Houria Bouteldja is the spokesperson and a founding member of Le Parti des Indigènes de la République, The Indigenous of the Republic, or PIR. PIR started off as a political movement whose goal was to give a voice to immigrants’ children who Bouteldja calls “the indigenous”. She is the daughter of Algerian immigrants who arrived in France in the 1960s, was born and brought up in France, and has a good memory. She knows all too well the modern version of the Indigenous Code.
The original Indigenous Code of 1881 was imposed by France on all its colonies. Under it, indigenous people of these colonies and working immigrants were subjected to discriminatory measures. According to the PIR, even though this code was abolished, immigrants’ children still face, up to this day, discriminatory practices, which are deeply embedded in French society.
In France, when people hear the name Bouteldja they become tense. There are many politicians and journalists from the far-right to the left who are against her. In 2016 she published a book, “Whites, Jews, and Us – Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love”. It was not well-received by critics who, at first, totally ignored it, and then bashed it, calling the book and its author anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and homophobic. She then received support from many French and international Jewish intellectuals, gay activists and philosophers and writers. How can one person be accused of so many things? Why is her book, which has been translated into English, Spanish and Italian, such a hot topic in France?
Bouteldja is in her forties; she comes across as very friendly and takes her time before answering any question. She just came back from Atlanta, and is preparing for a tour in Italy, Oslo and London. What about France, how are you welcomed here? “When I’m invited to conferences usually it goes very well. The problem in France is that there’s no real national conversation. Apart from the fact that there is a real decrease in the quality of intellectual debates, conservatism is growing for fears are spreading. French people are scared of decadence in general, hence they become more chauvinistic, talk more about their identity and tend to reject the others more.”
A turning point in Bouteldja’s intellectual construction was the debate around the ban of the Islamic veil in schools. She calls it “the new Dreyfus affair”: “This ban divided the whole country, and even amongst the left wing, people were divided. The core of the matter was how to deal with this new foreign body. It used to be embodied by Jews, now it’s Muslims. Behind the veil, the real question is, do we really want Arabs in France?”
Race, whiteness and structural racism are all words that have been used by Bouteldja, and all of them shook France up. The Republic purports to be “colour-blind,” so words such as race, white and racism are not suitable.What is this whiteness Houria is talking about and which seems to be so often misunderstood? According to her, it’s all about the “balance of power”. Power is being distributed according to your social category, your gender and your race.
“The ones in charge are the white men. Then come the white women. Then you have the Jews, who are not viewed as whites, they don’t have that privilege, but they are protected by the whites and are above the indigenous. They are still in a fragile and precarious category though. Also, there’s hierarchy among the indigenous. At the very bottom, for example, you’ll find the Roma”.
As she says herself whiteness is not necessarily linked to being European and actually white. “I am myself white. Not for the state but in comparison to the asylum seekers, the migrants and all the wretched of the earth, I am white. I have a passport, I have political and union rights, even though I am at the bottom of the racial pyramid, I still have privileges. Without those, us, children of immigrants, we would have gone back home a long time ago. Yet we stay here because of those privileges. These privileges make our whiteness.”
These categories are not biological but simply political and historical. “These categories were created but we can undo them. That is the whole purpose of fighting racism, looking for what unites us without using race or religion.”
In France there is some sort of segregation and Bouteldja says she can actually “see it” for “this segregation is created by French institutions. Even Manuel Valls [the former Prime Minister] said that a French Apartheid was in place”.
According to Bouteldja the case of singer Mennel Ibtissem – who was been accused of being a member of the Muslim far right after she spoke out against Israel on Facebook – highlights segregation and proves that French society is going through a crisis.
“Mennel is an indigenous, and that is basically the main issue. To be considered white, you have to be a Christian, but she is a Muslim. Plus, she’s a woman who sings and wears the hijab, which clashes with the stereotype of the covered woman who only stays at home. Last, but not least, she’s been called anti-Semitic, but she covers Leonard Cohen’s songs. She messed up the whole equilibrium”, she says.
The left wing is struggling in France, says Bouteldja. “You’ll find people like [former head of the European parliament] Jean-Luc Mélenchon who believes only in universalism. And you’ll find also people who do believe than humans are equal and do fight racism,” she adds.
Bouteldja praises the writer Jean Genet, who she contrasts with Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. These three authors illustrate the spectrum of what the left wing’s ideas are regarding race: “Camus is a settler and he’s fine with it. Sartre was anti-colonisation but still he supported the creation of the state of Israel. And finally there is Genet who fought colonialism. We see here three faces of the left wing in France – the colonialist left wing, the hesitating left wing and the anti-colonial left wing.”
One accusation that has lingered against Bouteldja is that she is anti-Semitic, when really she is firmly anti-Zionist.
The biggest threat to PIR’s ideas is the fact that it claims Western civilisation is declining. “White domination started in 1492. It was born and will eventually disappear. Even saying someone is black is rooted in colonialist history. Political anti-racism is considered dangerous for it discards Western foreign policies, the main example would be wars in the Middle East.”
One of Bouteldja’s unconventional ideas is that “we have to deracialise French History”. According to her, the Dien Bien Phu battle in Vietnam “should be considered as a victory for all, same for the Independence of Algeria. How can we present a united front if some of us still believe that independence was a catastrophe? My freedom is their loss… France is no longer only summed up by the phrase “our ancestors the Gallic ones”.
When Toussaint Louverture, who is by the way also an ancestor of the French people, fought to free Haiti, he was also fighting France’s own oppression against its people. Sartre said: “France must be freed from Algeria.” Her discourse can’t be heard in France, since there are still some people who advocate the benefits of colonisation and the idea of recognising colonisation as a crime against humanity sounds like heresy.
Bouteldja asserts that the battle will be won “when indigenous and also the extreme left wing share our views. The extreme left wing cannot not raise the topics of race and decolonisation. This is why they are divided to begin with”.
So how can political anti-racism reach the public since it is firmly opposed in France? Bouteldja has the solution. “First we need a balance of power that will create synergies between the indigenous, which will allow us to get our own voice, which we will spread through our own means.”
Another way to leverage this might be what she calls in her book “Revolutionary Love”. Is this utopia? Not really, she affirms, and then adds ironically: “I’m almost ashamed to admit that I am certainly not a racist. I vouch for this love. I don’t want to hate anyone but it seems that this system is making us hate each other. I believe that hatred is the consequence of social rapports, and fight them. I do think that there’s beauty within us, like Baldwin said, ‘what would happen to this beauty’.”