x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Zidane, Dati and la Beurgeoisie are the exceptions that prove the rule

While there are successes among French citizens of Algerian descent, their career paths are more often defined by frustration or departure a half-century after the two nations severed their colonial ties, Colin Randall, Foreign Correspondent, reports.

The alienation felt by many Algerians in France was expressed in an anti-racism march from Marseille to Paris in 1983.
The alienation felt by many Algerians in France was expressed in an anti-racism march from Marseille to Paris in 1983.

MARSEILLE // From the former footballer Zinédine Zidane, film stars and leading businessmen to the charismatic politician Rachida Dati, success stories among French people of Algerian descent are not difficult to find.

Fifty years after the country unlocked the chains of colonialism, there is even a collective nickname for those who make something of their lives: la Beurgeoisie, derived from the colloquial term "Beur" for someone with north African Arab roots.

But as Algeria quietly marks the important symbolic anniversary of its independence, relations between the two countries, and especially between French and Maghrebin communities in France itself, remain troubled and complex.

When Algerian settlers in France began their "March of the Beurs" from Marseille to Paris in 1983, the cry was for equality and an end to racism.

Few would claim almost 30 years later that any such thing has been achieved. Among many Algerians, as well as Moroccans and Tunisians, systematic discrimination has bred alienation to the extent that coexistence often means people live parallel lives rather than integrate. And a few are drawn to radical politics on which the West, and France in particular, is seen as the enemy.

In Olivier Baroux's 2010 film L'Italien, a young man named Mourad, born in Algeria but brought up in France, finds prejudice standing in the way of a good job or decent home. So he reinvents himself as Dino, an Italian, flourishes in car sales and rents a luxury flat.

The reality may be somewhat different but the film captured a familiar theme. Mr Baroux conducted research among young Maghrebins beforehand and said at the time: "All told the same story. They have to show remarkable pragmatism. Employers do not want to read a CV from Mohammed if they also have ones from Gilles and Jean-Luc."

Dr Jim House, a British academic who became fascinated with Algeria while studying in Saint-Etienne, a city near Lyon with a large Maghrebin population, says it is easy for discontent among French Muslims to boil over.

He believes official refusal to re-examine not only the Algerian war of independence but colonialism history more broadly, coupled with feelings of ostracism from mainstream society, means France "somehow manages to struggle along but can occasionally bubble over and, with tensions so high, only a small spark is needed".

Some, denied the prospect of advancement in France, just leave. "France needs a range of measures to stop a brain drain," said Dr House, director of the centre for French and francophone cultural studies at Leeds University in northern England. "Very gifted people find they can get work in London, Montreal or Brussels and are lost to France. There is no real social mobility, just that great sense of desperation and marginalisation that cannot be healthy in any society."

The election row over the extent of halal meat production in France, launched by the far right but hijacked by the centre-right president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is a classic example of an issue widely seen by Muslims as being used to demonise their community.

The ban on the face-covering niqab in public was also interpreted as an attack on Islam, despite - but to some extent because of - the fact that so few Muslim women in France actually wore them.

And France took 37 years to acknowledge that a police attack on Algerian demonstrators in Paris in 1961 - five months before the signing of the Evian accord signalled Algerian independence 50 years ago yesterday - caused multiple fatalities. First official reports had spoken of two dead; estimates now reach 200 or more.

Some French politicians counter that Algerian factions have continued, despite independence, to regard France as a sworn enemy. In 1994, as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) carried the Algerian civil war to French territory, an Air France passenger flight was hijacked with the alleged aim of crashing it on Paris.

French commandos stormed the plane on the ground at Marseille airport, killing all four hijackers. The GIA killed four Roman Catholic priests, three of them French, in revenge at Tizi-Ouzou, east of Algiers.

As recently as 2005, a militant group that has subsequently become known as Al Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb called for violence against France as "our enemy number one, the enemy of our religion, the enemy of our community".

Rational French opinion sees such sentiments as restricted to a tiny minority. Many politicians, academics, trade unionists and writers actively combat the discrimination on which resentment feeds.

Zidane's rise to football's highest levels from an unpromising start in a Marseille suburb, where he grew up one of five children of Algerian immigrant parents, brought him national adulation that easily survived the disgrace of being sent off for violent conduct in the 2006 World Cup final.

He is clearly an exception and no one suggests the achievements of a few footballers, actors and politicians will overcome decades of prejudice. But with intense media interest in the 50th anniversary of Algerian independence has come the hope of more measured debate on Franco-Algerian relations and the shared history.

Referring to the absence of official commemoration of this weekend's anniversary, Benjamin Stora, a respected historian from an Algerian Jewish family background, told Agence France-Presse: "There is on the other hand big demand for historical memory on the part of society, from young generations who want to know what happened.

"While it was France that lost the war in Algeria, paradoxically it is in France where it is much talked about, while in Algeria it is little talked about. Maybe that will come."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae