The Guardian published on its website an extract from a book by Andrew Hussey The French Intifada: how the Arab banlieues are fighting the French state, on February 23rd. This extract made quite the buzz on my Francophone Twitter timeline with many comments being quite approving.
I fail to understand this positive perception. While I had never heard of Andrew Hussey before, as per his Wikipedia page, he is a cultural historian and biographer who works at the University of London Institute in Paris, his historical works on Paris and French culture sound interesting. Yet, this long article (or extract) fails to convince or to provide much of an insight.
Hussey starts out with a description of the riots in the Gare du Nord back in 2007, when a ticket control resulted in a young man’s broken hand and the subsequent – and rapid – mobilization of hundreds of banlieusards wreaking havoc in the station, the most important regional train hub linking Paris to its poorer Northern suburbs. He links this violence with 2005, “when two young men were electrocuted while trying to escape police”, which “was followed by almost a week of rioting every night, during which thousands of cars were burned.” So far, so good, and clearly the frequency of these riots – one could mention Lyon in 2010 as well – shows that something is rotten in the state of France’s societal fabric.
Yet, Hussey then goes off the rails when he claims denial of the fact on the part of those who blamed a “fracture sociale” for these riots. Instead – citing Gilles Kepel – he argues that “what happens here is because of our relationship with the Arab world, and our history there.” He then goes on to recite in detail the Tunisian revolution as an expression of the same sentiment that caused French youths of Arabic origin to whistle the French national anthem before the France-Tunisia friendly match in Paris in 2008.
This is absurd on multiple levels of course. Yet, apart from a few sloppy errors such as implying that the military had originally partaken in the repression of demonstrations in Tunisia and the ministerial portfolio of Michèle Alliot-Marie his description of events is sound and full of vivid detail. It is his very facts that contradict his assessment though. If it was “a young Congolese man” whose arrest caused the riots at the Gare du Nord, if these rioters were made up of “mainly black[s]” [and Arabs], then how does that square with Islam and/or a coherent Arabic society – a sort of ummah (أمة) if you want – lying at the root of this unrest?
The application of one identity – Arabic or Islam – to a whole group of people only some of which are even of Arabic origin or Muslims is not only nonsensical per se, it also pretends to explain the motives of rioters in France with a dangerous simple-mindedness. Yet, it is highly dubious to argue that the banlieusards’ ‘us’ against ‘them’ logic is based on an underlying religious commitment or an adherence to pan-Arabism. If the latter had been the case wouldn’t French Arabs have demonstrated – rioted if you may – following Alliot-Marie’s proposal to supply Ben Ali with French security expertise against the demonstrations in Tunisia? Wouldn’t rioters in that case have targeted shops run by français-de-souche or in general non-Muslim business owners just like African-Americans in Los Angeles had done with Korean-American-run shops? Yet, neither of this took place.
If Hussey is as familiar with Tunisia as he purports to be, then he will be aware of the strong economic roots – youth unemployment, corruption, and inequality especially – of the Tunisian revolution. Religiously motivated demonstrators, let alone those demonstrating out of a pan-Arabic sentiment, were at best part of a barely visible minority there also. These social grudges are of a national nature though, and while some of the same underlie societal problems in France – youth unemployment mainly – the scale of both their pertinence and outcome is incomparable.
There are obviously some parallels between riots in France and Tunisia, the exploitation of social media and mobile phones, which lead to a potentially much quicker mobilization of popular or mob reinforcements for example. Or, arguably, in general the 21st century’s high street-level mobilization as could also be seen recently in Turkey, Egypt, Ukraine, et al. Yet, none of these parallels are based on French colonial history, Islam, or some kind of an inherent Arab cultural link that surpasses generations, country borders, and the Mediterranean to extend from rural Tunisians to suburban French city-dwellers.
Hussey himself admits as much when he talks about how “it is almost impossible for immigrants to France from its former colonies to feel authentically “at home” there.” Yet, if this is – one of – the reasons for conflict, it is not something that is peculiar to either Muslims or Arabs, nor can the same argument feasibly be made for the revolutions in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world. By linking the Tunisian revolution and French riots to an ill-defined Arabic/Islamic society, The shame is that Hussey undercuts his own – or Kepel’s – intriguing argument of French colonial history lying at the core of the country’s recurring violent eruptions by this orientalist scapegoating.
After an impressively calm Sunday dominated by long queues in front of the electoral bureaus here in Tunis, preliminary results are slowly trickling in. Amongst the least surprising of these is the resounding victory by النهضة (Ennahdha – Renaissance), which is set to become the premier party of post-revolutionary Tunisia. Ennahdha had been at the head of most pre-electoral polls and either finished first or a close second in all electoral districts for which results circulate so far. An Islamist party – even a moderate one, self-styled on the AKP’s model – winning a democratic election outright in an Arabic country is a historic event in and of itself of course. The FIS had won the first round of elections in Algeria in 1991 only for the secular FLN-government to annul the second tour leading the country straight into a bloody civil war the aftershocks are filled up to today. In Palestine, حماس (Hamas) won the legislative elections in 2006 only for Western governments to turn around and impose sanctions on the newly, democratically elected government. A democratically elected Islamist-led government – or in this case technically a constitutive assembly, which will appoint an interim government as well as propose a constitution – emerging peacefully from the Tunisian revolution and accepted as an interlocutor by Western powers would be historically unprecedented and an important symbol for political development in the volatile region. While this looks like a distinct possibility at the moment it remains Zukunftsmusik (music of the future) for the time being and in any case is widely being discussed in the Western media already.
Back to Tunisia then. Aside from the expected success by Ennahdha a number of surprising subplots stick out. The biggest of these might be the trouncing of the PDP, the biggest – legal – opposition party under the Ben Ali regime, which had been portrayed in the Western media – and by itself domestically as well as abroad – as the secular counterpart to Ennahdha in a duel of – near – equals. The PDP will in all likelihood finish fifth at best. Its devastating results symbolize well the foreign media’s superficial understanding of the political scene in Tunisia as well as the dramatic disconnect between Tunis’ secular elites and the majority of the highly critical and economically disowned Tunisian population. Thus rumors circulating as to money from sources related to the ancien régime financing the PDP’s electoral campaign sowed distrust against it, more importantly though the party was seen – unfairly maybe and to a large extent based on its participation in the intensely unpopular interim Mohamed Ghannouchi government – as not offering enough of a break from the previous regime.
An interesting political science question to consider following these elections is that the only two parties to have significantly invested in advertisement before the start of the official campaign period (during which advertisements were forbidden) had little success at the urns. This includes the PDP but also the UPL a generic party founded by a Tunisian business man, Slim Riahi – an émigré who had become rich in the UK – that was omnipresent in Tunis for a few weeks with advertisements at every bus stop and in every newspaper. His party has not won even a single seat so far. Political advertisement seems to have played into Tunisians’ fear of parties ‘just wanting to win’ or wondering about whose money (and interest) were behind them.
The two parties that performed well alongside Ennahdha were interestingly enough the ones that had broken out of the secular parties’ confrontational course versus Ennahdha, the CPR and Ettakatol. The CPR, led by Moncef Marzouki a long-time opponent to Ben Ali and former President of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, had mainly because of its leader become the talk of the town in the days before the elections. A completely unrepresentative survey of my Tunisians friends in the week preceding the elections showed nodded approval to Marzouki everytime someone brought him up – which happened frequently. Meanwhile Ettakatol, which some Tunisians argue has the attributes of a weather cock, largely confirmed its good standing in pre-electoral poll numbers.
Following these two – on the European spatial axis, not the American one – (centre-)left parties comes the biggest surprise winner of these elections, العريضة الشعبية (Aridha Chaabia). Arguably even many Tunisians had not heard much of this party before this weekend. Its leader Hechmi Hamdi lives in London from where he runs a private TV station, Mostakella, which serves as his platform for a decidedly populist presidential campaign. He personally did not even stand for elections this time around, yet his promises of free health care and grants to be paid out to all unemployed, spawned enough votes to catapult his party onto the national scene. Especially in Sidi Bouzid, Hamdi’s home region, Aridha Chaabia had an astonishing amount of success with its list, led by Hamdi’s brother, looking likely to finish with the highest vote total of all parties. Even if unlikely for political reasons, the Tunisian electoral commission (ISIE) has thrown some rain on Aridha Chaabia’s parade by declaring that complaints against the party have been raised because of Mostakella’s continued advertising following the official closure of the campaign. ISIE could invalidate part or all of Aridha Chaabia’s lists.
Looking towards the future then, the Tunisian Constitutive Assembly looks to be dominated by Ennahdha, which most likely will be short of anywhere up to 20 votes of an absolute majority. They will thus in all likelihood enter into some kind of an – issue-based? – coalition with the CPR and Ettakatol. Ariadha Chaabia presents an unpredictable factor in an already historically unprecedented situation in Tunisia as does the PDP’s handling of its – to be expected – isolated opposition role.