In 1983, I went to the University of Lyon 3, to study there as part of my degree in French studies at the University of Manchester. I was 20 years old, had not travelled much further than my home town of Liverpool and was a fairly typical product of my environment – the NME-reading Smiths-leftist culture. Lyon 3 was like a trip through the looking-glass; here it was the norm to be ultra right-wing, even to the point of expressing open contempt for blacks, Arabs and Jews, who were hardly visible in the student body. I was stunned.
At the same time, Lyon was experiencing the first wave of violent disturbances in its suburbs, the wretched banlieues on the outskirts of the city. These would later be called emeutes urbaines (urban riots), culminating in periodic riots in the banlieues outside all great French cities which have punctuated French life for the past decade or so.
I was no stranger to seeing this kind of violence – I had just arrived from the UK where riots in Toxteth and Brixton had erupted in anger against the policies of the Thatcher government. But these riots seemed somehow different – for one thing the rioters were mainly (but not exclusively) second or third generation immigrants from the former French colonies in North Africa – Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
This was a colonial history that I knew little about and did not understand at the time. But it already seemed to me deeply significant that these disturbances or uprising were taking place on the outskirts of a city politically dominated by a right-wing Catholic culture. This was the first impulse which led me to write The French Intifada, The Long War Between France and its Arabs.
The guiding theory in the book is that there was something strangely and specifically toxic in the French experience of colonialism which has created a kind of trauma for both the coloniser and the colonised. This is particularly acute in the history of Algeria, which fought a violent and bitter war against the French, winning independence in 1962. This sudden victory came as something of a shock on both sides. This had also been an especially dirty war: the French had used torture as a weapon war, whilst the Algerian nationalists had used terrorism against the civilian population. There could be no real victors in this war or its aftermath, only victims on both sides.
It is this situation, I argue, which is still playing itself out in the banlieues of France where subsequent generations of immigrant youth have felt dispossessed and disenfranchised by a French state which has condemned them to live in council estates which all too often feel like prison camps or colonies. These estates have also recently become the breeding for a new kind of antisemitism which acts as a powerful belief system about the Jews and the way in which they “control” the French élite.
A case in point is the recent antics of the comedian Dieudonné, who has done his best to undermine the Loi Gayssot of 1990, the so-called anti-négationnisme law which effectively bans Holocaust denial in France (négationnisme is the French term for Holocaust). Dieudonné is best known in the UK for having invented the quenelle, the gesture recently used by footballer Nicolas Anelka and which is commonly understood to be an inverted Nazi salute.
This brings us back to the University of Lyon, which by the 1990s was known as “the world capital of negationism” and a national disgrace. The scandal came to a head in 2001 when the French government commissioned an enquiry by Henri Rousso, the veteran historian of Vichy. The report concluded that the university was ruled by a “negationist” élite. This was like having David Irving in charge of Manchester University.
“Negationism” has not gone away. Indeed as the historian Michel Dreyfus argued recently in Le Monde, the real danger of Dieudonné and his ilk is that they are taking an occulist conspiracy theory, and turning it into a mass movement. The story of French antisemitism is only part of my book; but for Jews in France these days, as “negationism” takes hold, it is hard to find a more chilling reminder of the 1930s.