Paris attacks: what France's colonial past teaches us - and not

“Trying to make sense of the Paris attacks through the prism of colonial history only would be dangerously reductive.”


With the declaration of a national state of emergency in the wake of the Paris attacks last Friday, France seems to relive some of the darkest hours of its colonial past. After all, such an exceptional decision has not been made since the Algerian War of decolonisation spilled into the metropole, more than half a century ago. It could be tempting to see in the recent ISIS attack a colonial legacy.

ISIS propaganda itself relishes presenting France as the unscrupulous oppressor (past and present) of the Muslim world. It refers occasionally to the Sykes-Picot line, which divided the Levant into British and French spheres of influence, and which later formed the basis of the border between Iraq and Syria, as the epitome of Western imperialist designs which stand in the way of the Caliphate which Al-Baghdadi wants to create. France is almost as hated as the US among jihadi sympathisers around the world, and especially among ISIS supporters.

The profile of jihadists, many of whom come from France’s former colonies, or have acquired French nationality as a result of migratory patterns inherited from imperial connections, also reinforce the feeling that France is somewhat receiving the dividends of its colonial past. Shortcomings in the integration of minority communities, often seen as one of the root causes of terrorism, is frequently interpreted as the post-colonial perpetuation of the “subalternity” of the colonial subject.


Yet, trying to make sense of the Paris attacks through the prism of colonial history only would be dangerously reductive. Fifty years after the end of the French empire, the situation has changed significantly and whilst the long shadow of the Empire is still present, many new factors have appeared in the meantime.

Firstly, such large-scale attacks form part of a global jihadi strategy which targets not only many Western countries (think of the USA in 2001, Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005) but also several non-Western states in the Arab world, seen by jihadists as obstacles to their projects. France is a privileged target of jihadi groups, but far from the only one. In particular, Arab countries, some of whom fought to the bitter end for their independence, have also suffered from this curse. The Algerian government, which emerged out of an eight-year struggle with France, battled with a decade of terror in the 1990s, which claimed between 100,000 and 200,000 lives.

Secondly, whereas anti-colonial movements (which often used terrorism to further their cause) supported their claims for independence with reference to the humanist rhetoric at the heart of the political cultures of colonial powers, jihadi groups reject wholesale the values inherited from the Enlightenment. Ironically, independence movements of the 1950s and 60s could be seen as the ultimate triumph of the ideals of liberty and equality upon which French political culture relied (whilst denying them for a long time to its colonies). By contrast, we are now witnessing through these attacks an attempt to challenge deliberately the core values of French (and Western) society.

Thirdly, jihadi movements are disavowed by an overwhelming majority of members of Muslim communities. As a result, and unlike independence fighters, they can hardly claim to represent "the voice of the oppressed". Whilst controversies surrounding headscarves have regularly agitated the political world in France and given the impression that the country was prone to Islamophobic secularism, such discussions cannot be interpreted as proofs of a Gallic marginalisation of Muslim communities. Rather, they are common to countries which, like Turkey under Ataturk and after, have made the choice of secularism. It would be simplistic to see in such terrorist attacks a consequence of systemic exclusion. Rather, they reflect the self-exclusion of a very small, but extremely proactive, minority which seeks to alienate communities from each other, in spite of relatively successful integration strategies.

If the colonial past teaches us how human connections inherited from the empire can have facilitated the implementation of last Friday’s attacks, it is not enough to comprehend the dynamics of present-day jihadi groups, which have an unprecedented global and fundamentally anti-Western agenda. In their view, the implementation of their political goals relies on the annihilation of the West and its values - an objective which had never been even formulated by anti-colonial activists in the post-war period.

Dr Berny Sèbe is Senior Lecturer in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Birmingham.