The French Colonialist’s Comeuppance

By pushing its immigrants to the fringes of French society, the country cultivated a breeding ground for humiliation, exclusion, and retribution.


For I am all the subjects that you have,

For I am all the subjects that you have,

Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest of the island.

You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!

—Caliban in The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2

France and, by extension, Europe have put themselves between a rock and a hard place. In the French case, this situation has persisted for decades, even more than a century. While religious extremism may be the proximate motivation for the vicious slaughter at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher market in Paris, the legacy of colonialism and the humiliation of ex-colonial subjects are at the heart of the matter.

In April 1961, as a young student in France, I found myself driving with four other Americans through Bordeaux, returning from a week in Spain. As we came to the edge of the city, we were stopped at a military roadblock. We were asked to step out of the car while heavily armed soldiers searched the trunk, the insides, and underneath. As we drove out of Bordeaux half an hour later, we went through the drill a second time.

When we asked what was going on, all we learned was that “parachutists” were expected to land in the region. Why? Because Gen. Raoul Salan, the commander of French forces in Algeria, intended to invade the French mainland and carry out a coup d’état against Charles de Gaulle, then president of France.

This was my introduction to the legacy of French colonialism. It was no joke. Salan had seized Algeria’s key cities and, with the support of French forces there, was preparing to invade the homeland, take Paris, and remove de Gaulle, the president. De Gaulle’s sin: ending the colonial war France had been waging for seven years against an uprising of the colonized Algerian people. He had allowed a referendum on self-determination in Algeria and had begun secret negotiations with the National Liberation Front. First Vietnam was lost, and then Morocco and Tunisia in the 1950s; now, for the French military, the retreat from empire was at the shores of France.

In the end, Salan’s “putsch” failed. Those French who had occupied Algeria since the 19th century — known as the pieds-noirs — streamed back to France, losing generations of property and wealth, and the Algerian revolution took power. The direct humiliation of the colonized had ended, at least in Algeria. But a bitter legacy of the colonial tradition is alive today — a legacy that can be seen in the attacks as well as in the French response.

That legacy was given powerful voice, over the years, by a literature on the destructive effects of colonialism on the economies, politics, and psychology of the colonized — written by the colonized themselves. As early as 1939, Aimé Césaire, a poet and politician from Martinique (now a province of France), had written the poetic Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal), in which he raged against the destructive effects of French colonial oppression and described the ultimate rising of the colonized.

standing in the hold
standing in the cabins
standing on deck
standing in the wind
standing under the sun
standing in the blood

In his 1950 book Discourse on Colonialism (Discours sur le Colonialisme), Césaire described the colonial relationship as one based on “forced labor, intimidation, pressure, the police, taxation, theft, rape, compulsory crops, contempt, mistrust, arrogance, self-complacency, swinishness, brainless elites, degraded masses.” And he went on to argue for the need for a new self-awareness among the colonized, which he called “negritude,” an awareness of the self and community of black colonized that would allow them to confront the white French colonizer. Negritude became a rallying call for such leaders as Léopold Sédar Senghor, and it was influenced by black American leaders such as Langston Hughes.

Césaire’s pupil was Frantz Fanon, also from Martinique, who went on to write the classic The Wretched of the Earth (Les Damnés de la Terre) in 1961. Fanon savagely critiqued the incessant violence of the French colonial administration, which treated its subjects as inferior. Such violence, he argued, could only beget force in response, lest the colonized subside into their humiliating inferiority.

In Tunisia, Albert Memmi, a Tunisian Jewish writer and sociologist, wrote The Colonizer and the Colonized in 1957. The colonial system, he argued, dehumanized both the colonizer and the colonized. The colonizer “pretends to have seen nothing of poverty and injustice which are right under his nose.” He assumes that the colonized seem “mediocre” at their work and lives and wonders “whether malnutrition, low wages, a closed future, a ridiculous conception of a role in society, does not make the colonized uninterested in his work.”

These writers had an enormous influence on the rising resistance in North Africa and in the French colonies of West and Equatorial Africa, as local populations began to resist French colonial rule and seek self-government. That influence was especially powerful in Algeria. Moreover, the self-consciousness represented by negritude became an important element in the black power movement in the United States in the 1960s, as African-Americans worked to define an identity that was beyond that of being an American.

From the 1970s through the turn of the century, driven by economic failures in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, the colonized have come to France, following the pieds noirs. Algerians, Tunisians, Moroccans, and many West and Central Africans came, bringing both cultural diversity and Islam into the heart of France. They also brought with them the memory of humiliation and degradation.

Sadly, France has adapted badly, even not at all, to this migration. The colonizer has not been able to adapt to the presence of the colonized. The French concept of nationhood was rooted in becoming “French,” adopting French symbols and French culture, not in widening the sense of what is French to include other cultures, races, religions, and values. Discrimination grew. The damnés were condemned to shoddy housing in the banlieues and were treated poorly in the education system; their religion was ignored or criticized (lay France rejects the wearing of headscarves), and their employment opportunities were few and far between.

The immigrant population has remained “colonized.” Decades of this colonial legacy and state and public reinforcement of the “separateness” of the immigrant population has been coming home to roost for several years now. Riots in the immigrant fringe of Paris broke out 10 years ago. The marginalization did not end. Today, some of that unintegrated population has found its way to radical Islam. The younger generation of these immigrant families lives in France but is not “of France,” and France is not inclusive of them; they speak French, but employment opportunities are rare, and upward mobility even rarer.

Clearly Islamic extremism is a proximate expression of this underlying rage of the colonized, a message and text that gives voice to that humiliation and the desire to stand up against it. And the consequences are frightening. But religion is only part of the problem; overcoming the colonial legacy is an even bigger part.

This is not an apology for what has happened. But it is a recognition that France, and Europeans in general, have played a big role here, laying the bed and planting the seeds that have led us here. Until Europeans register the reality of this history, the response to this violence will be, in return, violence. And violence that begets violence is a very dangerous national security strategy for Europe. The use of repression and violence to control these populations is not a winnable tactic. While it might achieve street peace in the short run, it only builds resentment and further opportunity for a violent response. Fought as a “war,” it is not winnable. It simply perpetuates the colonial tradition that the colonized recognize. And it creates even more violence in response, as Fanon argued, leading to a vicious cycle. Community engagement with the Muslim population is badly needed; the creation of educational and employment opportunities is the only long-term answer.

Violence is a dangerous strategy for the United States as well. Internationally, the renewed American use of military force in the Middle East is not a winning strategy; it continues to create the very enemy it seeks to defeat. And at home, heavy policing of minority communities may buy short-term peace. But in the absence of community engagement, training, and investment strategies that create hope and opportunity, it can only perpetuate long-term resentment.

Until Europeans (and Americans) can enter the mindset of the colonized, comprehend where they are coming from, and let them roam the whole island as equal rulers, as Caliban wanted to do, none of us will be secure. The boundaries of cultures are scary places; it takes courage and boldness, and leadership, to walk across them. My dear friend and mentor, the late Maggie Paillet, said to me, back in 1961 when we first discussed the solutions to racism in the United States, “The only real solution to the race problem in America is intermarriage.”

She was French, criticizing the United States and, basically, arguing that engagement was the only long-term solution. Now the issue has come home to the French. Intermarriage may not be the answer, but an open intercultural understanding is fundamentally necessary in her native land and on the continent where she lived, lest the violence continue and grow unabated. Maybe it is time for the French police to protect not only Jewish sites against anti-Semitic violence, but also Muslim sites against violent retaliation.

It might be a good first step toward that cultural reconciliation, toward doing what cartoonist Joe Sacco called for: “sorting out how we fit in each other’s world.” It’s time to let the colonized onto the rest of Prospero’s island, so the cursing stops.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941