Fixing France: ‘We must face colonial past and revive shared values’

French-Algerian author Nabila Ramdani tells us why ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ must apply to everyone if France is to repair

Nabila Ramdani is an expert in French politics and the Arab world, she tells us of racism in France and colonial origins of the police
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Nabila Ramdani is one of The Connexion’s two regular political commentators. She provides a progressive perspective on life in France to counterbalance the conservatism of Simon Heffer.

The award-winning French-Algerian journalist is an expert in French politics and the Arab world. Her reports and contributions regularly appear on international news platforms including The Guardian and the BBC.

Ms Ramdani’s book Fixing France: How to Repair a Broken Republic, published in September, states clearly the nature of its contents in the title. The book has been widely praised by journalists working for British newspapers, and by academics at American universities.

Fixing France takes a look at France from the perspective of an outsider – a Muslim woman of Algerian descent who left France to study in Great Britain and the United States – and kicks back against the dominant narrative taught in French schools and universities.

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In the book, France’s relationship with its colonial past and its claimed republican principles behind which she identifies a nostalgia for monarchy are called into question as are the allegedly fake respectability campaigns of the far-right party Rassemblement National.

Fixing France reads a lot like The People’s History of the United States, the national bestseller by historian Howard Zinn that presented the history of the United States from the perspective of the working classes and sidelined sectors of society.

We interviewed Ms Ramdani by asking questions that relate to Fixing France’s chapters, and which explore the reality behind France’s public image.

It argues that although it projects an image of being a democratic egalitarian republic, in reality France delights in the British monarchy, keeps women away from the most powerful roles, is governed under authoritarian rules, and is yet to confront its racist and colonial past.

“Someone like me is not supposed to write books. I am supposed to stay in my banlieue [suburb]. Considering my social and religious upbringing, there is resistance about writing a book from that perspective,” said Ms Ramdani.

The fifth Republic is standing on its last legs and needs a sixth Republic, she argues. “I am sometimes asked whether France should adopt more Anglo-Saxon values. Not really, because it already has the constitutional tools.

“All we have to do is stick to our core values and return to them. Liberté, égalité, fraternité for everyone; we are the ones who exported these values and we must come back to them,” she said.

Is France a monarchy in disguise?

It certainly feels like we have an elected monarch in charge. The head of state does not wear a crown, but he lives in a palace, is supported by a very powerful army and can rule by decree rather than through parliamentary votes.

The Fifth Republic is built around a strongman who can pretty much do what he likes during his term of office, including choosing his own prime minister and members of his government.

They do not even have to be elected politicians. The president does not have to worry about criminal prosecution and can pardon cronies who get into trouble.

The French have always liked a powerful commander at the top – this certainly goes back to Napoléon Bonaparte and, of course, the pre-Revolutionary monarchs.

Emmanuel Macron is certainly seen as being arrogant and aloof – just like a monarch – but there is nothing new about this.

The huge respect that was shown at the British King and Queen’s State visit to France last September proves that there is still a certain amount of nostalgia about royalty in France, despite the fact that the French beheaded their own monarchs.

Perhaps it is some kind of guilt trip.

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Is there systemic racism in the police? Or maybe in France as a whole?

There is racism in the entire French security state. It is systemic in the sense that many of the police and army units have histories that lead straight back to the colonial period.

Taking a close look at the history of Algeria, once the jewel in the crown of the French Empire, one can see how powerful units were set up to deal directly with ‘unruly’ Algerians who were viewed as an internal threat to the country.

These security units were very violent and seldom played by the rules. Many of them still exist.

They include the BAC anti-criminal brigade and the French Foreign Legion. The Paris Police was one of the main collaborating units during World War Two. Its officers worked directly with the Nazis during the Holocaust.

There are multiple post-war examples of racism by the Paris Police, including the murder of up to 300 Algerians in October 1961.

Just this year, Nahel Merzouk, a 17 year old from an Algerian-Moroccan background was shot dead by a policeman in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, leading to racism allegations and nationwide rioting.

Is the Rassemblement National a fascist party?

The Rassemblement National is certainly a party with very strong links to fascism, including Nazism.

Founders included Third Reich military veterans who had sworn an oath to Hitler under its original name Front National (National Front). Others had been in the milice, the French paramilitary unit that collaborated with the Nazis.

There have been frequent incidents of members of the modern party being exposed as Nazi nostalgists. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the party, is a convicted racist, Holocaust denier, and Islamophobe. It is hard to get much more fascist than that.

It is easy to claim that his daughter, Marine Le Pen, has magicked all that extreme far-right sentiment away. I do not believe that for one moment.

Party members are fiercely anti-immigration and indeed anti anyone who comes from an immigrant background.

Bitter resentment over the loss of Algeria and other French colonies remains strong within the party. This fuels bigotry towards people of North African and African origins.

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How would you describe the French state?

The state is nominally liberal. It is built on the very impressive values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. It is also authoritarian.

The modern republic has always been a highly militarised state and one that takes law and order extremely seriously.

It was founded on terrorism and violent dissent – terreur is the French word. The revolutionary tendencies of France’s citizens are crucial to understanding the country.

The modern republic does not live up to its principles and nowadays lives on myths. People are better informed nowadays and are in a more advantageous position to express dissent than they were before.

This is of deep concern. So is a system which has seen a candidate from a party with its roots deep in fascism come second in the last two presidential elections.

If Marine Le Pen gets in next time, in 2027, then you can call France what you like – but it will be a crisis for sure.

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Is meritocracy a fantasy?

Absolutely. I think you would have to be very naïve to think otherwise.

Being born into the right family and having a prosperous background is the easiest way to enjoy a very successful life in France.

At the top end are billionaire families who dominate the economy, and successive governments do everything they can to look after them.

Of course, there are other success stories of determined French people from modest backgrounds who do well, but they usually have to go abroad to do so.

Fundamentally, inequalities are deep rooted for the majority of French people to serve the interest of an extremely wealthy and privileged class.

We are not encouraged to build our own society. The government does not help us, banks do not help us and most of our best people are forced to seek out opportunities in foreign countries.

Read more: Talking point: Is France really a meritocracy?

Is there such a thing as a French identity? What form does it take?

There is certainly a traditional French identity.

We can generalise about Gallic types who are socially conservative and rather conformist. They tend to be nationalistic and indeed quite patriotic. This does not mean, however, that they are content.

On the contrary, the French have a healthy scepticism about numerous aspects of life, not least of the people in power. They like to express dissent and this can certainly turn into rage when they see outrageous injustice.

French people like to think of themselves as being equal and they get particularly angry at the thought of an elite global class that likes to dominate everything and which hoards so much of the nation’s wealth for itself.

Should France implement racial statistics such as in the United States? And for what purpose?

Yes, France should have started compiling statistics about racial background long ago.

Data would support what everybody already knows, that those from ethnic minority backgrounds are generally treated appallingly.

The concept of a colour-blind republic is quite ridiculous in a country built on immigration.

If those in authority have figures which prove widespread discrimination, then they can start tackling that discrimination as a serious problem. It is, right now, conveniently ignored.

What is France’s relationship toward its colonial past? How has it been so difficult to acknowledge it?

There are large segments of French society that have never come to terms with the end of colonialism.

Plenty of people, including members of the Rassemblement National party, are still outraged to have lost Algeria to the Algerians in 1962, for example.

Files are slowly being released about the colonial period, but the process is still incomplete because authority figures want to cover up the horrors, and of course the names associated with those crimes.

State violence, including killing a very large number of people, was part and parcel of colonialism.

This is why surviving family and friends of those who carried out the persecution want it kept secret. In turn, descendants of the victims want truth and justice.

It is never too late to hold an inquiry. The French state is always reluctant to do this.

Macron has missed a sincere opportunity to pardon what France has done to Algeria, to speak about what historians and the archives already say.

It would have brought more social peace in France.

Read more: ‘Macron’s bid for French-Algerian reconciliation is hollow nonsense’

Is France still a powerful foreign country on the international scene?

France remains a nuclear power with a very large military and it has one of the largest economies in the world, so yes, it is very important globally.

However, it is finding it very difficult to keep up its position in a rapidly changing world.

Africa is a good example of a continent where French power and influence is diminishing rapidly.

There have been numerous coups against pro-Paris administrations in recent years, all of them in countries that were once part of the French Empire.

Meanwhile, the focus of French governments is on EU power, rather than just French power.

What is ‘the art of being French’?

To be rather unworldly, to believe in myths and to try to romanticise as much as possible. That way you can enjoy the history, the culture, the beautiful countryside and the like without getting too worried about anything else.

But it is often only an option for those with status and money.

Too many others are being left behind without secure jobs or homes or any kind of confidence about the future.

Insecurity is rife, especially for those who do not conform to traditional French stereotypes.

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