France, which has long prided itself on providing refuge to African-American artists and dissidents, has found it much easier to support minority agitation abroad than at home. Hisham Aidi shows how Muslim youth in France are looking to the Black Power movement in the U.S. for inspiration as they found their own race-conscious political organizations.
Paris—When the veteran American activist Angela Davis took to the stage at a community center in Saint-Denis, a banlieue in northern Paris, on May 8, 2015, the 1,000-strong audience erupted in applause. Davis smiled broadly and started speaking in fluent, lightly accented French, but then stopped, “I just landed and need a couple of weeks to retrieve my French—so I’ll switch to English.” The former Black Panther described her political trajectory, how she grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1950s, headed north looking for freedom, and then made the journey across the Atlantic. “Escaping racism in the U.S., I was certain I would find freedom in Europe, especially in France—with its liberté, égalité, fraternité. So I made my way to France, but instead of the freedom I sought, I found racism linked to colonialism. I did not find freedom in France, but I did find solidarity with Algerian liberation and with African liberation.” The crowd cheered. “In France I found Frantz Fanon and internationalism,” continued Davis. She spoke for 40 minutes about structural racism, state violence, and her relationship to France. In closing, she told the hundreds of youths, of mostly North and West African descent, “this is a time of renewed consciousness of racism and of the role of anti-Muslim racism in shaping racist violence.”
Davis was speaking at the 10-year anniversary of the founding of Les Indigènes de la République, the Natives of the Republic, a political party that began organizing in late 2004 after the passing of the headscarf law. “The discourse on race in France is pathetic. The Muslim organizations are timid. The Socialist Party won’t talk about race,” said Houria Bouteldja, the spokeswoman for the the Natives. “We wanted to start a movement to defend France’s postcolonial populations, so we created a party called the Natives of the Republic.”
The Natives see France’s urban crisis, and the plight of minorities in the banlieues, as a new chapter in a colonial story that has yet to end. The term indigène in the party’s name refers to the legal system, Le Code de l’indigénat, that was used to rule native populations in France’s colonies. Instead of intégration, the Natives Party manifesto calls for the “decolonization” of France, meaning that public and private institutions should reflect the country’s changing demographics. The movement aims to mobilize French citizens of postcolonial origin: North Africans, West Africans, Antillians, Jews, Muslims, and Asians.
“We were helped by events. When we launched the party in early 2005, our manifesto emphasized the continuity between colonial racism and the discrimination minorities face in France today,” Bouteldja said. “A few months later, the 2005 riots started, and the French state responded by enacting state-of-emergency laws not used since the Algerian War. The government’s response pretty much validated our position, and we got more support.”
May 8 is a historic date for the French Republic. May 8, 1945, is Victory Day, when Charles de Gaulle announced the end of World War II. It is also the day the French colonial army killed hundreds of demonstrators in the Algerian town of Sétif. The Natives usually mobilize a mass march on that day to remind France of its colonial past. On May 8, 2012, for instance, the day after François Hollande was elected president, thousands of youths marched through the neighborhood of Barbès in northern Paris. Students wore shirts with statements by Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire (and carried placards with the faces of slain African leaders Thomas Sankara, Steve Biko, and others). Activists from the Brigade Anti Négrophobie, dressed in black uniforms and combat boots, and members of the Natives Party held up black and yellow posters that read, “Colonial crimes: Sétif, Guelma, Madagascar, Tiaroy [sic], Cameroon, Deir Yassin” and “WE are here because YOU were there.” The annual rally, organized by the Natives Party, drew an array of black, feminist, and antiwar groups, and brought together a coalition of groups that had boycotted the presidential election. It was meant to signal to the president-elect that there was a youth movement to the left of his Socialist Party. But on May 8, 2015, instead of a march, the Natives organized an indoor conference to discuss the purpose as well as the successes and failures of the movement. Boutledja’s keynote was a political stocktaking and acceptance of responsibility.
“We know all too well that the [Charlie Hebdo] killers belong to our social group and that they are the products of France; and that they are, above all, the creation of imperial violence. We know they are the product of racism, Islamophobia, and Negrophobia. They are the product of the social ghetto in which they are incarcerated,” declared Boutledja at the conference. “We do not underestimate our own responsibilities. We do not ignore that the Kouachi brothers aimed to avenge the prophet of Islam, peace be upon him, because we are still too few and not organized enough to defend what’s sacred to us, the wretched of the earth.”
The identity politics that the Natives put forth directly confronts the republic’s ideology of colorblindness, and they are often attacked by the left and the right for importing divisive, U.S.-style race politics. Critics who claim the Natives Party is influenced by American ideas are spot-on: The French “decolonial” movement—like other race-based movements emerging in Europe—is inspired by Black Power and American critical race theory. But so are their opponents. French neoconservatives, with their clash-of-civilizations rhetoric, hawkish foreign policy positions, and opposition to multiculturalism, also draw inspiration from across the Atlantic.
The influence of black liberationist thought—especially the ideas of Fanon and Malcolm X—is evident in the Natives’ discourse. Fanon died in December 1961, a few days before his book The Wretched of the Earth was published. The French police moved quickly to confiscate copies, and the author was deemed a traitor who had sided with Algerian “terrorists.” Fanon’s work, however, went on to galvanize liberation movements across the Third World and influence radical politics in the U.S., inspiring black leaders like Eldridge Cleaver, Amiri Baraka, Malcolm X, and even Martin Luther King Jr., who would respond in writing to Fanon’s arguments about revolutionary violence. The 1942 U.S. military landing in North Africa, part of the Allied campaign to defeat the Nazis, had already brought the region and its colonial predicament into the African-American imagination. When the Algerian War began in 1954, a number of African-American intellectuals visited Algiers and drew parallels between the struggle back home and the Algerian uprising, comparing the American ghetto to the Kasbah—the traditional quarter of the Algerian capital, where natives were cloistered during the colonial era and which emerged as a stronghold for the National Liberation Front (FLN) during the fight for independence.
In 1964, Malcolm X visited Algiers and was given a tour of the Kasbah by Algerian “blood brothers.” The English translation of The Wretched of the Earth in 1965 would make Algeria even more enthralling. Cleaver referred to the book as “the Black Bible” and made Algiers the international headquarters of the Black Panther Party. It is this history of cross-border black engagement with the Muslim world that Muslim youth today in Europe are reviving. Given the dominance of the right in Muslim politics and rise of xenophobic movements in Europe, it is not surprising that Muslim youth—like marginalized youth worldwide—see African-American history and the black freedom struggle as a progressive alternative. Like African Americans decades ago, who left the United States on a quest for freedom, today it is European Muslims who are restlessly transnational.
THE ARABIAN PANTHERS
The Natives Party is in some way a successor to the Arab European League, a Black Power-inspired movement that emerged in Belgium in the early 2000s. Founded in Antwerp in February 2000, the AEL started off as a local immigrant-advocacy organization meant to promote the interests of Belgian Muslims, but grew more radical and racially minded in response to Vlaams Blok, a far-right party that had gained power in Flanders. The AEL’s radicalization was also fueled by international developments—the Palestinian intifada and the invasion of Iraq—as well as the Belgian government’s reaction to the movement. By the end of 2003, the AEL was one of the most organized and militant youth organizations in Western Europe. With followers in several countries, the AEL hoped to mobilize Muslim youth across borders, lobby governments to make Arabic an official language of the European Union, and gain state funding for Islamic schools. Aside from its confrontational, anarchist language, what struck observers was how American this Antwerpian movement was and how it heavily drew on the Black Power movement. The AEL organized Black Panther–style patrols to “police the police,” with groups of unarmed youth dressed in black following the police around Antwerp and Brussels, carrying video cameras and flyers that read, “Bad cops: AEL is watching you.” The AEL flag, with its red, black, and green colors, resembles the Garveyite movement’s Pan-African flag but with two interlocking crescents.
“We’re a civil rights movement, not a club of fundamentalist fanatics who want to blow things up,” Dyab Abou Jahjah, the movement’s charismatic founder, told The New York Times. “In Europe, the immigrant organizations are Uncle Toms. We want to polarize people, to sharpen the discussion, to unmask the myth that the system is democratic for us.” The media soon began referring to these youths as the “Arabian Panthers” and the movement’s Lebanese-born leader as the “Arab Malcolm X.”
The AEL’s confrontational language and police patrols had angered law enforcement from the start. In early 2003, Belgian authorities invoked a 1930s law that proscribed private militias to ban the AEL’s police patrols. In response, the AEL changed its tactics, calling on its members to vote and participate politically. The movement gained supporters across the border in Holland, and the AEL leadership began envisioning a transnational movement that would organize in various states. But despite its popularity among Dutch Muslim youth, in March 2003 Dutch authorities prevented the AEL from setting up a local branch. “The Dutch government simply did not want a far left Muslim movement in the country—and that ended up further radicalizing Muslim youth, pushing them to Salafism,” said Dutch anthropologist Martijn de Koning of Radboud University. “The government’s preventing the AEL from setting up in Holland actually drove some youth to jihadi groups—that was the only radical alternative left.”
The Belgian and Dutch governments continued their efforts to crush the movement. The AEL leadership’s anti-Zionist rhetoric and militancy toward the Jewish community of Antwerp didn’t help. One member had declared, “Antwerp is the stronghold of Zionism in Europe, and that’s why it should become the Mecca of pro-Palestinian action.” The AEL soon found itself politically hemmed in, the target of several lawsuits accusing the group of hate speech and threatening public order.
The Natives of the Republic emerged in France just as the Arab European League was falling apart, and seems to have learned from the latter’s errors. The Natives Party has a wider appeal, defending the rights of all postcolonial populations, not just Muslims. The Natives are also more media savvy than the AEL. A stable of European-based professors and social scientists from University of California, Berkeley to York University in Canada serve on the party’s advisory committee, helping to develop an “indigenous strategy” and lending their credibility to the party’s manifestos. The party’s publications are replete with references to Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, and modern-day American race sociologists like Tommie Shelby, Cornel West, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. But the party’s intellectual guru is Sadri Khiari, a Tunisian political scientist, who was active in the Communist Party in Tunis for decades before being exiled to France by the Ben Ali government. Per his advice, the Natives Party boycotts elections and focuses strictly on shifting France’s political discourse. In maintaining a critical distance from the “white political arena,” the Natives have also avoided the clashes with the police that sank the AEL. The party also builds on Malcolm X and Fanon’s linking of the African world to the Orient; in particular, Fanon’s insights into colonial hierarchy are seen as a way to transcend ethnic differences in Europe’s urban periphery.
When the 19-year-old Fanon was stationed outside of Casablanca, Morocco, his Free French division was organized hierarchically: with European volunteers and fighters from the West Indian colonies, like himself, at the top, Senegalese and sub-Saharan infantry at the bottom, and Moroccan and Algerian troops in between. The European fighters, Fanon noticed, got better-quality headgear and tents. At times, the French commanders would “whiten” the army, leaving out Senegalese troops but taking Moroccan and Algerian fighters or, better yet, the French Maquis. It was these racial practices that he witnessed within the army—Africans being called Nègres or bougnoles, Algerians being called indigènes—that would lead Fanon to advocate a Pan-African anti-imperialism. Today the North Africans’ awkward racial in-betweenness, positioned between European whiteness and sub-Saharan blackness, is something that the “decolonials” are explicitly trying to address by forming coalitions with black organizations. Together, they’re seeking to critique a mainstream discourse that often describes North African-descended French (especially Berbers) as “white” and distinguishes between a “White (North) Africa” and a “Black Africa” and are calling for official adoption of ethnic and racial statistics that allow for hate crimes against all minority groups to be counted.
“The French sociologists who study race in France will defend Caribbean communities,” said Bouteldja. “They pushed for the Taubira Law of 2005”—which recognized slavery as a crime against humanity—“but they don’t want to deal with our movement. And that’s because we speak of Algeria—which is still taboo in France. And Palestine—super-taboo. And because we bring together North Africans with sub-Saharan Africans. We are the only organization in France—aside from the Salafis—who do bring Berbers, Arabs, and blacks together. And that is also controversial. I think France prefers Salafis [ultraconservative Sunni Muslims], who separate themselves from society than a group like us that mobilizes all minorities across categories.”
“KNOWLEDGE OF SELF”
In July 2010, another Black Power–inspired movement emerged in France. The New Black Panther Party was founded in Paris by Kemi Seba, a young activist who studied in Los Angeles under the late Khalid Muhammad of the Nation of Islam. The French Black Panthers began appearing on street corners in Paris dressed in black fatigues and berets, teaching “knowledge of self” (connaissance de même) and calling for unity among “imperialism’s wretched.” The group has positioned itself against the Salafi Islamist movement and the mainstream CRAN, the Representative Council of Black Associations of France founded shortly after the 2005 riots. Seba refers to many of France’s other black leaders as Oncles Toms, telling interviewers, “I want to live and die like Stokely Carmichael.” In response to a notorious speech that French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave in Senegal, declaring that “the African has never really entered history,” the Panthers began demanding the right to run community centers for black children in France where they could teach Négritude: “We want to shape our own destiny.” The group has dozens of followers, but as with the AEL, the movement’s anti-Zionist rhetoric and penchant for altercations are drawing government suppression.
France has long prided itself on providing refuge to African-American artists and radicals, if only to show that the republic was colorblind and immune to America’s racial ills. In 1978, when the French government refused to extradite four Black Panthers wanted in the United States for a hijacking, the militants became a cause célèbre among French intellectuals. And, of course, France has had a century-old love affair with African-American culture. French fans reveled in jazz in the 1920s, when it was still shunned in the States, and hip-hop found a welcoming home in France some 60 years later. But France’s relationship to African-American culture has recently turned uneasy, as hip-hop and the rhetoric of Black Power and Malcolm X are deployed by minority youth in the country’s banlieues to mock the ideas of colorblindness and secularism. The French left, which in the 1970s rallied around the American Black Panthers in Paris battling extradition to the United States, has not lent its support to French Black Panthers. It’s easier to support minority agitation abroad than at home.
In the aftermath of the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, the sweeping security laws, increased profiling, additional stop and frisks, and plans to strip suspected extremists of their citizenship, the Natives have been holding teach-ins and rallies and responding to criticism. And they continue to look to U.S. black history for inspiration.
“Our movement defends the France of the banlieues, the France of the ghettoes,” Bouteldja told her audience on May 8, 2015. And, noting just how dehumanizing racial oppression can be, how it can stir deep rage and inspire calls for divine deliverance, she quoted another American who found refuge in Paris, novelist James Baldwin. Looking up at the jam-packed auditorium, she asked, “Qu’adviendra-t-il de toute cette beauté?” (“What will happen to all that beauty?”)
“When James Baldwin asks this question,” she explained, “he is worried about black people, and he is worried about us. He is worried about our beauty. He is worried the system will devour, putrefy, and corrupt us.”