'The witch, that suits everyone’: Interview with Houria Bouteldja
The Parti des Indigènes de la République [Party of Indigenes of the Republic – PIR] has just turned fifteen years old. Houria Bouteldja announced on 6th October her resignation from the movement that she co-founded and that has shaken up the political field. Even in her absence she is omnipresent in France. In particular through the ideas spread by the PIR. Without achieving a Gramscian cultural hegemony, so-called ‘Indigenist’ ideas have become the stumbling block on which many French certainties are wavering. A demarcation line that forces people to take a position.
Ehko met with Houria Bouteldja before the announcement of her resignation, and subsequently discussed this with her. She agreed to answer questions often asked about her but not directly to her, and to explain her decision.
[Ehko]: You resigned from the PIR and explained the reasons for your resignation. You said in particular that the PIR had become ‘too radioactive’ and a ‘burden’ for your friends. What do you mean by this? Is this the end of the PIR?
[Houria Bouteldja]: I don’t know if it is the end of the PIR, because some brothers have decided to continue the adventure.
I would have preferred a dissolution so that things would be clearer and more in line with what some of us are thinking. The PIR has reached the end of a cycle that produced an incredible political work, but it has seen its linchpin sacrificed on the altar of ‘reason’ or cowardice.
We have become radioactive because the resistance of the White political field has been active and continuous. The White immune system, as I like to call it, has mobilised all its defences to save the structures of its domination. And the left is not to be outdone. It took fifteen years to totally isolate us, which is almost a tribute from these forces, as it could have been faster. All they had to do was buy us off or co-opt us, which no one was able to do. Because we were honest, the only solution was to make us radioactive and isolate us.
Consorting with us became a cost to our allies. That is what happened. It was not done without Indigène complicity, of course, but that is very commonplace. Since this announcement we have received tons of tributes and testimonies of gratitude. Many call themselves ‘orphans’, and say they are stunned.
For our part, there’s a bit of depression mixed with immense pride. God will open other ways for us – inshallah.
Once and for all, what do you mean by ‘White’?
White is not just a social relationship but above all a power relationship, produced on the one hand by colonial history and on the other by the states and ideologies that have established Westerners as superior. Whites are those who objectively benefit from it, whatever their political convictions. Indigènes are the category against whom this domination is exercised.
Who are you, Houria Bouteldja, in your own words?
I am the daughter of Algerian immigrants. I was born in Algeria but I came to France at the age of six months. My mother was a housewife, my father a construction worker. I did very little political activity during my university career, when I studied languages. This part of my life is of no interest even if I think with hindsight that my belated commitment was an attempt to cure all the neuroses I had as the daughter of immigrants.
I studied in Lyon and arrived in Paris in the early 2000s, just before September 11th. In the aftermath there was an explosion of Islamophobia, then there was the debate on the veil. I was personally very affected by media Islamophobia. I was never committed to the left, I was never attracted to it, I would never have set foot there. But I was looking for spaces where I could meet people who looked like me, who had the same concerns as me. I was also demonstrating for Palestine. It was the time of ‘Ni Putes Ni Soumises’ [Neither Whores nor Submissive]. I met Pierre Tevanian with whom I launched the petition ‘Yes to secularism, no to exceptional laws’. This petition converged with others, notably one launched by Christine Delphy and another from anti-racist circles. The combination of the three petitions created the movement ‘Une École pour Tous et Toutes’ [A School For All]. That’s how I began to campaign, in the context of the law on the veil.
So activism began for you in 2004 and not 2001?
2001 created a general climate of Islamophobia. I was shaken by the simultaneous appearance of Ni Putes Ni Soumises and the law on religious signs in schools, known as the law on the veil.
You say that you already felt the weight of Islamophobia. How did you experience this personally?
I wasn’t veiled and that’s basically not the issue. Islamophobia is a metamorphosis of anti-Arab racism. When you target Muslims, you target Arab Muslims. I could see that through the veil law they were targeting all of us.
I don’t come from a politicised family but my parents are Algerians [smile]. Spontaneously, I was on the side of the Indians against the cowboys. We were the Indians of France. I connected the international question with domestic problems. I could see that the war on Islam was leading to the destruction of Iraq. All this was already very clear to me.
Why didn’t you recognise yourself in ‘Ni Putes ni Soumises’?
When I first heard about it, I went to one of their meetings, without any prejudice. I heard speeches that connected neighbourhood violence with violence in Algeria. I wondered why this link with Algeria rather than France, since the violence was produced by French society. I am not saying there is no link, if only because of a patriarchal tradition specific to the Mediterranean. But, in that case, we have to be rigorous. It was clearly ‘Arabs’ who were targeted. In fact, the reading was racist, essentialist. Indigène men in France were equated with those back home. However, men in France are the product of French society. I was immediately turned off by this discourse.
We created Les Blédardes together with activists who were fighting against the law on religious signs. We saw Ni Putes Ni Soumises as being in the lineage of French colonial ideology: to take women away from their families, to cut them off from their history. To say ‘Blédardes’ is to affirm this belonging, refusing to deny this dimension in us. As early as 2004, something was expressed that was going to be a cornerstone for me: solidarity with dominated men. Because the target was Indigène men, and we were the instrument of this systematic attack, it was necessary to affirm that we women were in solidarity with them. It was a way of saying that we refused to make the already complicated gender relations in our communities still more conflictual, and that the rest was up to us.
It is not true that we ignored sexism and patriarchy. We recognised them. But our position was that the fight against racism was a prerequisite for a discussion on sexism. My view has always been that in order to loosen the bind that women are in, men must be rehabilitated. It’s paradoxical, but that’s the way it is. That’s why feminism was not self-evident. Also, this word is trapped by history, as feminism was used a lot in the past to break the resistance of colonised peoples. My conviction has always been that before attacking men, they must already have the right to exist as a political subject. Something that is never done or said. Supposedly only women are dominated. However, if there is not an offer made to non-White men, the conflict between men and women will not only continue but will become entrenched. This bind has to be loosened first of all.
You say that you don’t recognise yourself in the left. Do you mean the institutional left or the far left?
In neither of the two. I’ve never had any kind of chemistry with the left, basically because it’s White. My intuition that the left was not for us preceded my certainty and my later commitments. This was confirmed over time. I helped to create a movement that was precisely at odds with this left. In order to expose its ‘White’ character, I had to break with it. That is the rupture we made with the Appel des Indigènes.
So the left’s awareness came from the indictment made by the PIR?
We were not the first immigrant movement to criticise the left. But the Appel des Indigènes consummated the divorce in 2005. We were emerging from a painful debate on the veil, and on this subject the left and far left were completely useless. If the law on the veil was passed, it was among other things because of capitulation by this White left.
Capitulators or accomplices?
At first, they were accomplices, but with nuances. When we created ‘Une École Pour Tous’, this was also with the help of certain sections of the far left. But they were in a minority. The left was either uncomfortable with the law on the veil or complicit in it.
How do you explain this?
The left is White. It is Eurocentric. It believes itself to be materialist but it is actually idealist. For example, it is anticlerical, and this is understandable in the historical context of a powerful church at the heart of the state. But, as a materialist, you understand that neither Islam nor Muslims dominate the French state.
Muslims are the poorest section of the working class
These two elements should have made the left the main allies of Muslims. Without discussion. But there was discussion, on the backs of the poorest classes. The left did not see the wretched of the earth, they saw the veil. Again this Eurocentrism. The White experience prevailed over everything. Liberation would be the way White people experience it. The experience of White women would be the experience of humanity. But the veil affair showed that this particular experience of gender relations is not the experience of everyone. At that time, there were only residues of the anti-colonialist left and no political anti-racism. The left became the accomplice of those who are now its bitter political opponents, those who today repress the social movement.
But, before this law on the veil, there was already a conflict between the left and the Indigène community. That’s the whole story of the 1983 March for Equality, which was a prefiguration of political anti-racism. The activists of that time were attacking the violence of the police, a state institution. The left responded with a formidable antidote: moral anti-racism. To sum up, the bad guys were either the next-door neighbours or the far right. But the marchers were targeting the police. So we were stifled for about fifteen years by this soft ideology. Everyone supported SOS Racisme, including the LCR (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire). I didn’t like this ‘Don’t touch my buddy’ slogan, which reeked of paternalism.
The word ‘we’ that you sometimes use, who does it include?
First of all, I have no problem saying ‘we’. The question of belonging is a legitimate one. I can say ‘we North Africans’, ‘we Algerians’, ‘we Arabs’ without feeling the need to complicate my identity.
It’s as if we have to play down the most racialised aspect of our being, the one that by its very essence is an attack on Whites. I feel that when I say, for example, ‘I am a Muslim but I don’t do Ramadan’, it’s a way of protecting White people from my full humanity, which is intrinsically hostile to them. So, in order not to hurt them, I have to dissolve myself. This is why I need to say ‘I am Arab’ even if I am in fact Berber. Otherwise, it means running into an impasse. As a result, I don’t feel obliged to say that I am plural. I prefer to claim rough and indigestible identities. So, there is this ‘we’ of origins, of a direct and palpable heritage. There is also the ‘we’ of a social category, a specific condition of post-colonial immigration in France. And, finally, there is the political ‘we’ of the Indigènes de la République: the colonial subject that struggles and organises itself.
There could be another ‘we’, that of convergence with the left.
When the NPA (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste) supports the march of dignity, I say ‘we’ with the NPA. It engages in a decolonial process with us. A project which is not the defence of White proletarians but the defence of Indigènes. When a White political force defends the interests of Indigènes, a political ‘we’ is formed. A prelude to the political community that we have to bring about.
Without discussing the modalities of this defence?
Without discussing the prerogatives of Indigène political autonomy and the direction of a struggle. This autonomy has been demanded for forty years. When the left transforms our struggle, it encroaches on our priorities. When it sticks to the demands of the lowest strata of society then the ‘we’ becomes obvious. That’s how we push back the racialisation of social relations.
Where do the name PIR and the word ‘Indigène’ come from?
I came up with the name in 2003. It was six months before the twentieth anniversary of the equality march. During the veil affair, I thought about how we’d marched twenty years ago and they’d made fun of us. I got the idea from thinking that we were being treated like natives and that colonisation was not over. The idea of a colonial continuum struck me.
We’re here to say that the egalitarian Republic is a myth, even though everyone goes on about it. In this Republic, there are sub-citizens. That’s who we are. Then the law of 2004 was passed. I always try to bring the North-South question and the domestic question together. Other militants were attracted to this idea and we decided to launch an appeal ‘We are the Indigènes of the Republic’, together with the ‘Une École Pour Tous’ movement, pro-Palestinian milieus, West Indian and anti-imperialist committees.
Do you see the 2004 law against the veil as being in the lineage of the Indigenous Code?
Yes, an implicit code, which is not presented as such. I know very well that the era of the Indigenous Code is over. However, some forms remain: systemic discrimination corresponds to systemic sub-citizenship and even a form of social/racial apartheid. Even if I say that we are ‘aristocratic Indigènes’ in relation to the wretched of the earth who live under an imperialist regime.
This word ‘aristocratic’... The PIR could be reproached for a form of disconnection from working-class neighbourhoods, for being a party of intellectuals, a sort of enlightened but disconnected avant-garde. What do you think of this?
Careful – when I say ‘aristocratic’, I’m not talking here about the social composition of the PIR. It’s a word that I apply to all Indigènes in France, whatever their social category. We don’t live in an ex-colonial country subject to North-South relations, and despite everything we have an advantage linked to Whiteness. But within this whitened Indigène population there are class contradictions.
As for the stigma of ‘intellectuals’, ‘Indigène bobos’, it makes me smile. First of all, because almost all of us come from a working-class background. Then because we set out to be an organisation producing political theory.
A political movement has to be structured and equipped with theoretical and political weapons
All organisations operate with political thinking and I find it strange that we are blamed for this. We want to be an organisation of cadres. And to form cadres. The right also produce thought, intellectuality that serves Whiteness, at every level. People don’t necessarily read Alain Finkielkraut or Marcel Gauchet for example, but their thought structures and infuses them. It’s the same with us. Not everyone has to read our theoretical texts, but they structure our political strategy. In addition, we have other modalities of action more in phase, such as demonstrations, public debates, the creation of collectives against police violence, etc.
More broadly, Indigènes have been excluded from political transmission.
Anti-racist movements have been prevented from establishing themselves and training people politically. The MIB (Mouvement de l’Immigration et des Banlieues), for example, has paid the price for this. The Communist Party has also disengaged itself from political formation of the White working classes. That is a general observation. Basically, you have to know this golden rule: the more politically radical you are, the less you get into a neighbourhood.
If the PIR doesn’t get in, it’s not because it’s rejected by the inhabitants or because it’s too snobbish to go there. It’s mainly because all the forces have joined together to prevent it. The ostracising of the PIR extends to the Indigène community. If I’m a witch and everyone rejects me, no one will dare invite me to a meeting. The world of voluntary organisations lives on municipal subsidies. It is easy to say that we are ‘communitarians’ or ‘anti-Semites’. We have an autonomous discourse, we are not financed by anyone. The only way to control us is to boycott us.
We have a top-down thinking. This pragmatism has produced the effects that everyone knows, as in the end ‘Indigenist’ thinking has triumphed. The two despised organisations that have made a breakthrough in France on a national level by implementing a strategy from above are the PIR and the CCIF (Collective against Islamophobia in France).
But how do you explain the fact that your ideas have become central to political debate?
Because ideas politicise. It’s not just a question of being right. You have to convince. In order to convince, you have to arm yourself with a political apparatus and a strategy. Of course, you have to know your environment and master political contradictions. You have to create a balance of power. This is what we have been doing for fifteen years.
You are invited to speak at prestigious universities abroad, at international events. At the same time, you are invisible in France, quoted and accused in your absence without being able to defend yourself. Why such a contrast?
In France, we have shattered all the issues that are part of the French myth that everyone shares – the Republic, equality... We have shattered the matrix of White universalism. A friend of mine said to me, ‘You have to create incomprehension.’ That’s what we do.
We have also attacked all the emancipatory ideas that make up the DNA of the far left: feminism as against decolonial feminism and non-hegemonic masculinities; anti-Semitism versus philo-Semitism. We showed how the far left generally tended to be philo-Semitic because they did not question the White supremacism of the nation-state. Jews are therefore still sub-citizens, racial subjects whose function is also to hold the compass of the good White conscience.
What about homosexuality?
Rather the question of the politicisation of sexuality... To escape this debate, people pretended to believe I said that homosexuality did not exist in the Arab world, whereas I was talking about LGBT identities. There was a real explosion.
Our position is that gay identity is not universal. Secondly, that the politicisation of sexualities is not universal either. We are not the only ones saying this. Marxist thinkers have shown how and why sexuality has been politicised in liberal democracies. We agree with these analyses, but we add a decolonial perspective. People must stop trying to ‘civilise’ the sexuality of non-Whites. There are many environments where invisibility is a real choice.
We started to clear this ground around 2013. Since then, many scholars have walked in our footsteps without ever mentioning us. When you speak as a scholar, you are validated by your peers. When you speak as a decolonial activist, you are homophobic.
People know that we are not homophobic at all. But they won’t defend us because it is important that we remain outside the pale. Basically, scholarship has no impact on politics, whereas our analyses do translate into politics. For example, because we won’t let anyone civilise our sexuality, we can’t accept without criticism ideas that want to impose, on the Third World or on immigrant neighbourhoods, gay life forms that are specific to a particular background and social class. Thus, even if we might be led to make the same analyses, we are contradicting the academic world, which could lose credibility if it validates our theses. Because this world, like the rest of the White political field, defends first and foremost the interests of Whites.
In your opinion, are social issues, precariousness and access to healthcare sidelined in favour of so-called societal issues?
What bothers me is that ‘Marriage for All’ is considered revolutionary whereas it is globally part of a homonationalist project. What bothers me most is that the defence of completely legitimate causes (and I include here the fight against homophobia) is most of the time to the detriment of the class struggle in general, as if a global synthesis between the two was not possible. Now, it seems to me that the decolonial line is capable of this, since it integrates anti-imperialism which is in total contradiction to homonationalism. But, since priority is given to greater integration of Whites in whiteness, the choices are almost written in advance.
The state needs a base, and Whites are its social base. When the Socialist Party agreed to authorise marriage for all, it was in part because this measure does not challenge capitalism, or the European treaties, and still less imperialism.
The crux of the debate is that the left that mobilises for this could have mobilised just as forcefully against unemployment and precariousness which it should also be concerned about – I’m not even talking of Indigène issues. No, what matters is the strengthening of the racial pact, which is itself a condition for the maintenance of world order. For White women, it is the same process through femonationalism.
Thus, it becomes imperative to maintain doubts about my supposed homophobia. As long as I remain a witch, the debate cannot take place and good conscience is safe. On the other hand, if I become a valid interlocutor, the left takes a risk. That of making a great discovery about itself. And it’s true that for one’s personal dignity the discovery can be painful: maybe they are not as anti-anti-Semitic as all that, not as anti-racist as all that, not as feminist as all that, not as anti-homophobic as all that. Perhaps, at the bottom of all, their movement is the preservation of their little world. And this discovery is indeed quite terrible. So, rather than risking this discovery, the witch Houria Bouteldja suits everyone.
So everything they reproach you for is actually what they are?
Do you basically demand a right to indifference? Indifference to people’s sexuality, identity, etc., on a basis of historical materialism?
Yes. If Marx were alive, he would be very happy with us. They’re drowning in total idealism.
Why do your critics accuse you of being anti-Semitic?
To start with, they should know what anti-Semitism is. Secondly, they cite for example my story about the little boy wearing the yarmulke [from the book Whites, Jews, and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/whites-jews-and-us): ‘The worst thing is the look in my eyes when I pass a child wearing a yarmulke in the street. That furtive moment when I stop to look at him. The worst thing is the disappearance of my indifference towards you, the possible prelude to my inner ruin’], saying that this is anti-Semitism. Except that I am not talking about myself as an actual anti-Semite, but the process of becoming an anti-Semite (‘the possible prelude to my inner ruin’), which is what I say in the text that I fear.
Moreover, I dare to say, as Frantz Fanon said: ‘A society is either racist or it is not.’ Being myself an element of this society, I am affected by racism in one way or another. And that is true of all other oppressions.
So, in the remarks that you are attacked for you speak as a French person, with the legacy of what France has done to Jews, while people who criticise you have seen a sign of so-called ‘Arab-Muslim anti-Semitism’?
Yes, in this passage, I am talking about my relationship to Jews as a product of French society. The society in which we all live. I am talking about the degradation of the relationship between Indigenes and Jews. I am thinking about [neofascist and fake “anti-Zionist”] Alain Soral, about how more and more Indigènes become anti-Semitic because they live in a racist society. That it is the nation-state that imposes a hierarchy in which Jews are in some sense better treated. The Indigènes de la République know that Jews are also a kind of Indigène. But the ordinary Indigène thinks that there is no reason why Jews should be cossetted and not them. Then there are integrationist Indigènes who, instead of questioning the White hierarchy and supremacy, want to simply take the place of the Jew.
There is a gradual evolution of Jews towards the right and towards Zionism, whereas previously they were on the far left. That is not essentialising. Given the assumption that a society is racist or not, then a society is either anti-Semitic or not. Given that we live in an anti-Semitic society, we are probably more or less anti-Semitic.
The far left makes me laugh. They build a ‘safe’ political space, non-racist, non-sexist... According to their assumptions, they are protected from anti-Semitism by a cordon sanitaire. But, sometimes, a red-brown element appears inside. What does the White left do then? It huddles together as if transfixed, cries out in horror and ends up expelling this element to the other side of the line. The body is healthy once more and they are happy.
We don’t reason like that. Rather than believing that other people are anti-Semitic and we are not, we prefer to start by asking ourselves about our relationship to the nation-state and to Jews, which affects you whether you like it or not. I am not going to be able to eradicate homophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism from myself by an act of will. It doesn’t happen like that.
I know that this system makes the Indigène body savage [ensuavagé]. If we want to put an end to this savageification [ensauvagement], we have to confront our relationship to the boy with the yarmulke, to human relationships that are transformed by this racial hierarchy. Once this is recognised, the question arises as to what should be done to combat this evil.
Jews must have their place in this society. Just like Indigènes, Muslims, Blacks. And like Whites. Everyone must have their place! All these questions are intimately linked to the North-South relationship: there is domestic racism only because there is imperialism.
Your thinking has made waves within France. How does it potentially disrupt the question of North-South relations?
We are less disruptive on questions of anti-imperialism than on domestic issues. On the one hand, because there is traditionally an anti-imperialist and internationalist left, and on the other hand because anti-imperialism has retreated so much that nobody cares.
This year in Algeria, for example, did we see the left supporting the Hirak protests? Not a peep! A year of incredible mobilisation, but nothing. I think it’s extraordinary that the whole left doesn’t put all its strength into supporting the Algerians, the Moroccans in the Rif, the Sudanese and other peoples of the South. I took part in the street demonstrations in Paris, there were only Algerians.
But do Algerians need this support from the French left?
Of course they do. The far left should do its duty. Macron acts against the interests of the Algerian people, he supports ‘Françalgérie’. When people demonstrate in France, it isn’t to give the Algerians lessons but against what Macron is doing. That’s what effective solidarity is all about.
As far as imperialism is concerned, Zionism remains a taboo because good Western conscience and left or far-left philo-Semitism is involved.
Is anti-Zionism the stumbling block?
Do people find your position on Palestine unforgiveable?
It’s worse than that. They cannot find anything in our position that has anything to do with anti-Semitism. What is unforgiveable is not being anti-Semitic. They try to find anti-Semitism in us to validate the equation anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism, but without success. You see again how the witch shows her usefulness.
Moreover, we support the resistance when it is Muslim and Islamic, whereas the French left only supports Marxist and Communist resistance, like the PFLP. We refuse to make this choice. The decolonial movement supports resistance whatever its form or colour.
You don’t want to have to choose between the types of resistance to be supported in Palestine?
No. Everybody does that. But it’s up to the Palestinians to make their choice, whether the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) or Hamas. On the other hand, we insist on saying that we must support the Islamic resistance because in France it is the one which receives the least support. It’s not for us to decide here who are the good and the bad Palestinians.
You say in the introduction to your book ‘Whites, Jews, and Us’: ‘Certainly there is class conflict but there is also racial conflict.’ I would like to ask about this ‘also’. How do you articulate the two? You have been accused of putting race conflict before class conflict.
I can only quote Marx: ‘Direct slavery is the backbone of our contemporary industrialisation as much as machines, credit… Without slavery there is no cotton and without cotton there is no modern industry. It is slavery that gave value to the colonies; it is the colonies that created world trade; it is world trade that is the sine qua non of large-scale mechanised industry’ (The Poverty of Philosophy).
Why should class conflict come first?
In the capitalist world, the accumulation of capital began with the ‘discovery’ of the Americas, a genocide and the enslavement of millions of Africans. What is race? How to extort maximum surplus-value through forced labour. Capital is accumulated. It’s free, with 100 per cent profit. Whereas with wage-labour, with class, there is no 100 per cent profit. For the emergence of the White proletariat, it was necessary first of all to dehumanise a part of humanity. The two went hand in hand. As a result, this question of putting race before or after class literally bores me. Race was used for the emergence of the industrial age. It’s part of how capitalism developed. That’s all.
You are a ‘blind spot’ for a certain left that approaches relations of domination in purely class or ‘Marxist’ terms. How do you explain the fact that it manages to see the question of race in the United States, for example, but not in France?
They are blinded by the pre-eminence of the class question because they believe that race divides the working class. But race really does divide the working class. The conflict of interests exists within the proletariat.
If the unions have always favoured the interests of White workers, it is for that reason. Marxism makes a class analysis, sure. But who does communism actually defend? Above all the White proletarians. That’s why the communists of the Western world, who benefit the most from imperialist relations, are the most chauvinistic.
When our parents came here, they were the poor relations of class struggle. The dream was to be a legitimate part of the working class. What they wanted was the unification of the working class. But, for that, you have to put an end to imperialism and chauvinism. Otherwise, the racial conflict which structures relations between proletarians will persist and prevent the construction of a revolutionary historic bloc. North African railway workers are not treated like White railway workers. They are discriminated against. The same goes for access to employment, pensions... During the Covid pandemic it became clear that it was the Indigènes who had to go out and do the dirty work, while the better-off sections were locked down.
Why did you write this book ‘Whites, Jews, and Us’?
Just because! More seriously, because a lot of things had still to be said, perhaps more intimate and less directly political. Then because you have to leave traces. It’s an attempt to free the White gaze, and this book was a marker in that direction. If I think of the surreal reactions it provoked, so hysterical that they deserve a real sociological study of Whiteness (I’m floating this idea), I humbly think I’ve succeeded.
You write that through this struggle we will overcome ‘the Black’, ‘the Jew’, ‘the Arab’, ‘the White’. So, you advocate here the union of all, is that basically what you are accused of?
This book rehabilitates the human, yes. But is the White or whitened human ready for the sacrifice that revolutionary love demands?
Your book has been strongly criticised, especially by the Marxist left. How do you explain that?
I’m rather ashamed on their behalf, because of the way they read it. There was no difference between the reviews in Le Monde Diplo and Valeurs Actuelles. Yet Le Monde Diplo is considered ethical journalism. Except in relation to me.
Other people have also criticised it. In the TV programme ‘Ce soir ou jamais’, Thomas Guénolé quoted as assertions on your part what were actually elements of an argument. Why did you remain silent when he got very agitated?
I wasn’t expecting it at all! Frédéric Taddéi’s programmes are structured around a supposed cleavage or between opposing camps. But Thomas Guénolé was supposedly in the same camp as myself, as a critic of Islamophobia. So I was surprised. However, it is important to understand the context.
Before the programme, I had gone to listen to Thomas Guénolé at the Salon du Livre Maghrébin at the Hôtel de Ville. He was speaking in a debate. I saw him as a rather decent person because he had written books against Islamophobia. I then heard him say that he refused to go on the March of Dignity because it was ‘communitarian’. Afterwards, I went up to him, told him that I had been one of the marchers and asked him if he would be willing to come and debate with us publicly. He was caught short but didn’t dare refuse. Then he was invited on to the show. I suppose he thought it would be a good opportunity to get me to bite the dust and avoid confrontation in a fair debate. On TV, given my sulphurous reputation, people can quote a couple of things selectively, read a passage without saying that the word ‘faggots’ is in quotes. In short, a disgusting and cowardly procedure... As a result, the far right had a field day.
In France, when people talk about racism, no distinction is made between dominant and dominated. And Manuel Valls, when he was prime minister, could attack you for this. How do you explain that?
Setting people against one another makes it possible to preserve the existing order. Making the distinction amounts to showing that they are the guilty ones.
If the White proletariat adopted communist solutions, that would be the worst thing that could happen to the ruling bloc. So they have to talk and talk about the danger represented by Muslims and Indigenists. Drive the White proletariat towards the fascists rather than questioning class relations and capitalism. The idea of a Muslim danger must be preserved.
This is exactly what the ‘separatism’ law is for. The ferment of the White proletariat must continue to serve the interests of big capital and preserve the racial pact. The Gilets Jaunes have swung left and right. What characterises White spontaneity is chauvinism. It is then very easy to lead La France Insoumise (which still resists) onto this path. When Valeurs Actuelles makes headlines about the Islamists, the Bolsheviks, the ‘Indigenists’ who question the existing order, it fogs up everything. Michel Onfray’s new magazine [Front Populaire] is the same: we speak for the proles, on an ultra-chauvinist, racist basis, against Muslims. Is Onfray that much against the government? Is he an oppositionist? It’s a joke!
How did the Parti des Indigènes de la République respond to the Gilets Jaunes? How did you position yourself?
At a time when almost the whole left expressed distrust, because they were supposedly homophobic, racist, etc. I was one of the first to support them. This is what I wrote on 19 November 2018 on my Facebook page: ‘Sensitive souls reproach the Gilets Jaunes for not being a pure movement, for showing sexism, homophobia and racism. Okay, but it is impossible for a spontaneous movement emanating from a sexist, racist and homophobic society, and mainly composed of White people from the middle and lower classes, only moderately politicised (because excluded from the spaces of politicisation), to escape from this. It is legitimate despite this in demanding a share of dignity. Those who pretend to discover the “flaws” of the people and take offence at these are either naïve or pretend to be so, and their only objective is to harm this mobilisation. If one has a revolutionary perspective, it would be more intelligent to support this movement and radicalise it positively rather than spitting at it. And let’s be clear: I am the first to worry about the racism it may exhibit. Remember that.’
On the other hand, in keeping with our tradition of defending Indigène interests first, we felt it was the role of the White left to support them on the ground. Because the target of the Gilets Jaunes was clearly the state. If this movement, repressed by the police, agrees to converge against racism, so much the better: then we will all be going in the same direction.
Isn’t what is called ‘Indigenist thinking’ useful in the sense that it makes people forget the class question and brings the racial question to the fore? It helps the authorities sideline urgent social issues and make a fuss about what you don’t say. In other words, have you rehabilitated, despite yourself, the racial approach to human relations?
These questions already existed before us. The ‘Islamist enemy’ wasn’t invented with us. And if we tell ourselves that everything we do will be instrumentalised, nothing will be done. Are we going to wait for the left to reform itself? It won’t. We had to impose ourselves on the debate. There was a risk that the emergence of the Indigène question would serve the far right. But it was a necessary step. We are in a bind: either we let ourselves be crushed without resisting or fighting and we inevitably lose, or we move and this moves the whole political field, the left and the far right. And there is a small chance of winning.
Obviously, it turns into a race between the revolutionary White pole allied to the Indigènes (what we call the decolonial majority) and the White supremacist pole. The question is: who will move faster? The faster the left integrates these questions, the faster we will all march together against the others. The far right has the media and the state behind it. Faced with this power, we’ve made a poor start.
But what should be understood is that we have changed the balance of power. Today, these questions are at the centre.
To answer the question ‘Are they using these questions as a diversion?’, our questions are priority ones and class ones. Police violence and discrimination are class questions raised from a racial perspective, which affect people in their daily lives.
So, by a sleight of hand, those who accuse you of focusing on race have projected their obsession with identity onto you?
Yes. But we don’t have any room for manoeuvre. And we are not alone under fire: the CCIF, the Brigade Anti-Négrophobie, Maboula Soumahoro, Rokhaya Diallo, Françoise Vergès...
You could also be accused of a form of idealism that opposes a natural and ontological Indigène innocence to a supposed ‘White ferocity’?
I am not saying there is an ontological ferocity in Whites. They are the products of their history. And I’m not saying there is an Indigène innocence. I think of humans only in social and political relations. If one were to think about what humans were like before colonisation in Africa or the Arab world, I can well imagine traditions of war or fierce conflict that would offend our sensibilities today. It is not that inhumanity is White, but that modern inhumanity is essentially caused by whiteness.
But I am not interested in pre-colonial history. I am interested in what produces savagery today. I’m interested in today’s power systems. In this context, it is not the wretched of the earth or the Indigenes who bear responsibility for the course of the world: we are victims. But victims can also be bastards. Let’s take an example: we don’t say that Indigène men are not rapists, that we have to defend Indigènes when they rape. We are asking for White and Indigène men to be treated equally with respect to their crimes. That’s very different. We do not defend them as criminals, but as discriminated subjects.
Hence your position on Tariq Ramadan?
Yes, and on people killed by the police. There have been 400 or 500 cases of this since the 1980s. I think we need to know how to defend the guilty, the not so good. All the more so because the racist system institutes White innocence. That’s what must be broken.
How do you personally experience all this? How does it weigh on you?
The worst thing is to be a prisoner of White people, of their ideology. In my book I wrote that ‘my body doesn’t belong to me’. As long as I was supposed to say ‘my body belongs to me’, like everyone else because it’s obvious, I was a prisoner of White women and White feminism. That phrase is so sacred, I was supposed to worship it. When I freed myself from it, I could breathe, that’s all. I am proud at having liberated at least myself with my words, if not my people.
They hate me because I no longer belong to them, I will never belong to them and I have let them know. And I was ready to break friendships for that. I broke all the locks on my prison. If I look like a monster, too bad. But I am proud to have heard Indigène women in Mexico who came and listened to me say in all sisterhood: ‘We also say that our bodies don’t belong to us, they belong to our community.’
When I say that I belong to my race, I say that I belong to my mother, my father, my grandmother, to Islam. This has been interpreted as: she says she belongs to the patriarchy of her origins. Isn’t that crazy? Yet I mention my mother and my grandmother!
Whereas the colonial will to force us to emancipate ourselves from our communities actually means surrendering ourselves to capitalism, individualism, modernity…
But is it impossible to free oneself from that other belonging, family, racial, to not belong to anyone. Only to yourself?
I belong to those from whom they want to take me away. It’s a question of conflictuality: if Arabness and the Maghrebian family were not targeted, I wouldn’t feel the need to claim these affiliations. As for belonging to oneself, I find it means absolutely nothing and comes back to the same thing as ‘my body belongs to me’. It’s a liberal watchword. In society, we always belong to others. The question is, how to make sure that this belonging doesn’t suffocate you. Apart from the idea of a fair and balanced world, freed from a modernity which is both capitalist and organised around a racist and heterosexist matrix, I don’t see how to answer this question. Now, I want to say grandly: I belong to humanity because there is only one race. I even dream of saying this at the risk of sounding like the Paulo Coelho of anti-racism, but I can only do so on condition of abolishing race, because in real life there is the humanity that deserves to live and the humanity that does not deserve to live and whose dignity is constantly violated.
Is this humanity the same humanity you would like to reinvent with ‘revolutionary love’?
Yes, the March for Dignity in 2019, all these women in harmony with themselves and their history, in harmony with their men, dead or alive, in harmony with their ancestors, and all the White people who came to join us. It was a sketch of what revolutionary love could be.
Translated by David Fernbach
First published by Ehko, 9th October 2020