Padraig Reidy reviews Andrew Hussey’s new book, The French Intifada.
At the very end of last year, French footballer Nicolas Anelka scored for West Bromwich Albion.
Wheeling away from the opposition goal, he pointed one arm downward while touching his shoulder with the other. The anti-Semitic “quenelle” salute was introduced to Britain.
The gesture’s inventor, comic Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, makes a brief appearance in Andrew Hussey’s fascinating, comprehensive book on the tortuous and torturous relationship between France and the North African Arab world.
The performer is named as a supporter of the ‘Tribu Ka’, a small but vocal hate group active in the banlieues of France’s major cities, where immigrants from former colonies find themselves excluded from mainstream French society.
Hussey describes, from start to finish, France’s imperial engagement with Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. It makes for an interesting, but grim, read: the French acted with a horrendous brutality against the Arab populations from the mid-19th Century onwards, with the Arabs periodically lashing back.
The resentments from the colonial period have carried over into the present day, with young French Arabs expressing a view that the French attitude to them has not changed in 100 years; meanwhile, their “home” countries treat them with disdain.
Disdain for the “establishment” plus world views cobbled together from old prejudices, imperial France, and the modern jihadism make for a depressing view of a section of disaffected youth getting their kicks from Jew-hating.
It is to Hussey’s credit that he explains the phenomenon without excusing it. Is it a model that could be exported to Britain?
One’s instinct is to say no, as we are discussing very different pasts and presents. But few phenomena these days remain entirely local, as the quenelle’s intrusion into British sporting life proved.
We would do well to study what’s happening on the other side of the English Channel.
• The French Intifada: The Long War Between France And Its Arabs by Andrew Hussey is published by Granta, priced £25 and available now.