The French may be better known to themselves, and among West Europeans and white Americans, as top fashion designers and culinary masters whose language of amour is most fit for romance.
White Americans, like the Germans and the British, however, have a love-hate relationship with the French but clearly more love than hate as evidenced most recently by the publication in The New York Times of an op-ed piece by Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front.
As for much of the rest of the world — extending from the Antilles to Northern, Western and Central Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia — the French are seen as practiced killers and torturers, whose lovely and refined language is used not to describe a sumptuous creamy sauce or a plunging neckline on an evening dress, let alone for courting and flirtation, but rather to inflict pain and suffering on untold millions.
Yet the dominant French culture insists on seeing itself through its own eyes, and most French people are appalled that anyone in the world would even question their refined and rosy image of themselves.
The reason for this contrast is a matter of both history and present French policies. Let us start with the historical: a report on French colonial atrocities in Indochina for the years 1930-33, following the outbreak of the Yen Bay mutiny in February 1930, lists some of the monstrous torture methods dear to French officers. According to the famed French activist Andrée Viollis, the torture methods included — in addition to the use of electricity — deprivation of food,bastinado (the whipping of the soles of the feet), pins hammered under the nails, half-hangings, deprivation of water and pincers on the temples (forcing the eyes outward) among others. A more delicate method included the use of “a razor blade, to cut the skin of the legs in long furrows, to fill the wound with cotton and then burn the cotton.”
In 1947-48, the French colonial authorities went on a rampage in Madagascar, killing and raping the population, and torching whole villages, as punishment for the Nationalist Malagasy uprising. Some of the more specifically French practices and torture specialties unleashed on the people of Madagascar included “death flights,” where people would be thrown from military planes in the middle of the sea to drown and become “disappeared.”
This murderous method was such a proud French specialty that the French colonial authorities in Algeria would continue its use several years later during the Battle of Algiers in 1956-57. In the Algerian case, French paratroopers decided to modify the method when corpses of Algerians began to surface, exposing the practice. The modification consisted of attaching concrete blocks to the feet of the victims to ensure their sinking permanently (the US-supported Argentinian generals would find this very helpful to their efforts in suppressing resistance to their dictatorship in the late 1970s).
These are not ad hoc methods of torture that the French devised on the spot, but well-studied and well-practiced cruelties. In the Algeria of the nineteenth century, General Saint-Arnaud would burn Algerian revolutionaries alive in caves and his soldiers would rape Algerian women, as would French soldiers throughout the Algerian revolution of the 1950s and early 1960s.
Estimates of those the French killed include a million Vietnamese and a million Algerians. As for Madagascar, estimates have it that upwards of 100,000 people were killed by the French. These are just a few examples of French colonial barbarities in some colonies and not an exhaustive list by any means. French colonialism, under the grandiose heading of a mission civilisatrice, has clearly failed to civilize, most of all, the French themselves. The mission, it would seem, remains unaccomplished!
The matter of how the French are perceived is not limited only to history but is relevant to the present. While assimilating the natives into the ways of the colonizing French was the core of the French colonial program, this philosophy has come to haunt the French after they partially retreated from the colonies and found that immigrant Africans, Arabs and Indochinese, among others, are not “assimilable” into the ways of the “French.” It seems that only German, Russian, Spanish, Italian and certainly Hungarian immigrants to France can be assimilated now into French society, but not the darker and especially non-Christian immigrants.
The massacre of French Algerians committed by the French police in October 1961, which was clearly inspired by the “death flights” specialty of the French army in Algeria and Madagascar, resulted in the killing of upwards of 200 Muslim demonstrators (some estimates go as high as 400) by shooting them dead or throwing them in the River Seine.
It took the Catholic-dominated French government until 1998 to acknowledge that the police killed a mere 40 of the 200 to 400 French Muslims. Victims of the French Catholic-dominated government see such barbaric and cruel acts as a main feature of French Catholic culture, indeed as definitional of it. And not only is this not exclusive to French Muslims (French colonial authorities invented the category of “Français musulmans” in nineteenth century Algeria to legally require Algerians to denounce “Islamic law,” including polygamy, in order to have access to full French citizenship), French Jews too understand French Catholic anti-Semitism as a central feature of French Catholic culture.
After all, French Jews had been subjected by Napoleon in 1806 to a similar litmus — or is it Catholic? — test by which they had to allay his fears that Jewish polygamy and divorce laws that contradicted French state laws would not be practiced as a condition for Jewish emancipation. Of course these state laws just happened to be in line with Catholic monogamy, but not with Jewish polygamy. Yet the French continue to see and present themselves to the world and to themselves as sensitive and pensive lovers, engagé intellectuals and defenders of secularism, or “laïcité”!
It is this last point that has become part of the official and unofficial racist and sectarian campaigns by the reigning French Catholics, “laïcs” of course, against French Muslims, let alone Muslims outside France. It is there that French Muslims are thought of as somehow having geographic, religious and cultural origins outside France, something of which French citizens of Italian, German, Russian, Spanish or Hungarian immigrant origins are never accused.
If the French Catholics insisted that Algerian Muslims and Jews must become French in Algeria under French rule (French Jews of Algerian background are said to have successfully made the transition since the 1870 Crémieux decreewhich transformed them legally from Algerians into French citizens, a status that was later revoked under the collaborationist Vichy regime during the Second World War, revealing the tenuousness of French Catholic tolerance), the same French Catholics would insist that French people of Algerian Muslim background in France must also assimilate into some phantasmatic Frenchness that is allegedly secular or “laïc” and definitely not Christian.
It is unclear whether the Bretons, the Corsicans, or the Basques and Alsatians — the latter were thought by President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011 to be still living in Germany — have already fully assimilated into this alleged Frenchness or are still awaiting new instructions.
Values of the republic
In the aftermath of the attack on the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo by two French Muslim men, and the attack on a French Jewish supermarket by a third (the geographic origins of the parents of these men were immediately identified by the French media as germane if not central to their crimes), former French president of Hungarian Catholic origins Nicolas Sarkozy (his maternal grandfather is a Greek Jew who converted to Catholicism), proposed “expelling any [French Muslim] imam who holds views that do not respect the values of the republic.”
It is not clear if Sarkozy would agree with proposals that he should be expelled to Hungary or to Greece were he to espouse views “that do not respect the values of the republic.” It also remains unclear if this should also be the fate awaiting French Catholic priests and French Jewish rabbis if they are found disrespectful of such values, although if the situation of Jews under Vichy is any indication, the rabbis too will not be spared.
Contrary to the self-perception of most French Catholics, the problem with the contemporary dominant French Catholic (“laïc”) culture is, if anything, its lack of refinement. French racism is articulated often in the most vulgar of ways without any palliatives or euphemisms. In this, the French are unlike their peers in the American and British settings, where racism is often couched in more socially acceptable language that hides behind it the very same racist vulgarity. The vulgarity of French Catholic racism, however, is most similar to that of Israeli Jewish racism, which also often has no truck with circumlocutions and other linguistic cosmetics.
The ongoing policies and crimes of the French government in Mali, in Libya and in Afghanistan, to name the three most prominent sites of French military interventions, continue. When French troops opened fire on a civilian car in 2011 killing three civilians in Afghanistan, including a pregnant woman and a child, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet expressed “deep sorrow” over the deaths but said the soldiers had acted in self-defense as the car had “refused to stop despite repeated warnings.”
The ongoing French support of Syrian jihadists, including French and NATO facilitation, if not encouragement, of French Muslims to join the battles in Syria, belie the official horror of French Catholics at the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its decapitation practices. Perhaps French Muslim members of ISIS assimilated French Catholic culture far too well, especially as relates to intolerance and decapitation — for the French state’s “laïc” practice of executing criminals through decapitation by the guillotine continued until 1977, with the last person decapitated being coincidentally a French Muslim criminal.
Who should assimilate?
This France is the France that accuses its Muslim population of refusing to assimilate to its ways, but never questions why it thinks it should not assimilate to their ways — since French Muslims too are as much part of France and its culture as French Catholics are and since France is no longer the exclusive property of French Catholics to do with as they please. Perhaps French Catholics (should we just call them Gaulois?) could learn some tolerance from French Muslims.
After all, it is French Muslims who have endured and continue to the best of their abilities to tolerate the decades-long racism and intolerance of French Catholics. Could French Catholics in turn learn to tolerate the tolerance of French Muslims? Shocking as this last idea may be to French Catholic and sectarian racists (who are of course “laïcs”), these same people never thought it shocking when as a colonial minority they sought to force the majority of the colonized to assimilate to their ways — whatever their ways are of course.
One is never sure if French Muslims are expected to adopt the torture and murderous methods of French Catholics and their “laïc” intolerance as part of their assimilation process. If indeed this is what is required, then the only three successfully assimilated French Muslims are none other than Cherif and Saïd Kouachi, the brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo, and Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked the Jewish supermarket.
Amazingly enough, the French government refused to acknowledge what well-assimilated Frenchmen the Kouachi brothers were and asked the Algerian government to have them buried in Algeria, a country to which they had never been, rather than in France where they had assimilated in an exemplary fashion. The Algerian government duly refused to allow the burial of the two Frenchmen on its soil. France got the same answer from the government of Mali, whichrefused a French government request to send them the body of the French citizen Coulibaly for burial.
Despite the horrific magnitude of the three men’s deeds, their crimes remain numerically modest and pale in comparison with the far more cruel French Catholic and “laïc” monstrosities that have reached genocidal proportions across the globe. Had the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly lived, however, they would have still needed many more lessons in cruelty and violent intolerance before they could become fully assimilated into true Catholic and laïc Frenchness.
It is the rest of French Muslims who continue to resist assimilation into Catholic and “laïc” Frenchness and continue to refuse to follow the example of intolerant French Catholic and “laïc” racists and their few Muslim emulators. For the majority of French Muslims, their answer to these French Catholic and laïcinvitations to assimilation is an explicit “thanks, but no thanks,” or in the refined language of the French: “Merci, très peu pour nous!”
Joseph Massad is Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University. His most recent book is Islam in Liberalism.