To most Americans, the recent mass murder at Charlie Hebdo was about two things: homegrown terror and freedom of speech. Both are true, at least somewhat. But Americans who are trying to make sense of the event should consider another factor — a national wound that is France’s version of America’s racism.
Like in the U.S., France’s dominant population (at least on its European mainland) has for centuries seen itself as white and of European descent. France’s exploitation of people of color has mostly taken place somewhere else — especially in Africa, now the home of the majority of the Earth’s French-speaking people — as part of France’s long chapter as a European colonial power. The United States liberated itself from colonialism, then set to work building a nation, in part on the backs of slaves of African origin. Like Great Britain, France built its modern civilization partly on the work of people on other continents. Most French people have only had to encounter their prejudice directly over the past 50 years or so.
Now, after immigration of Algerians and other Africans following France’s loss of the Algerian War in 1962, France is currently almost 8 percent Muslim by affiliation or identification. (In the U.S., that figure hovers around 1 percent.) The son of Algerian immigrants, French midfielder Zinédine Zidane shocked the French Republic when he led the French national soccer team to victory over Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final, waking France suddenly to the reality that they were a people of many colors and backgrounds. The Paris terrorists, Amedy Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers, who claimed affiliation with jihad and the so-called Islamic State, were also French, the children of immigrants. And these French terrorists are unusual, if symbolic, anomalies, since the vast majority of French identifying as “Muslim” are statistically as secular in their daily lives as the French population as a whole. They are about as dangerous to public safety as your garden-variety Baraboo Presbyterian.
The French, who like other countries do not want to see a repeat of 9/11, have to take into account in their public pronouncements about Islamist terror the millions of French who identify as having roots in Muslim-predominant parts of the world. At many levels, France seems, at least partly, to be coming to terms with a new and visible generation of French men and women, millions of them the children and grandchildren of African immigrants.
Je suis musulman et je suis Charlie, read the sign of another protester at one of France’s many rallies since the crisis. “I am a Muslim, and I am Charlie.” This is a heartening sign — not just because it reminds us how unlikely the vast majority of French youth are to be criminals, but also because France might be on the road to healing its Republic sooner than most of us thought.
Ritt Deitz is executive director of the UW-Madison Professional French Masters Program.