When France Fostered Religious Intolerance

French colonial policies in Algeria created animosity between Jews and Muslims—animosity which the state continues to claim was timeless.

When a protest against Islamophobia was planned in Paris on November 10, 2019, the response of the far-right leader Marine Le Pen was predictable. She argued that anyone who participated would be walking “hand in hand with Islamists” and those who wished to introduce “a totalitarian ideology” into France, equating the struggle against Islamophobia with an acceptance of radical political Islam.1 Once limited to radical right-wingers, such amalgams have become increasingly ubiquitous in the public space. In recent months, President Emmanuel Macron’s commitment to fight “Islamic separatism” and the horrific assassination of schoolteacher Samuel Paty have raised new questions about France’s role in disciplining religious organizations. Among the movements accused of providing an “apology” for terrorism, the Collective Against Islamophobia (CCIF) in France recently announced its dissolution as a result of state pressure. This is hardly surprising, given that many French politicians refuse to confront the reality of Islamophobia, presenting any denunciation of anti-Muslim discrimination as a potential defense of terrorism. Adding fuel to this political fire, so-called “Islamo-leftists” (Islamo-gauchistes), those on the left who have taken up the defense of Muslims in France, have been accused of fostering antisemitism. Thus, even as Islamophobia and antisemitism are undoubtedly on the rise in Europe, it has never seemed more difficult to denounce both forms of discrimination in the same breath.

The French mainstream often invokes “Muslims” and “Jews” as homogenous and opposing categories, effectively accusing all Muslims of harboring antisemitic sentiments. Numerous books and manifestos, highly visible in the public space, paint a picture of a republic in which age-old theological tensions are once again flaring up. Such ancient tensions, it is argued, foster archaic forms of communitarianism, despite the government’s best attempts to encourage tolerance among citizens. Antisemitism and Islamophobia have been presented as two separate issues, despite minority voices that have attempted to denounce both forms of discrimination.

But Joshua Cole tells a different story about antisemitism and Islamophobia in his book Lethal Provocation: The Constantine Murders and the Politics of French Algeria. Cole offers a fresh analysis of the 1934 Constantine riots, when Algerian Muslims pillaged shops, attacked homes, and killed 25 Jews (in the violence, three Muslims were also killed). These murders occurred in the context of mounting antisemitism, as well as of the reformist politics of the interwar period that allowed certain native Muslims a more prominent place in the public sphere. The perpetrators were incited by a seemingly “banal dispute,” in which a Jewish man allegedly insulted Muslims as they prepared to pray outside a mosque.

A small group of people then seized on this incident in order to heighten religious tensions in the colony. They succeeded: on that first day of violence almost two thousand armed Algerians later arrived at the scene, leading Cole to conclude that the riots were “both spontaneous and exacerbated by the activities of a small group.”

Some historians have framed the murders as a sign of the “age-old” animosity between Jews and Muslims. Yet Cole writes that the violence served to “crystallize an emerging set of political boundaries that were more fluid before the riots occurred.” In other words, the violence was not the result of hardened political boundaries but helped to establish them in the first place.

Put differently, French colonial policies in Algeria created the very animosity between Jews and Muslims that the state claimed was timeless. Today’s debates about Islamophobia and antisemitism must reckon with the fact that these forms of discrimination were historically produced. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the French state played an active role in fostering this alleged opposition as colonial policies drew a legal distinction among Jewish, Muslim, and European subject positions.

Even as the French state fostered particularistic attachments, privileging certain groups and marginalizing others, its political discourse flaunted the assimilationist promises of French culture and the French language. In reality, however, true equality—that is, citizenship—was never on the table for the majority of native Algerians. The country was occupied in 1830. The constitution of 1848 legally made Algeria into three French departments, but this did not mean that native Muslims and Jews became citizens. Instead, both populations were foreclosed from French citizenship, on the grounds that their religious laws were incompatible with the French Civil Code.

Algerian Jews, however, found a way out of this conundrum: they were naturalized en bloc by the Crémieux decree, in 1870 (except in the south of Algeria). This meant that Muslim Algerians were considered subjects while Jewish Algerians attained French citizenship and the economic and legal benefits that came with it.

Citizenship did not put native Algerian Jews on par with the European settler population, however. Instead, they occupied an intermediate place between French colonizers and Algerian Muslims, leading to a sense of alienation; Jacques Derrida, an Algerian Jew, wrote that he was estranged from both Arab and French cultures. Although they continued to enjoy the privileges of being French (except for a short time during Vichy, when their citizenship was revoked), Algerian Muslims did not earn French citizenship until 1958, four years into a violent war for independence.

Given this history, it is little wonder that some Muslims in colonial Algeria took the French state at its word. They too considered the Islamic faith to be fundamentally opposed to French identity.


Saving Muslim Women

By Leti Volpp

Joshua Cole exposes how national, racial, and religious categories became entangled in French Algeria. He retells the story of the Constantine riots as a murder mystery, focusing on Mohamed El Maadi, an Algerian Muslim who, Cole argues, helped plan and execute the killings.

Unlike the vast majority of Algerian Muslims, El Maadi was born a French citizen, in 1902, and therefore “moved easily between Algerian and French cultures.” This was a rare form of privilege in a society that tightly restricted social intercourse between natives and Europeans, and where the French language was only accessible to a narrow segment of the native population. El Maadi thus belonged to the generation of Algerians, born around the turn of the century, who embraced European-style education as a pragmatic step toward achieving influence in the francophone world that had been created by the colonial power.

Born during the high tide of the Third Republic, many of these Algerians expressed a fierce attachment to the principles of Republicanism that centered on universal education, economic modernization, military service, imperial expansion, and the religious neutrality of the state. Half of the approximately 175,000 men of the Algerian standing army that served in World War One were volunteers, reflecting a widespread belief that wearing a French military uniform would finally allow Muslims to obtain French citizenship. When this did not occur, many searched for political solutions: Muslim scholars, communist radicals, and the assimilated elite all articulated programs for greater equality.

The interwar era was a particularly charged period, as partisans of French Algeria bristled at any possibility of reform. It was in this cauldron of political unrest that El Maadi expressed his attachment to France through the political language of antisemitism.

Cole argues that several layers of the colonial state—from the local police and political authorities in Constantine to the governor-general’s office in Algiers—actively hid evidence that a small group of individuals had planned the murders in order to incite hatred. For example, during the trials of those accused of murder in 1935 and 1936, no one brought up the earlier theory that a small group of people had committed the crimes.

Today’s debates about Islamophobia and antisemitism must reckon with the fact that these forms of discrimination were historically produced.

Officials portrayed the murders as a series of irrational and unrelated incidents, thereby protecting El Maadi, who was serving in the French army at the time. During the trials of the suspected perpetrators, lawyers covered up his involvement with far-right groups in France and protected local colonial officials. They also avoided suggesting a link among the murders that occurred in various locations. By their highlighting the specificity of each episode of violence, Cole argues, “the portrait of a spontaneous eruption of atavistic hatreds was preserved.”

Yet Cole rejects the notion that El Maadi was moved by irrational passions and happenstance. Instead, the Algerian emerges as the central character in a crime that had a clear set of political motives, rooted in the tumultuous politics of interwar Algeria. Moreover, El Maadi’s involvement with fascism was not limited to the years between the two World Wars: after serving in the French army in the 1920s he went on to don a Nazi uniform during World War Two.

By casting these murders as a series of impassioned reflexes—rather than planned acts of provocation—the administration was able to depict the violence as an episode of Algerian history, so that France’s Republican credentials would remain untarnished. Narrating the events as a departure from French policies helped obscure the fact that the opposition between Muslims and Jews was the direct result of the “ethno-religious” foundations of the settler colony. Rather than account for how colonial policies had created splits between Algerians of different faiths, French officials located the source of this violence in premodern religious passions.

Cole weaves the story of anti-Muslim discrimination in Algeria into the broader interwar history of fascism and rising antisemitism on both sides of the Mediterranean. The Constantine murders occurred just six months after the February 1934 crisis, when far-right groups instigated violent protests in Paris, leading many observers to fear that a coup was imminent.

El Maadi was driven by specifically colonial concerns: he believed that the possibility of Franco-Muslim prosperity and solidarity had been undermined by the Jews. At the same time, however, he espoused a form of antisemitism that had peaked in Algeria following the Dreyfus Affair and reemerged in the interwar period as fascism was on the rise in Europe. Given the diversity of actors who drank at the well of antisemitism in French Algeria, it seems that discriminatory sentiment was less a coherent ideology than a vocabulary that could be used for different political ends.

This retelling of the Constantine murders also invites us to reflect on how Muslims and Jews could have created a common cause against the religious discrimination of the French state. For example, the election of France’s first socialist—and Jewish—prime minister, Léon Blum, was met with antisemitism, which in turn spurred widespread rejection of the Blum-Viollette proposal in Algeria. With Maurice Viollette, Blum crafted a relatively modest attempt to naturalize a minority of “deserving” Muslim Algerians, but this proposed law was so unpopular among the settlers that it was never even debated in the Chamber of Deputies.


A Muslim Future to Come?

By Judith Surkis

The Popular Front, which created a short-lived coalition of Algerian Jews and liberal Muslims during the interwar period, offered a window of political possibilities. For Cole, these years provide a glimpse of the “imagined futures that never arrived.”

This has become a familiar refrain in colonial historiography, which discourages us from reading the past in light of how the story ended. We might know which version of history won out, but historical actors like El Maadi did not. Remembering that the eventual outcome was far from inevitable, scholars have tried to restore a sense of contingency to the process of decolonization.

The recovery of possible futures thus risks retelling French history as a series of occasions manquées, or “missed opportunities,” that would have made it possible for Algerians and Europeans to live together in relative peace and prosperity. The Popular Front lost the ideological battle of colonial reform, but this was less the fault of individual prejudices like those held by El Maadi than the result of the long-standing structures of settler colonialism.

El Maadi also worried about the interwar period as a kind of “missed opportunity.” Distressed that French settlers might have viewed these murders as the work of “dangerous agitators and hateful anti-Europeans,” he wanted to make clear that the violence was in no way intended to undermine French sovereignty in Algeria.

El Maadi was correct in anticipating that observers would understand the Constantine riots as a consequence of anticolonial sentiments and advocacy for colonial reform. He thus made a point of narrating the murders differently, insisting that “these pogroms were carried out to the accompaniment of cries of ‘Vive la France.’” El Maadi insisted that these violent acts had been inspired by a deep attachment to France and were not a rejection of the French colonial system.

For El Maadi, Cole argues, “the anti-Jewish animus that he shared with other French patriots was proof of his allegiance to France and France’s African empire.” In other words, even if French officials wanted to pin his antisemitism on his identity as a Muslim Algerian, Cole suggests that it was instead El Maadi’s attachment to France—and even a specifically French rendering of antisemitism—that explained his attraction to fascism.

Our current moment feels eerily similar to the interwar period, which witnessed a rise in global antisemitism, pervasive turmoil in the established political order, and the urgency of unprecedented waves of human displacement. The 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris brought many of these issues to the fore. On January 7, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi killed 11 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the left-wing, anticlerical satirical magazine known for its extreme secularism and cartoons that many found racist, sexist, and homophobic; they also killed a police officer while fleeing afterward. Two days later, Amedy Coulibaly killed four Jews at a kosher supermarket in a related attack. Protestors denounced these attacks in the name of free speech, employing the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie. Some also rehearsed the well-known tropes that depicted Muslims as being inherently antisemitic.

For French Muslims who saw themselves as victims of the publication’s racism and Islamophobia, this was a difficult situation to navigate. They were asked to publicly embrace a conception of Frenchness from which they had been historically excluded. For example, when some students refused to identify with Charlie, they were accused of providing an apology for terrorism. Commentators used their refusal as proof that the French policy of integration had failed. It seemed impossible to simultaneously denounce the terrorist violence and express disagreement with the editorial line of the paper. Those who did not join the movement were accused of demonstrating an implicit acceptance of the carnage and a political sensibility that was “anti-French.”

The scripts of colonial violence often highlighted the particularistic attachments of the natives rather than questioning the universal commitments of the Republic.

Similarly, it was difficult for many to agree to march alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was present for the “unity” march on January 11, 2015. Yet French Prime Minister Manuel Valls considered the phrase “Je Suis Charlie” to be the “universal cry of France” (cri universel de la France) and foundational for freedom of speech. It thus seemed impossible to denounce Islamophobia or assert the difference between anti-Zionism and antisemitism while also remaining loyal to the Republic.

Being “pro-French” was also a delicate game for Muslim natives in French Algeria, many of whom sought to reform the colonial system during the interwar period. The religious scholar ‘Abd al-Hamid Ben Badis and the liberal politician Mohamed Bendjelloul, Cole recounts, both appealed to the universal values of the Third Republic as they demanded greater equality.

Yet after the massacres in Constantine, the mayor of the city and his colleagues issued a declaration. It suggested that Ben Badis and Bendjelloul’s advocacy of greater rights for native Muslims had been a catalyst for the violence. And it asked Muslims to condemn the recent violence as well as the “anti-French politics” that were “infiltrating” North Africa. Understood as leaders of the Muslim community, liberal Muslims were “asked to assume responsibility for the rioters.”

A shady cast of characters, including the leader of the far-right group the Croix de feu, signed the document. It was thus impossible for Muslims to denounce the act of violence without being co-opted by the narrative of the French state, which rejected the idea that the killings could have been the result of its own colonial policies rather than the work of outside agitators.

Much like our current moment, French officials represented the tensions between Jews and Muslims as a timeless phenomenon. The scripts of colonial violence often highlighted the particularistic attachments of the natives rather than questioning the universal commitments of the Republic. For colonial officials, intensified identifications with Islam and Judaism were not a product of the modern colonial system. Rather, they were ancient residue that French civilization had been unable to wipe away. The specter of violence—either real or imagined—provided an effective way to maintain the distinction between modern Republicanism and archaic communitarianism.

Cole’s book exposes how French policy made integration a “moving target.” This is an insight gleaned from the bygone era of French Algeria, but it continues to offer lessons about France’s current strategies for national inclusion.


This article was commissioned by Ivan Ascher. icon

  1. In some ways this is hardly surprising: her family’s history of racism is well known. In 2018, the National Rally expelled her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, for antisemitic remarks that included defending France’s collaboration with the Vichy regime during World War Two. Marine Le Pen has worked hard to distance herself from her father’s Holocaust denial, participating in a March 2018 demonstration that followed the murder of 85-year-old Mireille Knoll, a Jewish Holocaust survivor.
Featured image: Algiers, Algeria (1899). Library of Congress