out and will continue to carry out racist raids attacking Blacks and Arabs, vandalizing mosques, desecrating cemeteries, and defending white supremacy. And we haven’t forgotten that despite its paternalism, its islamophobia, and its eurocentrism, in short despite the fact that it belongs to the white political realm, the radical Left envisions itself as part of liberation projects, and have always been on the side of the undocumented immigrants and on the side of immigrant’s struggles against imperialism. That is why, as I have said in the introduction: “Because it is the indigènes’ indispensable partner, the Left is their primary adversary.” However, the PIR is the PIR, and the social indigènes are the social indigènes. Most of them are not politically organized because they were abandoned, or more precisely because on the one hand they were excluded from the white political realm, and on the other hand they were prevented from self-organizing autonomously.
1/ On the front of the institutional Left, we have witnessed: the neoliberal turn of the PS in the 80’s; the advent of flabby ideas, of abstract humanism, of moralistic anti-racism, embodied in SOS racisme, which replaced frontal and firm ideologies; the rise of the National Front; the first and second Gulf wars; the affairs of the Islamic veil in schools and the subsequent laws consolidating State racism and islamophobia; the impunity of the police. We have also seen the institutional Left wrecking the autonomous movements and systematically co-opting the elites of the immigration movement. There was also the control of the mosques by the state, the February 23, 2005 law recognizing the “positive work” of France in the colonies, unashamed support for Israel, and the uninterrupted pursuit of Françafrique.
2/ On the front of the radical Left, we have witnessed: complicity of parts of the radical Left with moralistic anti-racism; hostility towards autonomous immigration movements; collusion and active complicity with islamophobia; focusing on fascism at the expense of structural racism and a critique of white supremacy that cuts across the radical Left itself; the centrality of the Holocaust at the expense of the history of colonialism and slavery; clientelism in the neighborhoods (in particular in Communist Party municipalities); white anti-Zionism, that is an anti-Zionism that is supportive of resistance movements that resemble the left (the PFLP for example) and that is contemptuous of those who do not resemble it (such as Hamas at the time of the attacks against Gaza).
3/ On the front of the immigration movement and the popular neighborhoods: there was the Vaulx-en-Velin riots at the end of the 80’s; the 2005 riots; systematic racial discrimination; a continuous process of pauperization and increasingly precarious conditions in the popular neighborhoods (unemployment rates four or five times higher than the national average); the plagues of drugs and AIDS who have killed thousands of sons and daughters of immigrants and have traumatized thousands of families; the continuation of police crimes; the systematization of police racial profiling; massive islamophobic violence since 9/11; incredibly violent ideological campaigns accusing the indigènes of antisemitism, sexism, and homophobia, and accusing them of producing insecurity and of soiling France’s national identity.
In light of the institutional and radical Left’s inability to take into account the demands of the popular neighborhoods, and in light of the institutional sabotage of any autonomous political organizing in these same neighborhoods, a considerable portion of immigrants’ descendants found refuge, at first, in the figure of Tariq Ramadan, who offered an alternative to the failed republican integration project. In substance he was saying: “you are full French citizens but you do not have to give up who you are. Fight for your rights as French citizens, but fiercely defend your dignity: it is not for sale.” I will not give the details here of an unpleasant, painful and heavily consequential event: the way Ramadan was received by the Left, including the radical Left, when he seeked, in vain, to engage with the European Social Forum. A merciless war was declared against him. With very few exceptions, almost no one within the radical Left took the trouble to defend him or, more precisely, was capable of recognizing his political potential. Dare I say, this Left was not even capable of being opportunistic. In other words, it was not capable of being political. Because to pretend to fight Tariq Ramadan, there had to be an alternative. What did those who accused him of being the Devil suggest in his stead? Nothing. Or at best, there were two types of suggestions: “the most important struggle is class struggle” and “we must trust the values of the republic.” No comment. And since there was no alternative to Tariq Ramadan, in a way Dieudonné has come to take his place. Today, if we were to strictly consider the political offer that Dieudonné and Soral embody, it is currently the one that best conforms to the existential malaise of the second and third generations of post-colonial immigrants: it recognizes full and complete citizenship within the Nation-state, it respects the muslim character within the limits and conditions put forth by Soral.
It also designates an enemy: the Jew as a Jew, and the Jew as a Zionist, as an embodiment of imperialism, but also because of the Jew’s privileged position. The one who occupies the best seat in the hearts of the White, a place for which many indigènes are fighting. Because they dream of becoming the Prince’s favourites, but without questioning that Prince’s legitimacy: the legitimacy of the White Man. As we, in the PIR, often say: “The spontaneous ideology of the indigènes is integrationism.” And in the end, if Soral’s strategy is working, it is also because he revalidates arabo-muslim virility that was the target of racism and colonialism — I will not detail here another episode, the one with Ni Putes Ni Soumises and Femen. We must not forget that those who are 25 years old today, and who form the greatest battalion of Dieudonné and Soral were between 13 and 15 years old during the period following 9/11, the period of collective hysteria against the veil and Tariq Ramadan, the emergence of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, the 2005 riots and the second war against Iraq. Needless to say all this leaves a mark.
Must we condemn this youth? Are they fascists? My reply is No! No, because the reasons of these defections are structural. If there is no fertile ground in this country for breeding qualified political activists of immigrant backgrounds, it is because appropriate spaces do not exist or are too precarious to ensure the transmission of memory, to accumulate knowledge and to capitalize. The struggles reflect the immigrants’ condition: disparate, precarious and lacking clear political directions. I don’t blame them. I blame those who have excluded them from their organizations in the name of class unity, and I blame those who have actively prevented the autonomous organizing of immigrants. And lastly I blame — but gently — the immigrant activists who have not been able to organize our unity.
The fact remains, however, that today we are destitute. I do not think we should panic in reaction to the pendulum swing which has pulled a significant portion of the postcolonial populations from the left to the right, even to the far-right. I am not saying that the situation is not alarming. I am simply saying that we should stop and think. I am also saying that this may be a divine intervention pushing us to reflect collectively. I dare add that, in my long experience of missed opportunities, the time for us to be political is now or never, because we are living a moment of truth. This is what the PIR is trying to do in the midst of general incomprehension. Let me give you an example:
When Manuel Valls attacked Dieudonné and the affair grew to the extreme proportions we know, we in the PIR found ourselves under fire from two groups:
1/ Many indigènes, Blacks and Muslims, demanded that we publicly express our support for Dieudonné.
2/ Our white allies demanded that we condemn him once and for all.
Now, the trouble is that we are not integrationists. And integration through anti-semitism horrifies us just as much as integration though White universalism and national-chauvinism. We abhor anything that seeks to integrate us into whiteness; anti-semitism being a pure product of Europe and the West. As a decolonial movement, it is self-evident that we cannot support Dieudonné. Yet we could not condemn him in the manner of the white Left, because there is a certain dimension that has escaped the Left, but one that is clear to any indigène with a modicum of dignity. It is what I have recalled in an interview in 20126: “For me Dieudonné is not Soral, because he is a social indigène. I cannot treat him as I treat Soral. I thoroughly disagree with his political choices: the fact that he has been seduced by Soral’s nationalistic views, that he knows nothing about Palestine and Zionism, and his alliance with the far-right. At the same time, I feel ambivalent. I would start by saying that I love Dieudonné; that I love him as the indigènes love him; that I understand why the indigènes love him. I love him because he has done an important action in terms of dignity, of indigène pride, of Black pride: he refused to be a domestic negro. Even if he doesn’t have the right political program in his head, his attitude is one of resistance.” I now add that in the eyes of the indigènes, this is what they see in him first and foremost, rather than seeing the nature of his allies. A man standing upright. Too often were we forced to say “yes bouana, yes bouana.” When Diedonné stands up, he heals an identitarian wound. The wound that racism left, and which harms the indigènes‘ personnality. Those who understand “Black is beautiful” cannot miss this dimension, and I emphasize, this particular dimension in Dieudonné.
Because we have refused integration through the far-right and because we identify with Dieudonné’s dignified stance, we could neither give in to the pressure from the indigènes, nor to the white pressure. We obviously seeked to explore a third way that explicates the present analysis. For the White Left, the most important thing was to declare that Dieudonné is a fascist. For us, it was more important to say that Dieudonné is the product of the White political milieu and more precisely of the Left and its renouncements. For this reason, we were boycotted. My goal here is not to lament our fate. I would like to underscore the fact that not only the Left has boycotted us, but more importantly we were also boycotted (so to speak) by the far-right. Dieudonné’s and Soral’s fascist friends understood that we were not their friends. We can only deplore that the Left has not noticed this. On the other hand, we have succeeded in symbolically achieving what every immigration movement must aim for: uniting the indigène opinion. Indeed, we have satisfied the demands of the majority of our people, even the most Dieudonnist, because — pardon the expression — we did not drop our pants. In other words, we have remained, to borrow Césaire’s expression, fundamental indigènes. This proves that the indigènes in France are not on the right or the far-right. They just need a political project.
At this stage, I would simply like to say that you and we have respective tasks to fulfill: we at PIR and in any other organizations from the neighborhoods or immigrant organizations, we must organize the indigènes autonomously. For your part, you must develop what Sadri Khiari calls a “domestic internationalism”; to understand that a fraction of the colonial empire is today within France’s continental borders, that the colonial/racial divide is a structural internal divide inside France, and that now is not a time for solidarity with the immigrants and their children, but it is a time for constructing alliances that respect our mutual autonomies. We should be considered allies. Not as a population that needs be saved, but as a group that participates in the collective liberation struggle, including the liberation of White people. For this to be possible, we must be accepted as we are: a group that is racially and socially dominated, not necessarily clear-cut on several issues: not clear-cut on capitalism, not clear-cut on class struggle, not clear-cut on women, not clear-cut on homosexuality, not clear-cut on Jews. As any group, we carry thousands of contradictions, which should be resolved in a dialectical manner within large groupings that have defined a common enemy and that respect the spaces/times of everyone. Needless to say, the project uniting us must be a project of radical justice for all. A generous project. A liberation project. For this, one must necessarily accept to get one’s hands dirty, as C. L. R. James7 advises us:
“The movements which seek ‘to drive the Jew out of Harlem or the South Side’ have a valid class base. They are the reactions of the resentful Negro seeking economic relief and some salve for his humiliated racial pride. That these sentiments can be exploited by fanatical idiots, Negro anti-Semites, or self-seeking Negro business men, does not alter their fundamentally progressive basis. This progressiveness is in no way to be confused with the dissatisfaction of the demoralized white petty-bourgeoisie which seeks refuge in fascism. American reaction can and probably will finance or encourage some of these movements (Bilbo and Back to Africa) in order to feed ill will. But the Negroes are overwhelmingly proletarian, semi-proletarian, and peasant in their class composition. Such is the whole course of American history that any nation-wide Fascist movement (however disguised) will be compelled to attack the Negro struggle for equality.”8
Houria Bouteldja, February 22, 2014
Translated from French by Samer.
2 Member of the PIR and author of La contre-révolution coloniale de De Gaulle à Sarkozy, 2009, La Fabrique Editions.
3 the title could be translated as “French with a controlled designation of origin”
4Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity)
5 Socialist Party in France
6 from Nous sommes les indigènes de la république, by Houria Bouteldja and Sadri Khiari, 2012, Amsterdam Edition.
7 Author of The Black Jacobins, writer, political activist, and intellectual, originally from the British colony of Trinidad-and-Tobago
8The Historical Development of the Negroes in American Society (1943)