The Left and Racial Domination in France: An Interview with Sadri Khiari (MIR)
by Danièle Obono
Sadri Khiari, a Tunisian activist exiled in France since early 2003, is one of the founding members of the Movement of the Indigenous of the Republic (MIR) of which he is currently one of its principal leaders. He has published, among others, Pour une politique de la racaille. Immigré-e-s, indigènes et jeunes de banlieue (Éditions Textuel, Paris, 2006) and La contre-révolution coloniale en France: de de Gaulle à Sarkozy (Éditions La Fabrique, Paris, 2009).1 The MIR was born following a call in January of 2005, titled "We Are the Indigenous of the Republic,"2 signed by thousands of people and associations. Since then, the MIR has sought to unite and organize descendants of colonial migrants in popular suburbs3 in France as militants in its ranks, with the prospect of constructing an instrument of autonomous political struggle on the basis of a problematic articulated by questions of racism, colonialism, and imperialism. This movement has announced the creation of a party (the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic) and proposes to be present in the electoral arena. The spokesperson of the MIR is Houria Bouteldja.
The call of the Indigenous, which has created much controversy, is now more than four years old. The Movement of the Indigenous of the Republic (MIR) was created a few months later. Where are you with respect to this process and, in particular, in the building of a political party of the Indigenous?
The call we launched in January 2005 is the founding document of the MIR and continues to be our principal referent. Since then, we have refined certain questions, developed our conceptions, and begun to elaborate a truly positive political project, which does not remain solely a protest but rather can also be an instrument of political rebuilding in the country in which we live. This led us to adopt another important document titled "Who Are We?" to conceive proposals formulated amidst the last presidential election ("Elections: The Demands of the MIR," The Indigenous of the Republic, No. 3, January 2007) and to take numerous positions on diverse political events, which we also took advantage of to refine and expand our understandings. Without forgetting the numerous contributions of our militants and our friends, the majority of these texts are available on our website (at www.indigenes-republique.fr). But there are no miracles. A true program and a strategy, all the indispensable things lest we fall into politicking, are the result of collective work. They are not conceived in a library. One must be really grounded in society, take on the reality of the conflicts, test, try, experiment various courses, and, sometimes, fall down. One must also be able to enter into continuous dialogues, including with those who do not share our points of view. What is missing is an organ of accumulation, of sedimentation, and of synthesis of these multiple efforts. In sum, what is needed is a party. For now, we have a problematic, a framework that permits us to conceive solutions, a minimum of experience, and a determined will to think for ourselves. Like Martin Luther King -- but certainly unlike Obama -- we have a dream. The dream is of a world without imperialism, without colonialism, without racism. We have a collective ambition as the inheritors of colonization, migrants and children of migrants, the ambition to participate in the government of France, to be a part of its political decisions, to act upon its present and its future, from the base but also from the highest positions of decision-making of the state. In short, we no longer want to be outside of politics, nor do we want decisions to be made for us; we want to participate in power to be able to initiate a decolonial politics in this country.4
Our project is not to build a lobby but a popular movement mobilized from the bottom. Participation in the positions of power is a deception if it is not sustained in a relation of forces with roots in the resistance. To put it differently, we are not here to pressure, nor to cry and be indignant, nor even only to protest. We do not have the complex of those who think they have no right over France, nor the feeling of impotence of those who become paralyzed by fear of co-optation because they consider themselves victims of a Machiavellian conspiracy against us by dark forces. We are neither desperate isolationists for whom everything is rotten and who weave with threads of bitterness their own cocoons "among their own kind," thus excluding themselves from politics. Autonomy is not separatism, but rather the construction of a relation of forces. We are not maximalists, nor are we apocalyptic, but we will not do the "belly dance" to seduce either. However, we are conscious that the realization of our dreams will not come all at once like a magic trick, that many battles will be necessary -- a transformation of the philosophical, moral, cultural, and political relation of forces. We know that the emergence of a decolonial political majority will imply profound recompositions in the political field, which must have roots in vast swathes of the population in spite of the contradictions that cross them and cross us. But we are also convinced that such change cannot be realized without our own independent will, that is, without our own party, a party that represents all of the "indigenized" populations, a party in which we will be masters of our own thinking, of our political priorities, of our alliances, of our "agenda." It is building such a party that we have been working on since the March of the Indigenous on May 8, 2008, whose slogan was: "Let's Build Our Own Party."
One way or another, we will try, from this point of view, to be present in the major elections. We will not be ready for regional elections, but in the municipal (mayoral), you will have to count on us in certain counties. We will probably orient ourselves towards establishing "indigenous" slates wherever possible. We are also looking to legislative and presidential elections.
This decision of building your "own" party sounds in part like a disavowal of political organizations of the left and the far-left, towards which immigrant populations and their children have leaned for a long time. Why do you think you have not found your place in them? Or is this way of thinking politics, by the 'integration" into existing parties, perhaps still too dogmatic and marked with a certain acceptance of the "white" world?
I have already mentioned elements of a response, but to respond more directly to your question, I would say first that non-whites are excluded by the whole political system and that this exclusion is the principal incarnation of the neo-indigeneity. I would add that this exclusion, while coinciding with the political minimizing of the economically disadvantaged strata, cannot be reduced to that and proceeds from another logic: the one, to be precise, that we analyze as racial. With respect to the parties, we have to recognize that various generations of migrant militants have attempted to act within them without any results. To the contrary, the major parties, both of the right and of the left, pursued policies that were more and more against our interests. As for the smaller organizations of the left, they have never considered that our preoccupations deserve a central place in their interventions. It is significant that in none of the existing political formations the populations descendant of colonial migrations are represented in proportion to their social reality, not to mention their near absence in leadership organs. And if today we can note a slight improvement, a very ambivalent one actually, it is undoubtedly due to the influence of the suburban slum revolts and more recently the "Obama effect." How, in such a situation, can we feel represented by these parties? It is impossible. You said that for a long time migrants and their children looked to the left and the far-left, for, to be precise, it must be said that for a long time -- moreover still today -- the majority of colonial migrants and their children have voted for the left. That does not mean in any way that they recognized themselves massively in the left and its struggles but, more prosaically, that the left seemed a lesser evil or, at least, they would not lead to the racist policies advocated by the right. Which also proved to be an illusion. Indeed, in the last presidential elections, many French migrants voted for el Modem,5 simply because they took notice that in the questions that interested them the Socialist Party6 is no better than the Union for a Popular Movement [the UMP formed by Chirac and led today by President Sarkozy], so, in this case, why not try el Modem? In no way can we imagine that they feel represented by el Modem. The inability of all these parties to represent us is not just accidental. If their politics do not account for our needs more than occasionally, if we have no place in them, it is because, like the entirety of the institutions of the country, they form part of the racial system. They fight amongst themselves, but all participate, to various degrees and according to more or less complex modalities, in the preservation of white privilege. The apparent structuring of the political field between right and left hides racial domination at the same time as it contributes to its reproduction. If we want to establish a party of the indigenous, it is precisely to tear this veil, to make visible on the public stage this other conflict that is the racial question. If we want to establish our own party, it is because the foundation of a properly indigenous politics is racial oppression. And one of its incarnations is republican assimilationism, for which the existing parties are also instruments. In effect, these parties are conceived according to the republican model: in them there officially exist only individuals, or abstract citizens, atomized and devoid of determinations.
In a part of the left, it is true that they take into account the fact that an individual is socially determined by their place in the labor process. From there have emerged the distinct forms of workers' parties or those of the working class. But what has been concealed is this powerful social determination that is the position in the reproduction process of these statutory groups that I call social races and that result from the hierarchization between whites and non-whites produced by distinct colonial forms and also by the resistances generated by it. This concealment not only leads to not understanding the role of these parties in the preservation of white supremacy, but also to not integrating in their own ranks, in their own modalities of structuration, the reality of social collectives with particular expectations in terms, for example, of culture, of relation with history, the nation, etc. The white parties cannot resolve this problem because they have established themselves within the republican mold, à la Jacobin, reinforced by the colonial assimilationist tradition. Simply allude to this question, and they act as if we were agitating the spectre of Anglo-Saxon communitarianism. That model does not interest us -- we need only look at the magnitude of racial discriminations in Great Britain and the United States -- but it seems increasingly clear that the French republican model equally needs to be overcome. Not in the sense suggested by Sarkozy in his discourses, of course. The question for us is itself in the conception of the party we want to establish. In effect, we are conscious that the indigenous, by their different histories but also by the policies implemented against them, are inserted into society in a differentiated and hierarchized manner, which may be reflected in the party we want to build. That is why we reflect on a form of party that takes these differences into account, linking, in its very functioning, development, and decision-making, spaces bringing together all militants united by the indigenous condition and spaces that are organized as collectivities, the distinct components of the new indigeneity on the basis of their particular histories and reclaimed cultures.
A party signifies a concrete political project, not only an affirmation of a model of an ideal society. . . .
In effect, as I said before, we have a dream, but we do not want to remain only in the dream. We know that this is a long process and that there will be clashes, that we will have to convince, force, and often negotiate. That is how all political actions work, even more so for us who constitute a social minority. That is why I think we will have to rely on a kind of intermediate program that is not a repertoire of immediate demands of the "indigenous union" type but that outlines the guidelines for a reform policy capable of initiating a decolonial process, that is to say, to halt and demolish the imperial and racial logics of the French state and society, while integrating political demands other than those which concern us specifically, even those which will take account of the concerns of "others," the whites. Without denying ourselves, it will entail, through this intermediate program, us creating a political tool to unite the indigenous and the inhabitants of the working-class neighborhoods that are often indigenized7 to construct timely and lasting links of partnership and cooperation with other forces, including white ones, with the objective of developing a long-term strategy for building a decolonial political majority rooted in the ensemble of all the disenfranchised sectors of the population. In sum, it will be outlining a process that is not about hollow sloganeering, but rather capable of igniting dynamic consensus -- and with that I want to say that conflict and consensus are two sides of the same coin -- attracting larger and larger circles of French society around a decolonial project. We know that our struggle will be long, but we do not fear time.
Can you tell us more about the content of this intermediate program?
I can of course make some generic observations, but they will have no meaning unless in concrete propositions. I would like to say for starters that racial inequities are produced by multiple social, cultural, administrative, and political logics, produced by, among other things, colonization and imperialism. Therefore, a politics that does not think of all these levels where you can find the roots of this institutional racism will be condemned to failure. Measures against discrimination at work, for example, would not be successful without a transformation of relations of citizenship at the heart of businesses, cultural reform, a new approach to immigration, and profound revisions of the republican order. That is why we need a "global plan" against racial inequality. Let's think of mechanisms that block racializing logics, the instances at the level of the executive authorities which have the responsibility to monitor their implementation in all sectors of public action but which also exercise the force of law -- not only give incentives -- in the private sector. Such a plan should include education. Indeed, the school is a key player in the building of a collective consciousness and of the nation. It is not enough to introduce a few lines about the memory of slavery to change the idea that the French have of themselves and of France. To unsettle white eurocentrism we would have to radically revise the teaching curricula in different subjects. More generally, it is on the set of cultural policies that we must act. There are also migration policies, the issue of secularism, and relations with the "Dom-Tom,"8 France's foreign policy, particularly on its former colonies and the Palestinian question. All these levels contain logics that create racism.
But I want to insist here upon citizenship. The contemporary indigenous system begins with the negation of citizenship. It is shocking to note that, in all the projects officially presented, the bodies responsible for negotiating or controlling the application of anti-discriminatory measures are the same ones that participate, to varying degrees, in the reproduction of racial inequalities. For example, what can be expected from a negotiation between employers and majoritarian unionists who are preoccupied with maintaining the privileges of white workers? We would have to imagine, on the contrary, devices that guarantee the involvement of those who are being discriminated against in the control of public policies and in the private sector. Why not, for example, install in the businesses, as well as in public functions, a control over recruitment, promotions, and organization of work by representative bodies of indigenous workers and anti-racist organizations? Similar devices can be devised in the agencies in charge of public housing. More generally, there will be no progress in the struggle against institutional racism if those who are its principal victims are excluded from the spheres of control, decision, and design. They must be present in them with absolute autonomy. Of course, all of this raises questions about their self-organization and also about the immense problem of their representation in the institutional field. To this day, there has only been thinking in terms of integration of the indigenous into the white parties: how to open these parties to "diversity"? I am not sure this is the right question. In my opinion, we must take measures that facilitate access of the indigenous to the bodies of representation and authority. Proportional elections have been proposed and indeed this would be positive. However, the recognition of the citizenship of migrants is another matter. Numerous reforms in this respect could be implemented at all levels of political society so that the latter is truly representative of the distinct components of the population. Of course, we will promote the reforms that we feel most important. But there is also an institutional reform to be made that will not happen without a clash with orthodox republicans. It would aim at really giving substance to multiculturalism. It is not sufficient to say, "Yes, France is multicultural." We also must develop devices that permit cultural minorities to exist in the state as collective bodies and to truly have their say on questions that matter to them. The "regionalist" currents ask for collective rights for "ancient" territorial minorities,9 but, strangely, they don't envisage that such a demand could be legitimate also for the new indigenous minorities. In this perspective, it will be important to also define the devices that guarantee individual rights. This is not about in effect positioning anyone within a cultural minority against their will. All these themes, presented here loosely, naturally form part of the work program that we have started. That said, these reflections should be advanced not only by us. They should be central to the agenda of all those who believe that imperialism and racism have led to barbarism and will continue to do so.
You speak of the "struggle of social races," of the "indigenous," of the "internally colonized," of a "we" to which you oppose a "you," the "non-indigenous," the "whites," the "souchiens,"10 etc. Isn't this reading of social relations in terms of "identitarian" categories immutable? Do you not fear these categories impede convergences around the intermediate program?
What could impede these convergences are neither the categories of analysis nor the fact of explicitly naming what is generally silenced, that is to say the racial division that cuts through all of French society, working-class sectors included. It is the racial division as such, it is the wholesale socio-economic privileges, always symbolic, cultural, and political, from which whites/Europeans/Christians benefit that constitute the real obstacle to these convergences. When we speak of social races, we do no more than emphasize the fact that colonialism/imperialism produces a hierarchy of social groups according to which groups are classified as white/European/Christian or not. Outside of this form of globalized domination and the resistances it generates, the races do not have a historical existence. So when we talk about the indigenous, whites, or social races, it is not in any way about identitarian categories, as you say, but rather about a colonial social relation. But identities are also social relations in their cultural and symbolic dimensions and these identities today frequently conceal social relations of race. There exist dominant identities and dominated identities, and the latter, although they partially reflect dominant identities, can constitute levers of resistance to the domination. As a political movement, this identitarian question interests us from the point of our decolonial struggle. And it should interest too all who define themselves as anti-racists and anti-imperialists. So long as the left does not recognize the reality of white privilege -- including at the level of identity -- no matter how many times it shouts the slogan of "French workers, migrant workers; same boss, same fight," it will be just hot air and nothing but hot air. Or worse still, it would be a form of subordinating migrant workers and their children to the particular demands of white workers. So, to clear the way towards future convergences, we need to first understand the world as it is, even if unpleasant to some. The latter is what we are trying to do. Without ignoring other social fractures, the categories we use seek to understand real life, without the deceptions of republican ideology.11 That at times we too schematize the situation, or use formulas much too crude to the eyes of some, first does us good and second generates a very useful debate. It has been proven, for example, that the document of the call of the indigenous no longer shocks anyone after having created infinite controversies that ended up being integrated in the collective reflection.
Do you think an alliance between you and organizations of the radical left would be possible one day?
The question is, at the most general level, about the relations that we could establish with other political formations with the prospect of constituting the decolonial majority to which we aspire. It is a movement that will take time and will probably take place in a political landscape that is very different from the one we know today. Unless you think in a binary logic, the reality of racial conflict does not exclude a convergence. Despite the real oppositions, there are, of course, common interests among the white working classes and the indigenous that could permit negotiating alliances. At least, this is our bet. Thinking otherwise could lead us to a strategic dead end; the objective of a decolonial political majority in France would then be only just another utopia. However, our priority today is to unite the indigenous and build their political independence, and, when the moment arrives, I suppose that we will be open to all the forces that respect our autonomy and commit themselves to a decolonial perspective seriously and not intermittently. We do not have an ideological a priori in the way we conceive our hypothetical alliances, be they specific collaborations or more durable ones. They will be determined by their capacity to move our struggle forward. We do not ask organizations of the left to share our analysis. We know very well that a white leftist takes offense when we tell him that, for us, he is part of the dominants. What we hope for is an agreement over political positions, over the struggles to be developed, over the reforms to be implemented. What we demand is the respect for our autonomy. And we are very far from getting it.
I want to add that there could exist a disjuncture between imperatives in the short term, or at a local scale, and imperatives in the long term, or at a national scale. Let's take an example: the so-called "ethnic statistics,"12 which generated violent debates at the start of 2009 when Yazid Sabeg was named commissary of diversity by Sarkozy. This is a very controversial theme where the left and the right share the same premises. Another example: should rocks be thrown at a voter descendant of migrants who votes against a candidate of the left who organizes a partnership with an Israeli city? Yet another example: if a communist mayor multiplies the maneuvers to prevent construction of a mosque in his city, can you blame Muslim voters who vote in favor of a candidate of the right who commits himself to giving the authorizations for construction of the mosque? All these examples illustrate that the left-right opposition does not actually correspond to the racial division. To say it another way, the left, even the most radical left, contrary to what leftists think themselves, is not synonymous with anti-racism and will have to change if it wants to be a credible ally in the eyes of the peoples who are descendents of colonization. For us, it is clear that one of the biggest challenges to the formation of an indigenous political party, which acts at a national level, will be to combine multiple objectives: free ourselves from the left-right opposition, gain the ability of advancing an independent politics, but also articulate the immediate conjunctural or local challenges with our long-term decolonial perspectives. With time, I hope we can think of a decolonial "all together" capable of taking power, which is the objective of every political party. If the radical left commits in this way, so much the better. It will have to make a cultural revolution and understand in particular the importance of these issues to us that, for them, are but secondary or, worse still, diversions.
The same with the question of Islam, which I invoke in particular because I know how much it hurts. Will the radical left mobilize with us against Islamophobia, for the abolition of the veil law, and, more generally, so that Muslims can benefit from the rights equivalent to those of other sects? Another thing: the question of history or memory. For us it is fundamental. When one already possesses a history, when that history is a fortiori a dominant history, one can take stock and even totally reject it as an identitarian reference. But when one is deprived of history, as in our case, this deprivation is one of the forms that oppression takes, and we must begin by first conquering our own history. The role of the radical left is to support us in this work, not to denounce our myths as reactionary. Control over history is an eminently political question. It is in the heart of the French national constitution as an imperial and racial nation. I will cite you a paragraph of a typical essay in the blindness of the radical left (The Trouble with Diversity, Metropolitan Books, 2006, published in France under the title La diversité contre l'égalité, Raisons d'agir, 2009). The author, an American named Walter Benn Michaels, who by the way does not hesitate to deform our ideas, for the moment relies on a novel by [Native American writer] Leslie Marmon Silko, titled Almanac of the Dead. It recounts the story of a Cuban communist much like the radical left in France: ". . . [the Cuban] keeps telling them they're exploited and they should be fighting capitalism; [the Indians] keep telling him they're not respected, and they want to fight white people. So when the Marxist carries on once too often about the evils of private property and won't stop to listen to stories about their heritage (the massacres, the thefts, the forced assimilation), they hang him for 'crimes against [their] history'."13 I will clarify immediately: I am on the side of the Indian. Walter Benn Michaels, of course, is outraged by such ignominy. For him, these "savages" emboldened by "irrational emotions," such that they refuse to hear the voice of "reason" and shut down the words of a valuable communist, are "counter-revolutionaries." To me, this type of communist acts as a colonialist from the left. And I must admit that often I have had the temptation to give a smack upside the head of an ultra-left militant who goes on and on to explain to me that "identitarian" and "communitarianist" demands are false, that they are reactionary, and that I should elevate myself to the universality of class struggle.
To conceive solid and lasting alliances, the radical left will have to break with its cold materialism that does not allow it to understand the necessity -- universal, it appears -- of history, of identity, of spirituality and of dignity, a dignity that is not only the dignity of consumption. More serious still: I fear that the radical left doesn't understand what mobilizes or interests the white working classes either. It is probable that the French proletariat who voted for Sarkozy were not waiting for their wages to be raised. They voted for "values," no matter what one thinks of these values. And values cannot be fought with an additional 1,500 euros in their wages, but with other values; you combat them with politics and culture. Facing a Sarkozyan politics of "national identity," we cannot remain in a universalist internationalism that standardizes everything (and that is, from our point of view, very eurocentric). We must find other answers. I am convinced that the already massive presence in France of culturally oppressed peoples can help renew a reflection on this issue. I believe that the radical left has a lot to learn from the indigenous movements because they know, due to their status as descendants of the colonized who were broken in their identities, that politics cannot be reduced to the socio-economic question.
1 While not available in English, the titles could be translated as For a Politics of the Rabble: Immigrants, Indigenous, and Suburban Youth (2006) and The Colonial Counter-Revolution in France: From de Gaulle to Sarkozy (2009). It should be noted that in a French context "suburban youth" is in reference to those who are from marginal communities: the ghettoes, slums, or barrios in a U.S. context.
2 The notion of indigènes (indigenous) used here has a particular referent in French colonial history. The French empire used the term indigènes to refer to the colonial subjects in all its colonies across the world. The movement known as "The Indigenous of the Republic" in France is composed principally of French youth of African, Arab, and Antillean origin, born and raised in France, who live the experience of colonial racism and its consequent social marginalization and exploitation.
3 See endnote 1.
4 The decolonial politics proposed by the Indigenous of the Republic means to radically decolonize the French state and society to bring an end to its imperialist, colonialist, capitalist, patriarchal, white, eurocentric character (as opposed to mere inclusion).
5 This refers to the political formation created by Fraçois Bayrou, a French politician of the center-right, who ran as a candidate in the last presidential election of 2007. Bayrou occupied an important place towards the end of the campaign, becoming the "third man" ending in third place in the first round with 18.57 percent of the vote, behind Ségolène Royal (25.87%) of the Socialist Party and Nicolas Sarkozy (31.18%) of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). During the campaign, Bayrou received the support, among others, of Azouz Begag, Minister in the right-wing government of Villepin in charge of equality and children of Algerian migrants.
6 The Socialist Party in France belongs to the European "social democracy" and partakes in neo-liberal policies.
7 For Sadri, this category includes poor whites who are indigenized.
8 Departments and territories located in the Caribbean, Pacific Ocean, and Indian Ocean.
9 This is not in reference to ethno/racial minorities, but rather small territorial regions.
10 "Souchien" is an adjective formed from the expression "français de souche" that could be translated as "French of pure blood," invented 27 years ago by Le Pen, fascist and racist leader of the party known as Front National (National Front). Recuperated by many politicians of all types of parties, this expression has been "normalized" and is employed widely in the French political vocabulary today. In 2007, the spokesperson of the MIR, Houria Bouteldja, used the term "Souchiens" on a television program, which created a media scandal as some white French intellectuals in bad faith took advantage of a homonym and pretended her true intention was to say "sous-chiens" (sub-dogs). Bouteldja published a public response to these attacks.
11 Ideology that in the name of an abstract equality conceals ethno/racial, sexual, and gender differences and accuses those who attempt to struggle against these forms of oppression of being "communitarian." This accusation of "communitarianism" in the French context means to be accused of defending particular claims of one's group to the detriment of the "equality" of all citizens. However, what exists in France is a white-male-in-power communitarianism that conceals and represents itself as the defender of "equality" and accuses of being "communitarianist" those oppressed groups who protest against patriarchal and racial domination.
12 In the French republican model, the use of ethnic and racial statistics in the population census is prohibited. This creates the situation that official state data on the socio-economic profile of the diverse ethno/racial groups in France does not exist. There being no official evidence regarding ethno/racial discrimination, the affected groups have no legitimacy in their anti-racist claims. Recently, there has been a movement to institute questions related to ethno/racial origin in the population census. However, this has created an opposing public reaction to this proposal on the part of westernized intellectuals (of the right as well as of the left) and from administrators/politicians/functionaries of the republican state. The Movement of the Indigenous of the Republic has expressed support for the use of ethno/racial questions in the population census in France.
13 Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006): 145-146. For the extended narrative on the Cuban communist, see Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), especially Part Four, Book One: 468-532.
The original interview "Mouvements décoloniaux. Entretien avec Sadri Khiari" was published by Contretemps. English Translation and endnotes by Roberto D. Hernández.