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‘Pro-Arab leftism’ fifty years ago

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For those trying to make sense of the quarrel over ‘Islamo-leftism’, it may be useful to look back half a century. In the early 1970s, Algerian workers were both the first victims of the economic crisis (often holding low-skilled jobs) and its scapegoats. The Algerian war was still fresh in everyone’s mind. The nationalisation of oil by Algerian President Houari Boumediene in 1971 strongly affected French public opinion. The far-right weekly Minute headlined: ‘They’re hunting us, let’s hunt them.’ In 1972, the so-called Marcellin-Fontanet circulars [1] aggravated the precarity of many informal workers established in France. In reaction, a Movement of Arab Workers (MTA) was founded, which organised strikes and demonstrations. These scandalised a section of public opinion, particularly those nostalgic for ‘Algérie française’.

In this context, France experienced a real ‘racist outburst’ (Yvan Gastaut, L’Immigration et l’opinion en France sous la Ve République, Paris: Seuil, 2000). In late August 1973, an unbalanced Algerian killed a bus driver in Marseille. Le Méridional published a violent editorial: ‘Enough Algerian thieves, Algerian thugs, Algerian pimps, Algerian pimps, Algerian syphilitics, Algerian rapists, Algerian madmen. We’ve had enough of this scum from across the Mediterranean.’ Its author, Gabriel Domenech, became a National Front deputy and vice-president of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. 

In the days that followed, six Algerians were found dead in Marseille. The Algerian embassy claimed some fifty victims. In her survey of racist crimes in France from 1960 to 2000 (La Race tue deux fois, Paris: Syllepse, 2021), the historian Rachida Brahim counts seventeen Algerians murdered in Marseille in 1973 and around fifty injured. Anti-Arab racism was actively supported by far-right groups such as Ordre Nouveau. On 14 December 1973, a bomb exploded at the Algerian consulate in the centre of Marseille, killing four people and seriously injuring twelve. The attack was claimed by the Charles-Martel Club, composed of former OAS members.

A modernised discourse

If the government’s reaction was lukewarm, even ambiguous, two forces vigorously took up the defence of immigrants: Christian movements like La Cimade, but also and above all the far left – the Gauche Prolétarienne (Maoist), which the MTA was close to, and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) of Alain Krivine. Krivine was arrested and the LCR banned after scuffles between its militants and those of Ordre Nouveau. Left-wing intellectuals also mobilised. In 1972, the Groupe d’Information et de Soutien aux Immigrés (GISTI) was founded, supported by Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, and succeeded in having the scurrilous circulars annulled by the Council of State.

After the murder of a young Algerian in the Goutte-d’Or district of Paris, a ‘Djellali committee’ was created. Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Claude Passeron and Jean-Paul Sartre were among those taking part. Faced with this mobilisation of the left against racism, the French far right in the 1970s did not yet speak of ‘Islamo-leftism’, but of the ‘Arab left’ or ‘pro-Arab leftism’.

Fifty years later, ‘Islamo-leftism’ reactivates amalgams forged during the Algerian war and the economic crisis of the 1970s. It modernises talk about an enemy within by injecting a post-9/11 religious element. Nothing really new, then, apart from the focus of the attack on teaching and research. 

In the absence of precise and well-known enemies, the far right has launched a general attack on the academy, despite ethnic and/or religious minorities being under-represented there. Rather than a report on ‘Islamo-leftism’, research minister Frédérique Vidal would have been better advised to ask for an investigation into this under-representation.


[1] [A ministerial circular to departmental prefects, with a view to restricting immigration to workers in prior possession of employment contracts and accommodation.]

Translated by David Fernbach 

The original article in French can be found here: https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2021/03/24/cinquante-ans-avant-l-islamo-gauchisme-le-gauchisme-pro-arabe_6074255_3232.html

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