France is under siege by its own ghosts

PARIS—The massacre at Charlie Hebdo—and the manhunt for the suspected assassins that has just led to their killing by French forces—have obliged the millions of visitors who had mostly perceived the City of Light as a theme park of luxury goods, well-behaved children and romance along the Saint-Germain-des-Pres to sit down for a violently intense and long overdue French lesson.

Now, three days after two gunmen—allegedly radical French-born Algerian Islamic brothers—assassinated 12 people at a newspaper specifically named to be a thorn in the political arrogance of President “Charlie” De Gaulle and his successors, Paris has erupted in a disturbing wave of violence and police action that includes the death of the two brothers and the release of a hostage they’d taken. Police say a hostage-taker with possible connections to the brothers was also separately killed, but not before the death of at least four hostages he’d taken at a Jewish grocery store in eastern Paris. Reports indicate that a “religious disturbance” has erupted at the tourist-packed Trocadero in the 16th Arrondissement. More than 90,000 military and police have been mobilized to quell fears, restore calm and catch the terrorists.

The inconvenient truth driving these events and the politics surrounding them isn’t mentioned in French class, however. For that, you must go back to May 8, 1945, the official end of World War II, Victory-in-Europe Day. Yet 5/8/45 was also the moment France experienced its 9/11/01, and the cascade effect of the massacre in the Algerian market town of Setif continues to provoke a theological fear that the gargoyles atop Notre Dame Cathedral could never muster against the pope’s blasphemers.

Algerian Muslims demonstrating for independence from their colonial French masters slaughtered more than 100 Europeans, known as pieds noirs, in five days of fighting. Official reports from the region, as assembled by the historian Andrew Hussey, stated that the mob castrated men. “Women were raped; local religious leaders called it a jihad and declared that it was the religious duty of all Muslims to kill all unbelievers,” the dispatches read.

Decapitated French heads rolled down the streets. Throats were slit. As Hussey tells it, “despite the quiet mood of the press, the French response was in fact merciless.” Historian Alistair Horne, in his book A Savage War of Peace, recounts an otherwise occupied De Gaulle blithely unleashing French troops, who killed and tortured anywhere from 6,000 to 45,000 Algerian Muslims while the rest of the world celebrated the defeat of Nazi Germany.

The armed Islamic Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), funded by the Kremlin and private donations from Middle Eastern potentates, counterattacked. The Algerian War was on. What De Gaulle shrugged off as “the beginning of an insurrection snuffed out by Governor-General (Yves) Chataigneau” became the hobgoblin that the French have never been able to exorcise.

As this Quartz chart shows, France today can boast some of the most favorable views towards Muslims in Europe. The metrics—certainly scientific and undoubtedly accurate, are nonetheless misleading—because the ghost of the Algerian War and terror inflicted by both sides continue to stir anxieties and prejudices that surface in moments like now.

It’s only when the impolite talk of France’s relationship with its Muslim citizens begins that it becomes clear why the extreme-right National Front political party and others can use the carnage at Charlie Hebdo to curry support. The FLN divided Algeria into seven “wilayas” or regions under military control. The declared objective: “The restoration of the Algerian State, within the framework of the principles of Islam,” according to the FLN’s historical documents. The first six wilayas were located in Algeria. The seventh wilaya is Paris. The order has never been rescinded.

Still, French prime minister Manuel Valls, a Spaniard by birth and presidential aspirations by nature, insists that “France is at war with terrorism, not with religion.” His insistence doesn’t mean that’s how this will play out in French culture and politics.

Once naive foreign shoppers speaking high-school French are now keenly aware of Michel Houellebecq’s new novel Submission, and that “WELL-beck” is the correct way to pronounce his name. The denouement: The president of the Republic in 2022 is Muslim Mohammed Ben Abbes, France’s bare-breasted poster girl Marianne will undergo a mastectomy and Frenchmen will no longer need a mistress because Islam allows them have as many wives as they want.

“The novel marks the date in history when the ideas of the far-right make a grand return to serious French literature,” said Laurent Joffrin, editor in chief of the far-left newspaper Libération, founded by French army meteorologist and existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

Those without benefit of a regular Sunday-morning table at Sartre’s old corner inside Cafe de Flore should now grasp that Eric Zemmour’s best-selling 500-page screed, The French Suicide, is a nostalgic and vitriolic romp through the post-World War II events that conspired to create today’s French malaise (known locally as inquiétude) and throws gasoline on the firestorm of approval currently enjoyed by the xenophobic National Front Leader Marine Le Pen.

“We aren’t fighting a war for free expression,” Zemmour recently bullied over the airwaves of RTL radio. “We’re fighting a war, period. France has always been a country of civil wars and wars of religion.”

Yet Houellebecq’s ribald vision of France as an Islamic state with great cheese, and the gnarled arguments Zemmour employed to decry anyone who doesn’t conform to the myth that one must know all seven verses of “La Marseillaise” to be French are an unsettling echo of the pretzel logic debated in more French homes than most reasonable outsiders would be comfortable with. To be sure, such talk is not raised in mixed company, particularly in a country where some 6.5 million French North-African Muslims make up 10% of the population.

“Denial and hypocrisy,” Le Pen said immediately in the aftermath of the bloodbath at Charlie Hebdo, “are not an option.” As she tells it, she is the 2017 presidential election alternative to Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy. According to the polls, the woman some French publicly scorn as the “devil’s daughter” leads all her rivals.

Quartz’s full coverage of the attack in Paris can be found here.

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