Waiting on the French Left to Decolonize Itself

Houria Bouteldja and Françoise Vergès on the French Presidential Elections.

Claire Schwartz
April 8, 2022

Supporters of Marine Le Pen during a campaign rally in Perpignan, southern France.

AP Photo/Joan Mateu Parra

On Sunday April 10th, French citizens will head to the polls to cast their votes for the next president of the Republic. In the almost certain event that none of the 12 candidates wins an outright majority, voters will return to the polls two weeks later for a runoff election between the top two choices. At this point, the field of viable candidates is narrow, with the incumbent president Emmanuel Macron most likely to win re-election, even as the threat of far-right challenger Marine Le Pen encroaches—the affront of her presence recasting Macron’s entrenched racisms as comparatively benign. So what is there to say? Elections so often seem like exercises in scripting state power, organizing attention around a limited set of possibilities. But how might our sense of possibility change if we understand this election not as a stop on the march of progress, with Macron’s win positioned as evidence of republican righteousness, but in the context of a historical juncture that requires attention to the past’s enduring role in structuring the conditions of our present? Indeed, there is another event to be marked this spring: Sixty years since the Évian Accords officially put an end to the French occupation of Algeria—which, even as it formally concluded the war, inaugurated a particularly violent period of struggle and catalyzed a radical rearrangement of French and Algerian societies, including the mass exodus of French citizens in Algeria, among them the majority of Algerian Jews. To this day, immigrants from former French colonies and their descendants are disproportionately policed in France, even as France continues, in various ways, to occupy and extract from the global South. Put differently, a look back today at the events of 1962 reveals the gap between the history of independence and the horizon of freedom.

To think through the multiple meanings of the moment, I reached out to Houria Bouteldja and Françoise Vergès, two writers and activists based in Paris and deeply involved with internationalist decolonial work, who have long considered the roles that racial hierarchies—charted through colonialism and slavery—play in the formation of the global North. In 2005, Bouteldja, who came from Algeria to France in the mid-1970s when she was six months old, co-founded Parti des Indigènes de la République (Party of the Indigenous of the Republic), which centers the experiences of immigrants from formerly colonized countries and their children to enact decolonial demands; she served as its spokesperson until 2020. Her 2016 book, Les blancs, les Juifs, et nous (translated by Rachel Valinsky as Whites, Jews, and Us) is an anti-colonial critique of the European left that draws together thinkers such as Chela Sandoval, Frantz Fanon, and Jean Genet to assert a demand for “revolutionary love” that contests the brutalities of anti-migrant European populism. Vergès—born in Paris and raised in Réunion and Algeria—is a political scientist, historian, and curator whose work engages the legacies of slavery and colonialsm. Her most recent book, published in 2019, is Un féminisme décolonial (translated into English by Ashely Bohrer as A Decolonial Feminism), which centers the experiences of women in the global South to demand a radical undoing of colonial forms, and which she asserts in opposition to what she calls “civilizational feminism” that instrumentalizes the pretense of caring about those same women in order to authorize imperial expansion.

I spoke with Bouteldja and Vergès about the rise of the far right in France, the political legacies of the gilets jaunes movement, and the vexed relationship between the largely white French left and the ongoing work of decolonial struggle. This interview has been edited for length and clarity, and I have translated Bouteldja’s answers from the French.

Claire Schwartz: How would you describe the current political landscape as represented by the field of presidential candidates?

Françoise Vergès: On the far right you have Marine Le Pen [the National Rally candidate] and Éric Zemmour [the journalist and pundit who has long cultivated relationships with far-right politicians]. And then you have Valérie Pécresse [the candidate of the center-right party The Republicans] and Emmanuel Macron. Macron is the candidate of the right, the candidate of the dominant classes and of business. He is a neoliberal who wants to roll back the social protections that were won through the struggles of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s: retirement pensions, minimum wage, everything. He is extremely dangerous.

Houria Bouteldja: On the left, we haven’t had a good candidate in a long time, and now we have one in Jean-Luc Mélenchon [a former member of the Socialist Party, running as the candidate of the left-wing party La France Insoumise, which he founded]. The French left is very Islamophobic, and a few years ago Mélenchon, too, spoke about Muslims in very problematic ways. But in the past three years, he’s really changed. Now he recognizes that the French police are becoming more and more fascist. And he has moved, too, on international issues. For example, in November [when France sent police to the overseas department of Guadeloupe to stamp out uprisings over Covid-19 measures and high fuel prices] he denounced the state repression of the Guadeloupean people. I’m not saying that Mélenchon is a revolutionary, not at all. But in the framework of the French system, he has become very radical.

FV: On the “left” (in quotes because one wonders where is the left in that left), you have the Socialist Party candidate, Anne Hidalgo, the perfect figure of socialist betrayal—totally in tune with liberalism. Her policies are anti-migrant. She’s never said a [meaningful] word about police violence. The disappearance of that Socialist Party would not be a loss. Nathalie Arthaud for Lutte Ouvrière, a Trotskyist organization, and Phillipe Poutou for the New Anticapitalist Party, also Trotskyist. The Green Party defends a white bourgeois ecology. The Communist Party has nothing much left of communism. Another candidate of the far left did not receive enough signatures to get on the ballot.

I agree with Houria’s analysis of Mélenchon. It is extremely important that Mélenchon has brought back the idea of a “non-aligned” position with regard to the war in Ukraine. That Western media and politicians do not understand what it means, or pretend not to, is not surprising. A short reminder. The idea for a movement of the non-aligned emerged during the 1955 Bandung conference [a gathering of people from Asian and African nations]. It concerned states that did not want to formally align themselves with either the United States or the Soviet Union, but sought to remain independent or neutral. The objectives, as described in the Treaty of the Non-Aligned Movement, were to “create an independent path in world politics that would not result in member States becoming pawns in the struggles between the major powers.” It was “neither Washington nor Moscow,” making room for opinions on global matters and wars from the South.

By endorsing a non-aligned position—refusing the supposedly unanimous position (see the position of African and Asian states) that is not just pro-Ukraine, but also pro-NATO—Mélenchon is reconnecting with that history. Our task, then, is to bring content to this non-aligned movement and to refuse to let it stand in for some kind of passive pacifism, where we are against war in some general, abstract way, and not against NATO, against imperialism, against the increasing militarization of Europe. Still, I do not take a public position on the elections out of principle, because even though Mélenchon has supported the strike in Guadeloupe and protested against the repression of the Guadeloupean people, I still think his position on the overseas territories needs to be amended. I’m waiting for a left that would really move forward with the processes of its own decolonization.

All the same, there is something really at stake in this election, and it is crucial that Mélenchon wins a lot of votes. It will say that something else is possible. And then we will have to work.

CS: You pointed to an anti-racist shift in Mélenchon’s position over the past three years. It strikes me that in that same period Macron has become increasingly explicitly Islamophobic. Can you speak to the social contexts of those changes?

HB: If you look back, you’ll realize that Macron was not always as Islamophobic on the face of it. He ran a campaign—the first one, in 2017—where he distinguished himself by the fact that he didn’t appear Islamophobic. But as head of state, he was entrapped by the state’s racial logic. In fact, it only took one uprising—the gilets jaunes protests [which were sparked in 2018 by a planned rise in taxes on diesel and petrol and soon transformed into a wider anti-government movement]—for him to become Islamophobic. Why? The gilets jaunes was not simply an uprising of poor whites; it was an uprising of poor whites who didn’t consider Islamophobia a priority. Even if many who participated in the uprisings were themselves racist—as by and large French people are—their priority wasn’t to rage against nonwhites; it was to target the state, to make social demands. And in an attempt to reconstruct unity on the basis of whiteness—to reconstruct a unity between poor whites, the bourgeoisie, and the state—the bourgeois state imposed an Islamophobic agenda. In other words: The state turned poor white people against Muslims in order to prevent unity of the working classes.

FV: The anti-migrant politics do not have the vast support in France that the media suggests. French people, the youth, say to themselves: “Okay, we are told we are ‘French,’ i.e. white, but we are poor. We cannot find jobs. Our children cannot find jobs. In some parts of the countryside, you have to go 200 kilometers before finding a hospital.” The gilets jaunes repopulated the language of the French Revolution: The people against the aristocrats. Suddenly there was a real fear among the bourgeoisie that people would turn against the state, so the state has wielded the specter of immigration to remind the French people that Frenchness is really about not being Muslim. There is a perpetual reconstitution of what it means to be French by way of these colonial and racist tropes. It very often takes place on the Muslim body, especially the body of the Muslim woman. A woman wears a burkini, and—oop!—the French nation-state reconstitutes itself. It is a constant process in which media, TV, films, books, declarations, manifestos, petitions, play an important role. The violent reactions of the state and the dominant classes show a deep fear of losing their position.

CS: Where have you seen movements to contest these attempts toward reconstituting Frenchness by way of a racialized other?

HB: After George Floyd was murdered, there was a mobilization. The movement in the US was refracted in France through the struggle for justice for Adama [Traoré, a Black man who died in French police custody after having been violently restrained]. Thirty thousand people—mostly Black and Arab people, who came to France in postcolonial contexts—marched in the streets. This mass mobilization against racism, plus the gilets jaunes? For the powers that be, it was a nightmare.

The first chance that presented itself for the state to break up these mobilizations and reassert its identity was the murder of Samuel Paty [a French secondary school teacher who was beheaded, allegedly because of a lesson about free speech in which he shared cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad naked]. That moment was really a tipping point. After Paty’s murder, there was a general ambiance of sacred unity around the new martyr—who had died, as it was being figured, at the hands of Islam. What Mélenchon did at that moment was critical. He said, I stand by my values, which is that we need a unity of the popular classes. Against every expectation, he refused the division and separation sown by the bourgeois state. This is why Mélenchon—even as there are many things one must critique him for—played an absolutely vital role, one that fundamentally distinguishes him from the other candidates. He is the only one who understands the function of Islamophobia as a counterrevolutionary tool. It’s not that we’re trying to figure out whether he’s a revolutionary—he’s not. Still, I really do think he’s something remarkable in France, where we’re going on 20 years of incessant Islamophobia.

CS: Where do you see these insurrectionary energies coming from?

HB: On the one hand, I attribute them to our antiracist struggles, and on the other, to the fact that the French government is becoming more and more right wing. The far right is becoming stronger and stronger.

FV: What we are seeing is really the return of the 19th-century bourgeoisie—very conservative, racist, colonial, Catholic, antisemitic, anti-migrant, terrified of the proletariat. Macron is really a child of that conservative French bourgeoisie, but he is able to mask it behind his youth, his cosmopolitanism, etc. He wants to appear as the young president who will close the chapter on colonial history—so he asked historians to write reports on the war in Algeria, on the stolen objects in the museum, etc. He wants colonialism to be memory—something people put behind them—so it won’t be political history, which can be activated in the present. His form of ceremonial reconciliation is aimed at erasing the radical dimensions of reparation and restitution, and representing Frenchness as a new form of humanitarianism. He says, “We recognize the crime, slavery was bad, colonialism was bad, objects were stolen, etc.,” while at the same time carrying out an incredible repression of real reckoning. There are tremendous attacks on decolonial theory in schools and universities, for example.

We are certainly seeing a rise in new forms of fascism—state feminism, corporate feminism, attacks on the university, attacks on decolonial theory—but there is a lot of emerging discussion and debate. In the women’s movement, feminists against mainstream feminism are becoming stronger. Likewise, though the repression of the gilets jaunes was really brutal, this brutality—the police doing to white people what they have always done to people of color—showed that, if you turn against the state, whiteness will not always protect you. This also showed the possibility—the necessity—of constructing an alliance between the poor white proletariat and decolonial movements.

HB: People—poor people, including nonwhite people—are angry, and they are expressing their anger by demonstrating in the streets.

FV: But we still have a lot of work to do to connect antiracism and antifascism. Not all antifascists have been connected with antiracist movements.

CS: The ongoingness of colonial histories finds vexed expression in the figure of Éric Zemmour, an Algerian Jew who takes no pains to couch his Islamophobic and anti-migrant racism. As far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen—the father of current presidential candidate Marine Le Pen—told the French newspaper Le Monde: “The only difference between Éric and me is that he’s Jewish. It’s hard to call him a Nazi or a fascist. This gives him greater freedom.” In opposition to the historical idea of the Jew as France’s other, we now see this figure of the Jew as, in a manner of speaking, the fullest realization of French nationalism. How might we understand Zemmour in historical context?

HB: I think you can consider Zemmour from a psychoanalytic angle—but psychoanalysis tied to political history. His neuroses are really a product of republican integration. He’s a good student, in a manner of speaking. That is to say, his parents accepted the narrative of integration. They came from Algeria. They were Jews, but not too much. They were first and foremost French. I imagine that when one is a Jew from Algeria in a France that is simultaneously Arabophobic and antisemitic, one is very worried about structural racism, and that worry shaped their route to integration, which is the only thing France offers everyone. In fact, I think Zemmour is tortured by this journey that he wants to complete. He wants to disappear the Jew in him, and he can’t stand to see Muslims or other Jews who want to maintain a sense of their identity. And, in fact, this completely delirious Islamophobia is in response to a Muslim world that accepts itself and doesn’t hide—where people observe Ramadan, go to the mosque, have Muslim or Arab names. He wants all victims of racism to stop resisting and dissolve into the sea of whiteness. He wants to make it all disappear because people who resist remind him of his own cowardice. In other words, he wants everyone to make the same sacrifice he made.

His attempts to rehabilitate Marshal Pétain [chief of state of Vichy France from 1940 to 1944], who participated in the final solution, are the logical conclusion of his journey. In undertaking this process of hysterical assimilation, Zemmour is saying, in a certain way: I want the French to exterminate me—culturally, if not physically. He’s saying, in fact: I want the whites to finish their work.

France produced this creature. He’s a creature of colonialism because he’s Algerian. He’s a creature of the relationship of France to nonwhites in general and to Jews in particular.

FV: It is important to remember, too, that even if Pétain is widely recognized as a collaborationist of Nazism, many Vichy-era judges, magistrates, police chiefs, army officers and civil servants remained in their posts after the war, or found careers in the overseas departments and then back in France again. The full circulation of their violence is not often discussed.

One of the most infamous figures is Maurice Papon, who was the secretary general for the police in Bordeaux [during World War II], where he participated in the deportation of Jewish children. And then he became the prefect of Constantine [during the Algerian War], where he repressed and tortured Algerians. In 1961, as a prefect in Paris, he orchestrated the October 17th massacre of Algerians demonstrating against the curfew that was imposed on them. So, at the state level, there is profound complicity between colonial repression and antisemitism. When Papon was on trial for the deportation of Jewish children, the 1961 massacre was not included in the accusation. But colonialism and the making of antisemitic France are deeply connected.

CS: Even as these circuits of violence expose how antisemitism and colonialism have both been mechanisms for reconstituting French nationalism, there’s also a way that the Holocaust—that urtext of antisemitic violence—is repeatedly called up in conversations at the highest level of the state. What’s the role of the memory of the Holocaust in particular in the construction of contemporary Frenchness?

FV: It’s part now of the national narrative. “We atone for that. Vichy was bad. And so now we can be past that.” But it allows for the weaponization of the specter of antisemitism. There are Islamophobic Jewish organizations in France, condemning BDS, and anything that appears pro-Palestinian.

CS: After the election, what comes next for the left and for decolonial struggle in France?

HB: After the elections, the conversation about decolonialism will die down among the white left. We are in a dialectical relationship with them. In a certain sense, the left vampirizes us, taking over the management of our questions. That is to say, in order for the left in France to represent itself in a certain way, it is necessary to make us disappear. Their movement is not our movement. Even if Mélenchon is more interesting than the other candidates on the question of Islamophobia, and more sympathetic to our struggles against police violence, he is not us.

The elections are cyclical, but the struggle is continuous. We will continue to pursue our project of building an international decolonial movement. We began one important iteration of this project in May 2018, when we convened the first Bandung du Nord conference, an international gathering of nonwhite movements and people in Paris, in a historical filiation with the 1955 Bandung. Whereas the original conference gathered nonwhite people in alliance with all of the colonized South, we called our reworking the Bandung of the North because our task is to create an alliance of nonwhite people living in the North—to think together about the coarticulation of anti-imperialism and anti-racism. And inside of these articulations, we’re thinking about questions of gender, ecology, economy, capitalism, etc.—but always on the condition that our anti-racism is formulated in terms of an anti-imperialist struggle. In France, any struggle that is anti-racist without attending to anti-imperialism will produce an integrationist politic—because that would mean that we’re looking to improve our situation only within the imperial borders of the Republic. We are not.

We believe that the South leads its own struggle. If one needs to fight against Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, African autocrats, or whoever, we are in solidarity with people who lead those struggles, but we do not lead them. Our best mode of solidarity with the global South is to fight against our own imperialism—right now, against Macron, against NATO—and therefore to liberate the South, in a certain sense, from us.

A previous version of this conversation stated that Valérie Pécresse ran on the ticket of the Soyons Libres party, which she founded in 2017. In fact, Pécresse was the candidate of The Republicans.

Claire Schwartz is the author of the poetry collection Civil Service (Graywolf Press, 2022) and the culture editor of Jewish Currents.