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The response to Charlie Hebdo and the Imperial Hangover in France


As economic underperformance, loss of sovereignty and German domination of the EU grind away at French self-esteem, contemporary France is also divided by chronic and deep-rooted anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. French Jews were leaving the country for Israel, the UK, Canada and the United States in their thousands long before the latest atrocities in Paris. Many Muslims in France continue to be economically and socially marginalised. The Front National, which displays rank prejudice against both Jews and Muslims, continues to grow in strength.

The challenges France faces today – loss of former Great Power status, fear of its “decline” and of immigration from former colonies, which causes much agonising about cultural difference undermining the secular values of the Republic – can be seen as part of a long imperial hangover. Some of this is true of other former European imperial powers. But if these political questions are embedded in France’s imperial past, they now also form a spectre over France’s future.

There has been much talk since the recent terrorist atrocities and subsequent “unity marches” of France finding renewed national purpose. Many of those who filled the streets of Paris flew the French flag, vowed allegiance to the Republic, cheered the police, sang La Marsellaise and celebrated France’s supposed traditions of “free speech.”

Writing from Washington DC, the Financial Times commentator Edward Luce opined that “last week’s horror reminds us that Enlightenment values are universal — and France remains one of its strongest cradles.” The name of Voltaire, who in fact never said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” was on everyone’s lips.

President Francois Hollande declared that “Paris is today the capital of the world.” Even whilst spelling out some of the current limitations of social integration in France, Prime Minister Manuel Valls has claimed that “France carries free speech everywhere.” Back in 2008, then President Nicholas Sarkozy suggested that tackling alienation in France’s notorious banlieues was “a problem of civilisation.”  French politicians can never be accused of having low horizons.

This mixture of patriotism and grandiloquent, universalist rhetoric is highly resonant of an imperial age. Today, an attack on the ostensible values of the Republic can still be seen as an attack on freedom and liberty everywhere, because within a powerful strain of French political thought and culture the Republic itself is a universal model. Since the revolution of 1789, the French have often imagined themselves to have occupied a central position in world history, with “liberté, égalité, fraternité” being a call to arms for human progress.

Looking beyond metropolitan France, the universal republican mission to civilise through both education and coercion has been an integral component of France’s empire and its traumatic decolonisation. Its long post-imperial engagement in West Africa – which has been dusted down and re-invigorated by François Hollande – attests to this. It is noticeable, too, that his intervention in Mali is one of the few things that has won him domestic political plaudits in recent years.

However, the contradictions between France’s liberal republicanism and its imperialism have almost always been on display. The betrayal of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the revolution in Haiti, with Napoleon Bonaparte reinstating slavery in the empire in 1802, is an early example. The Sétif and Guelma massacres of 1945, in which many thousands of Algerians were killed (Algerian estimates claim as many as 45,000), are a more recent and extraordinary one.  During the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), the French used methods of repression and torture that continue to haunt contemporary France and Algeria.

Think also of the Paris Massacre of October 1961, in which up to 200 pro-Algerian demonstrators, engaged in peaceful if prohibited protest, were killed by French police in central Paris, many of them drowned in the Seine having been thrown from the St Michel bridge (see picture). This notable crime against “free speech” was not even acknowledged by the state until 1998.

Graffiti at Le Pont St Michel: “Here we drown Algerians”
Graffiti at Le Pont St Michel: “Here we drown Algerians”

This is not to say that the history of most empires is not replete with acts of brutality and murder. It most definitely is. However, for now it is France in the spotlight. And what was frequently overstated during the recent responses to the attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper was France’s special role in defending “universal values.”

There is no possible justification for killing someone who draws cartoons. This is barbarism pure and simple, and that needs to be reiterated lest there is any confusion. This does not mean, however, that Charlie Hebdo has to be held up as a beacon of liberty, a paragon of “free speech” for the world. We should remember that across the globe thousands of people are killed and suffer torture and imprisonment merely for writing and thinking.

An alternative view is that Charlie Hebdo is more parochial than it has been lauded as. According to this interpretation, the magazine stands for an unusually aggressive, some might say occasionally rather puerile strain of anti-clericalism which is particular to France’s history, the outlook of which is shared by certain social enclaves in Western Europe and, less so, North America. The cries of “vive la France” were amplified by European and North American media. But much of the world, for which religious belief remains integral to both morality and social order, will have looked on with a mixture of bemusement and offence. The recent burning of French flags from Pakistan to Gaza is contemptible, but hardly surprising.

Contrary to the rhetoric, then – as citizens of France’s former empire, and more recent immigrants to metropolitan France are all too aware – French traditions of liberty are at best uneven. There is an interconnecting fault line that runs through France’s pretensions to be a universal political model for the world, a carrier and implementer of liberal values, and its actual approach to empire, decolonisation and post-imperial immigration.

It is surely the case that many French people know this too. This may be why they oscillate between apparent feelings of collective self-importance and common purpose, and that other facet of French culture that we hear so much about, a kind of pessimism, existential doubt and anguished self-criticism known as “la morosité”.

Still, the desire to perform a kind of civilising role, to be an educator and leader in world affairs – evident in the rhetoric of French politics since the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and so reminiscent of that time when a handful of small countries in Western Europe ruled almost everyone else – is a seductive and highly dangerous fantasy, with great political resonance.

France obviously needs our solidarity at this difficult time. Some of the threats it confronts – particularly in countering a nihilistic and murderous network of well-financed trans-national jihadists – are indeed common to other countries. At the same time, friends of France looking from the outside should be careful not to encourage lingering delusions of grandeur. An uncritical and ahistorical sense of national pride is surely not what France needs. It may simply add more grist to the mill of Marine Le Pen and her Front National.

In the long run, what may help integration in France above all is not the reassertion of a universal republican monoculture, but a frank assessment of the links between France’s past and present. Many powerful and brave French historians and intellectuals are leading this process, but they seem as yet unable to shape the direction of contemporary politics.

About Michael Collins

Dr Michael Collins teaches imperial history at UCL.

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