The United States’ relationship with the Arab world might be described as “involved,” “turbulent,” and largely focused on the Middle East. France, however, has a very different relationship with the Arab world centered on the Maghreb, the North African Arab nations consisting of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. I saw the unique interaction between the French and the Arab world this summer during my two-month stay in France.
With centuries of cross-cultural encounters and generations of Arabs raised in France, it goes without saying that French culture has absorbed many aspects of Arab. This can be seen in Arabic words absorbed into the French vernacular and North African dishes adopted by French cuisine. Despite such positive links, the French and the Arab world have endured tense and often violent episodes throughout history, many of which continue to impact relations today. For example, the history of imperialism between France and the Maghreb is long: Morocco and Tunisia were French protectorates, and Algeria a French colony, for decades. In particular, France has a rather delicate bond with Algeria, which was considered an integral part of France after its 132 years of colonization yet gained its independence in 1962 after a long and violent war against the French.
The legacy of French imperialism and the tense relationship between the French and French Arabs remains current. The 1961 Parisian massacre of tens of thousands of Algerians supportive of Algerian independence in the midst of the Algerian War and violent country-wide riots in 2005 by young North Africans serve as a backdrop for intense national discussions about this relationship and immigration. Much like similar discussions in America, immigration from North Africa into France is extremely controversial. This was evidenced in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections when far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, campaigning on a protectionist, anti-immigration stance, won 18-20% of the vote.
The clash of religion and culture between North Africans and the French increase such tensions. North Africans, even those born and raised in France, feel pressured by the French to give up their culture and religion to completely assimilate into French society and thus become truly “French,” while the French fear that large concentrations of immigrant populations breed Islamic terrorism. This fear was enhanced by the March 2012 shootings in Toulouse of seven unarmed adults and children by a young Frenchman of Algerian descent trained by Al Qaeda.
Tension with French Arabs is not only seen in politics but also in semantics of culture and language. In France, calling someone an Arabe is considered derogatory and has a negative implication of North Africans. Instead of saying Arabe, which does not carry the same negative meaning in English, the French make the distinction between an Arab’s nationality or use the neutral term maghrébin if referring to a North African. This linguistic taboo is only one example of history behind the current French-Arab relationship and how the French must learn to balance their cultural values with the strong and growing maghrébin immigrant population in France.