Over the last several decades, scholarly attention has increasingly focused on the history and contemporary politics of the Middle Eastern and North African presence outside of the MENA region proper. France offers a particularly rich case of thriving diasporic communities, particularly from the ex-colonial Maghreb, with simultaneously deep engagements in an ever-changing French society and ongoing attachments abroad. These complex commitments, often mediated by Islamic piety and practice, underwrite sometimes virulent national debates over whither postcolonial France. While such social dramas, and the academic conversation around them, broadly take place in French, there is an emerging Anglophone scholarship and an increasing number of translations of key French works. In what follows, I particularly highlight the scholarly, literary, cinematic, and musical interventions of Franco-Maghrebi intellectuals, artists, and writers, a number of whom I have profiled in my recent Postcolonial France: Race, Islam, and the Future of the Republic (London: Pluto Press, 2018) and contextualize in my earlier Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race, and Nation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).

Ian Coller, Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010)

Neil MacMaster, Colonial Migrants and Racism: Algerians in France, 1900-1962 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997)

Nicolas Bancel, Pascal Blanchard and Dominic Thomas (eds.), The Colonial Legacy in France: Fracture, Rupture, and Apartheid (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017)

The history of North African France dates at least to the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt, as Ian Coller reminds us. Port cities like Marseille served as key mercantile hubs and gathered merchants, migrants, and laborers from the southern and eastern Mediterranean. The 1830 conquest of Algiers and violent establishment of settler colonies in North Africa solidified these linkages, particularly with the increased recruitment of Maghrebi migrant workers to the metropole in the twentieth century. Neil MacMaster traces the colonial history of North African France and of the present social dramas around race and Islam. The extent to which such colonial “legacies” continues to impact postcolonial France—whether France still effectively functions as a colonial empire—remains a hotly debated academic and political subject, particularly in the wake of a February 2005 proposed law to require French public schools to teach the “positive values” of colonialism, and the suburban (banlieue) uprising of young men of postcolonial immigrant background in October-November of the same year. Nicolas Bancel, Pascal Blanchard, and Dominic Thomas have collected and translated a number of essays by historians, social scientists, and cultural critics associated with the ACHAC research collective who have provocatively intervened in these debates. Essays by Rachid Benzine, Nacira Guénif-Souilamas, Achlle Mbembe, Benjamin Stora, and Françoise Vergès are particularly compelling for their testimony and analysis of the lived experience of colonial memories.
Albert Memmi, Decolonization and the Decolonized (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006)

Fadela Amara, Breaking the Silence: French Women’s Voices from the Ghetto (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) 

Houria Bouteldja, Whites, Jews, and Us: Towards a Politics of Revolutionary Love (New York: Semiotext(e), 2017)

What might a postcolonial future look like in the vivid shadow of the violent colonial past? French-Tunisian Jewish intellectual Albert Memmi takes up this question fifty years after the publication of his seminal psychoanalytic deconstruction of colonialism, The Colonizer and the Colonized. As much as the 1957 essay was a thoroughgoing indictment of colonial society, the 2004 sequel condemned the postcolonial world as having failed to cure the underlying pathology of reciprocal dehumanization. While much of the book denounces continued corrupt, authoritarian politics in the Maghreb, the second half focuses on Franco-Maghrebis condemned to “digest the memory of colonial domination and exploitation” (p. 115), turning them into “a kind of zombie, lacking any profound attachment to the land in which he was born. He is a French citizen but does not feel the least bit French…. And, in truth, he is from another planet: the ghetto” (p. 119). Memmi bemoans the internalization of colonial humiliation and its translation into delinquency, misogyny, communalism, and “regressive” religious tradition. His call for humanism and secularism (laïcité) dovetails with that of Fadela Amara, the Franco-Algerian co-founder (in 2002) of the Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS) secular feminist movement and later state secretary for urban policy. NPNS championed young women in the banlieues victimized by “religious obscurantism,” forced to submit to Islamic patriarchy or be treated as sexually available whores: “For us the struggle against racism and exclusion, and the battle for our freedom and emancipation, are one and the same struggle.” In her auto-biographical text, Amara calls for “secularism, equality, and a plurality of social identities in a multicultural republic” (p. 162). Amara’s work has generated much critique for being self-serving, politically conservative, and playing into the broader Islamophobic stereotypes. Standing in near polar opposition is Houria Bouteldja, the Franco-Algerian activist and co-founder of the Indigènes de la République movement/party (PIR) which since 2005 has called for the final decolonization of the French republic on behalf of those of postcolonial immigrant background (for whom they appropriate the colonial term indigènes). In her book, Bouteldja severely condemns Memmi and Amara’s tacit Islamophobia, as well as the Zionism that has come to infuse mainstream French anti-racism. Repeatedly accused of anti-Semitism and “anti-white racism” for her uncompromising language, Bouteldja makes a plea for what she calls “revolutionary love”: Only by seeking and earning the love of the indigènes, only by denouncing white privilege and its material advantages, only by building solidarity through acts as well as words can a positive transformation of the French social order transpire and postcolonial peace be achieved.

Abdelmalek Sayad, The Suffering of the Immigrant (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999)

Jean Beaman, Citizen Outsider: Children of North African Immigrants in France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017)

For understanding how Maghrebi immigrants and Franco-Maghrebis experience these postcolonial contradictions—the shrill calls for their secular “integration” in the face of continued racialized and Islamophobic exclusion—the ethnographic sociology of Abdelmalek Sayad is second to none. A collaborator and co-author of Pierre Bourdieu (who arranged for the publication of the book following Sayad’s untimely death), as well as an Algerian immigrant himself, Sayad was, in the words of Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant, the “public scribe” of immigrants’ psychic, physical, and cultural “suffering” in part because of his own life-long medical and professional challenges. Indeed, Sayad wrote extensively about the embodied stigma which migrants carry and pass on to their children, whether as laborers or medical cases or suspect subjects to the racializing gaze: “The immigrant is no more than his body” (p. 213). But Sayad refused to give into the temptation to relegate himself or his immigrant interlocutors to the status of victim or dupes. For all his emphasis on (post)colonial violence as the ground on which the figure of the immigrant was written, he insisted on their agentive roles as both emigrants and immigrants (and, indeed, he famously insisted that every immigration is also an emigration, and needs to be understood within Maghrebi as well as the French history). He took seriously their narratives not simply as empirical evidence but as self-conscious modes of analysis in their own right, and the book—which is a re-publication of eleven of his classic articles written from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s—draws heavily on the testimonies of his interlocutors. In recognition of Sayad’s brilliant work, the French government named the library of France’s National Immigration Museum in his honor. African-American sociologist Jean Beaman picks up Sayad’s narrative of emigrant/immigrant trajectories and adapts it for the 2000s, turning her attention to those middle-class and professional Franco-Maghrebis who nonetheless continue to be racialized, marginalized, and excluded from French cultural citizenship. She emphasizes her respondents’ experiences of transnational blackness, drawing productively on the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, and Audre Lorde; indeed, the title of her book gestures towards Lorde’s inspiring volume, Sister Outsider.


Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Race in Translation: Cultural Wars around the Postcolonial Atlantic (New York: NYU Press, 2012)

Hisham D. Aidi, Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture (New York: Pantheon, 2014)

As Beaman’s ethnography suggests, the transnational frame of North African France does not merely reach across the Mediterranean but across the Atlantic as well. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam show how racial categories and identity politics are not fixed in national spaces but themselves travel, translate, and transform across cultural and intellectual traditions. In their reading, seemingly localized national debates around immigration and identity in France, the United States, and Brazil are closely interwoven and mutually constituted. They show, for instance, how Bourdieu and Wacquant’s well-known critique of the imperialism of American scholars imposing US-based racial categories on their analysis of Brazil is in fact more revelatory of internal French anxieties around ethno-religious identification threatening to replace class solidarities. Hisham Aidi traces similar linkages in music and popular culture, placing North Africa at the center of a historical geography linking Europe, North America, and Latin America. Gnawa and jazz, hip hop and chanson, Judeo-Arab music and rock and roll become the unexpected vectors through which new generations are drawing cultural connections and forging grassroots anti-imperial political unions. North African France is thus but one node in a much larger, neo-Bandung global configuration which defies Orientalist and Cold War categories of East and West, North and South.

Maud Mandel, Muslims and Jews in France: History of Conflict (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014)

Ethan Katz, The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015)

One of the central figures in Aidi’s text is Maurice El Medioni, the virtuoso Jewish-Algerian pianist who left for France after Algerian independence along with hundreds of thousands of pied noirs nostalgic for their homeland. His life charts the unraveling of complex ties of kinship, sociality, and cultural exchange that have long connected Jews and Muslims in North Africa and France. Maud Mandel and Ethan Katz trace the history of these intimate, fraught, and sometimes violent relations as they transformed under new pressures of Zionism and Arab nationalism, under new accusations of Muslim anti-Semitism and Jewish Islamophobia. As both show, North African France has long been a world forged in and through inter-confessional identification and communication and not simply communalism.

Joan Wallach Scott, The Politics of the Veil (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006)

John R. Bowen, Can Islam Be French? Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010)

Mayanthi Fernando, The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014)

Jeanette S. Jouili, Pious Practice and Secular Constraints: Women in the Islamic Revival in Europe (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015)

One of the principal shifts in France’s religious landscape has involved what scholars have called the “Islamic revival,” the growth of piety movements among French-born Muslims and converts to Islam. These movements have paralleled and sometimes precipitated national debates over the centrality of laïcité to French identity. Joan Wallach Scott historically traces these debates to colonial-era anxieties around Islam and to unresolved contradictions within French feminism over normative sexuality—all of which have politicized the modesty practices of young women and the hijab (or “veil”) more broadly. John R. Bowen approaches these debates structurally, charting the struggles of mosques, religious schools, halal butcheries, and other Islamic institutions to flourish in a secular landscape. Mayanthi Fernando’s ethnography focuses on the individual and collective dilemmas of Muslim French to garner recognition within French republican citizenship while challenging its constitutive Islamophobia. Jeanette Jouili compellingly hones in on the internal ethical discussions and accommodations among pious Muslim women, comparing the French situation to that of Germany.

Leïla Sebbar, Sherazade, trans. Dorothy S. Blair (Northampton, MA: Interlink, 2014 [1982])

Mehdi Charef, Tea in the Harem, trans. Ed Emery (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1989 [1983])

Azouz Begag, Shantytown Kid, trans. Naïma Wolfe and Alec G. Hargreaves (Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 2007 [1986])

Faïza Guène, Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, trans. Sarah Adams (New York: Harcourt, 2006 [2004])

How Franco-Maghrebis strive to reconcile their cultural differences, secular citizenship, and religious commitments is arguably best captured in their own artistic productions. Beginning in the early 1980s, so-called “Beur” novelists wrote semi-autobiographical works to portray the de facto multicultural shantytown and housing project environments in which they grew up and where they faced everyday racism and Islamophobia from teachers, employers, and state authorities. They thus carried the baton of an earlier generation of North African writers including Tahar Ben Jelloun, Driss Chraïbi, Assia Djebar, Mohammed Khair-Eddine, and Kateb Yacine, a number of whom worked from France and, like Memmi, wrote of postcolonial dilemmas there. Several key Beur novels by Franco-Algerian authors Leïla Sebbar, Mehdi Charef, and Azouz Begag (later a sub-minister for urban affairs) have since been translated into English. Faïza Guène is part of a new generation of writers experimenting with different styles and genres to portray the lived reality of North African France.

Hi Cousin! [Salut cousin!], dir. Merzak Allouache (Artémis Productions, 1997)

Living in Paradise [Vivre au paradis], dir. Bourlem Guerdjou (3B Productions, 1998)

Days of Glory [Indigènes], dir. Rachid Bouchareb (Tessalit Productions, 2006)

The Secret of the Grain [La Graine et le mulet], dir. Abdellatif Kechiche (Pathé Renn Productions, 2007)

Alongside literature, Franco-Maghrebi cinema has flourished in France since Charef directed a 1985 film version of his novel. This rich visual commentary includes works by established North African filmmakers, like the Algerian Merzak Allouache, whose Hi Cousin! starred French-Moroccan Jewish comedian Gad Elmaleh and provided comic relief to the catastrophic Algerian civil war of the 1990s that sent thousands into exile in France. The French-Algerian director Bourlem Guerdjou (an actor in Tea in the Harem) took a more serious route with a portrayal of the 17 October 1961 massacre of Algerian nationalist demonstrators in Paris and its aftermath for those living in the Nanterre shantytown. Rachid Bouchareb continued in this vein with a series of films about the history of (post)colonial relations, including the 2006 Days of Glory, starring French-Moroccan comic Jamel Debbouze, about the broken promises to North African soldiers recruited to liberate France during WWII; the film’s 2006 release prompted then Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to promise the payment of suspended military pensions to surviving colonial soldiers. French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche is internationally known for his Blue Is the Warmest Color which won the 2013 Palme d’Or at Cannes, but his more modest Secret of the Grain is a true masterpiece, the touching story of an older Maghrebi immigrant laborer struggling to open a fish couscous restaurant in Sète, and of his French-born children who try to realize his dream after his tragic death.

Carte de Séjour, Ramsa (Piranha Music, 1988)

Zebda, Essence Ordinaire (Barclay, 1998)

Gnawa Diffusion, Bab El Oued Kingston (Musisoft, 1999)

Wallen, À Force de Vivre (Atmosphériques, 2001)

Médine, Arabian Panther (Because Music, 2008)

Film has often conveyed the richness of the Franco-Maghrebi musical scene, particularly in movies like Mahmoud Zemmouri’s 100% Arabic (100% Arabica) (1997), a vehicle for Khaled and Cheb Mami’s raï performances. Franco-Maghrebis have innovated across a number of North African, European, and American musical styles for decades. The Lyon-based band Carte de Séjour, fronted by Rachid Taha, melded punk, soul, and Algerian chaabi during the 1980s and was deeply involved in the Beur civil rights movement of that period. Their 1986 transformation of Charles Trenet’s paean “Douce France” (Sweet France) into an anti-racist anthem earned them national attention. Zebda, a group of Franco-Kabyle and other community organizers based in Toulouse whose name is an Arabic play on “Beur,” carried forward the anti-racist mantle into the 1990s and early 2000s. Their disco hit “Tomber la chemise” (Drop your shirt) balances the critical verve of other songs from Essence Ordinaire, including “Double peine” (Double punishment), “Quinze ans” (fifteen years), and “Je crois que ça va pas être possible” (I do not think that will be possible). The proceeds of their albums helped fund a local political party, Les Motivé-e-s, which had success in the 2001 municipal elections. Gnawa Diffusion, fronted by Amazigh Kateb (the son of Algerian writer Kateb Yacine) is, with Orchèstre National de Barbès (named after Paris’ Barbès neighborhood), part of a thriving gnawa scene in France that creatively fuses raï, reggae, Kabyle, salsa, and funk melodies to a sintir/guembri backbeat. Bab El Oued Kingston confronts the tragedy of the 1990s Algerian civil war. Franco-Maghrebi women have been similarly active on the French musical scene since Taos Amrouche’s classical recordings of Berber folksongs in the 1960s. Wallen (Nawell Azzouz) is one of a younger generation of talented singer-songwriters enriching the French R&B and hip hop scenes. With her husband, spoken-word poet Abd al Malik, she has been particularly active in the world of Francophone Sufi music. In contrast, Médine (Médine Zaouiche) lends his politically conscious and Islamic-themed rap to transformative social movements, including the Indigènes de la République party. Looking across the Atlantic for political as well as musical models, his songs lionize the struggles of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.

Understanding the rich cultural and political dynamics of North African France sheds important light on other postcolonial dilemmas and Islamic diasporic worlds around the Mediterranean and beyond. While the recent news cycle has primarily focused on moments of violence, the readings listed here highlight the everyday, creative work done by activists and artists, students and laborers to build flourishing lives and productive social environments for themselves and their communities. To ask whither North African France is to open up a space for thinking beyond antinomies of immigrant and native, toleration and intolerance, multiculturalism and racism, Muslim, Christian and Jew. The works listed here are invariably politically positioned, but they broadly refuse simple reductions or ready-made stances, ultimately raising more questions about our shared postcolonial future than they answer. Students of the region need to take stock of these complex perspectives and try to contribute to the conversation with their own engaged research. While the academic literature is well developed in France, the North African transnational worlds developing across and between Europe, North America, and the Gulf deserve equal attention.


[The Essential Readings series is curated by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings modules by submitting an “Essential Readings” list on a topic/theme pertinent to their research/specialization in Middle East studies. Authors are asked to keep the selection relatively short while providing as much representation/diversity as possible. This difficult task may ultimately leave out numerous works which merit inclusion from different vantage points. Each topic may eventually be addressed by more than one author. Email us at info@MESPI.org for any inquiries.]