Over the last few weeks, France has seen unrest at the death of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old boy of Moroccan and Algerian origin shot and killed by police officers in a Paris suburb. The events dawn on the 98th birthday of Frantz Fanon, the Martinican psychiatrist who, educated in Paris, spent a critical part of his life in Algeria supporting its nationalist liberation movement against France, seeing the revolution as a ‘bridgehead’ of a pan-African vision.
Perhaps Frantz Fanon is most widely recognized for his theories on violence which he developed during the Algerian Revolution, one of the bloodiest wars in human history. These theories have proven timeless and more than 60 years later are ringing true on the Parisian streets. On 27 June, two French police officers approached Nahel Merzouk at a traffic stop in Nanterre, a suburb of Paris. Driving without a license, Merzouk attempted to flee the scene before one of the police officers, only known as ‘Florian M,’ fatally, shot him in the chest as he pulled off. Though the officers originally claimed self-defence, video evidence has suggested otherwise, leading to mass outrage and even the surprising condemnation of the accused officer by French president Emmanuel Macron. Despite Macron’s declarations, those who occupy France’s less prosperous communities, but particularly the youth, including some as young as eleven, have taken to the streets leading to journalistic coverage that has painted narratives of looting, rioting and unbridled violence.
‘National liberation, national renaissance, the restoration of nationhood to the people, commonwealth: whatever may be the headings used or the new formulas introduced, decolonization is always a violent phenomenon.’ These are the opening words of Fanon’s seminal text, The Wretched of the Earth. Within certain sections of France like Nanterre are the descendants, like Merzouk, of colonial subjects who either migrated to France and made it their home in hopes of a more prosperous future or once fought for the dignity and promise of independence in their own homeland. At the height of France’s empire, the country had colonies in North Africa, West Africa and the Caribbean. Fanon asserted that the first encounters between France and its colonial subjects were ‘marked by violence’ and that their existence together ‘was carried on by a dint of a great array of bayonets and cannons.’ Thus, for the colonial subject, ‘from birth it is clear to him that this narrow world, strewn with prohibitions, can only be called into question by absolute violence.’ To Fanon, arguably, the present uprising on the Parisian streets might be but a logical response and product of a violent colonial history.
Fanon’s sharp words ornament the opening chapter, entitled ‘Concerning Violence’, in which he discusses the legitimacy, logic and inevitably of violence as a liberatory tool against colonialism. The Wretched of the Earth circulated widely as a blueprint for the liberation movements that occurred globally through the second half of the 20th century, and today the book remains a staple of the ongoing battle against Western hegemony. The text at once emphasized the struggle of Africans and understood that struggle as but one thread of a large tapestry of imperialist oppression that could only be uprooted through violence. Fanon’s theories on violence emerged after he completed his studies in France and left for Algeria, then a French colony, in 1953 for a position at the Blida-Joinville psychiatric hospital. A year later, the Algerian Revolution erupted, prompting his resignation from that post in 1956 to become an active supporter of the movement, and his deportation to Tunisia in 1957.
By this time, Fanon was all too familiar with the tactics of French colonialism. Born on 20 July 1925, into a well-to-do family in Martinique (which remains a French colony today) Fanon experienced life as a Black man both in various French colonies and in the metropole. However, it was during his doctorate program in France that Fanon submitted a dissertation that became his entrance into the intellectual arm of the revolutionary current active across the world. The dissertation was rejected at the academic level, but he later published it as Black Skin, White Masks. The book specifically discussed the experience of the Black person who lives within a racist, colonial society. As much as it was a critique of colonial oppression, it was perhaps much more of a self-criticism which posits that though one may not be responsible for their condition, they are ultimately responsible for their fate—an argument that would position him to later present his argument on violence as a tool of liberation.
But even though this early text specifically focuses on the brokenness of Black consciousness in a colonial situation, Fanon still displayed embers of his evolving humanist understanding of the universal experience of colonialism for other communities. Fanon writes, ‘all forms of exploitation are identical, since they apply to the same “object”: man.’ Elaborating further, he affirms ‘that a society is racist or is not. As long as this evidence has not been grasped, a great many problems will have been overlooked…it is utopian to try to differentiate one kind of inhuman behaviour from another.’
THE FRENCH BRAND OF COLONIALISM
One might argue that the foundation for Fanon’s understanding was two-fold. The first is Fanon’s experience in France, where his exposure to the situational proximity of Black and Arab communities in France also began presenting itself: ‘It is utopian to expect the Black man and the Arab to make the effort of including abstract values in their weltanschauung when they barely have enough food to survive.’ The second is France’s brand of colonialism. Paulette Nardal, his Martinican contemporary and patron of the Negritude movement, once described the distinction of French colonialism as having a ‘liberal spirit’ towards ‘coloured peoples’, with a ‘lack of colour prejudice’ due to the fact that they are ‘certain to transform the mind of any a coloured man into a truly French one in a comparatively short time.’
Within the large swaths of French colonies in the Caribbean, West and North Africa, France was not only interested in economic and political domination but also in isolating those communities from their culture and identity, replacing it with a French one by convincing them their own was savage and barbaric. In fact, and in example, the term ‘Berber’, a now pejorative name which formerly designated indigenous Amazighen North African communities, etymologically stems from Old French barbarie, connected to Latin barbaria and Greek barbaros, all cognates which mean foreign, strange, and ultimately, barbarian. This demonstrates that colonialism was not simply a product of modern times, but an extension of an earlier history. This legacy of cultural alienation within French colonialism still largely impacts the mode of operation in present-day France; race is not discussed and one who gains citizenship in France is only considered to be French; their previous cultural identities are erased as not even a census regarding ethnicity is taken in the country. While some utopian outlooks may see these as an attempt at equality, Fanon might see it as the French colonial tradition of cultural erasure, rejection and subsequently complete domination.
France’s historical policy of converting all their so-called subjects into Frenchmen arguably has positioned conversations in France to circumvent conversations around Merzouk’s Algerian and Moroccan roots. Instead, French authorities and leaders opt for understanding the issue at hand as an economic—not racial or cultural—problem of affluent and impoverished locales, of urban development, of city planning and fund allocation. It just so happens that the impoverished, underdeveloped, and underfunded locales are predominately composed of Black and Arab communities formed prior to and throughout the colonial and revolutionary periods of a not-so-distant past.
The uprising in Paris was perhaps catalysed by what Fanon described as ‘certain episodes in the life of the community in order to hold themselves ready and to keep alive their revolutionary zeal.’ This ‘certain episode’ concerns the all-too-familiar clash between young people of colour and so-called law enforcement. Conversations around Merzouk ‘being known to police’ despite not having a criminal record has exposed the links between supposed innocence or guilt, criminality and race within the French system.
For this, Fanon has a theory too:
Obviously, it’s a waste of breath to say that such-and-such hero is a thief, a scoundrel, or a reprobate. If the act for which he is prosecuted by the colonial authorities is an act exclusively directed against a colonialist person or a colonialist property…the process of identification is automatic.
The identification with Merzouk is more than just about his individual confrontation with the system; his death represents the failures of French colonialism and the unbroken chain of poverty, discrimination, and violence that has been visited upon France’s communities of colour for centuries now. This unbroken chain of violence Fanon predicted, ‘will be claimed and taken over by the (colonized person) at the moment when, deciding to embody history in his own person, he surges into the forbidden quarters. To wreck the colonial world is henceforward a mental picture of action which is very clear, very easy to understand.’ In times of unrest, Fanon continues, authorities might appeal to ‘reason’, imploring the bereaved to ‘put their trust in qualities which are well-tried, solid, and highly esteemed.’ However, Fanon asserted that ‘the violence with which the supremacy of white values is affirmed and the aggressiveness which has permeated the victory of these values over the ways of life and of thought of the (colonized) mean that, in revenge, the (colonized) laughs in mockery when Western values are mentioned in front of him.’
‘The dividing line,’ Fanon wrote, the demarcations of European and non-European quarters in the colonial world are represented ‘by barracks and police stations…The two zones are opposed, but not in the service of a higher unity.’ As a result, the uprising is juxtaposed with ‘the symbols of social order—the police, the bugle calls in the barrack, military parades and the waving flags.’ Fanon asserted that these ‘are at once and the same time inhibitory and stimulating: for they do not convey the message “don’t dare to budge”; rather, they cry out “Get ready to attack.”’ One step further, Fanon wrote that for those who wish to take action, ‘the settler has shown him the way he should take if he is to become free. The argument the (colonized person) chooses has been furnished by the settler, and by an ironic turning of the tables it is the (colonized person) who now affirms that the colonialist understands nothing but force.’ In a few words, the reaction of the masses to Merzouk’s death is a logical and direct historical and psychological consequence of a centuries-long history of violence.
THE GEOPOLITICAL HISTORY OF FRANCE, NORTH, AND WEST AFRICA
The cultural and geographical were intimately connected in French colonialism and, thus, in liberation. Fanon discusses how French colonialism not only created ‘Frenchmen’ out of its colonial subjects, but also saw Algeria in particular as a geographical part of France. Algeria, a coastal North African country, is just over 2,000 kilometres from France’s shores on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. The history is long: Arabs, indigenous North African and West Africans had long existed in Europe since ancient times. They even coagulated as a group under Islam known as the Moors beginning in the eighth century to rule the Iberian Peninsula to the west of France. The importance of language presents itself again, as ‘Moors’ are connected to Latin terminology meaning ‘dark’, indicating the nucleus of otherizing via race had appeared by then.
The conquest of Europe and North Africa by the Muslim Ottoman Empire beginning at the turn of the 14th century contributed to an already heightened anti-Islamic sentiment across Europe due to Moorish rule. The occupation of the Ottomans, a veritable blockade to the east, prompted explorations around the African coast in search of an alternative route to Asia. France invaded Ottoman-affiliated Algiers in 1830, firmly occupying the coast by 1881, with the final push for the entire territory in 1903. The long, drawn-out war was a single part of France’s mission to colonize the entire Sahara, in addition to its new territorial gains in West Africa.
If one glances at the map, one might surmise that, indeed, France was attempting to geographically expand its land in the ways empires of the past had. These were topographically connected empires, but France was trying something new: an empire with a bountiful, strategically located sea in the middle of it, enhanced by perhaps an even more abundant land of gold, salt, copper, iron, agriculture, and fine craftsmanship. Fanon writes that ‘when one closely examines the colonial relations that have existed between Algeria and France,’ one might observe that Algeria ‘has always represented for France a more or less real prolongation.’ He posits that France’s claim within West Africa, for example, ‘was based rather on a right of property, whereas in Algeria, from the beginning, relations of identity were affirmed.’ This prolongation has not gone without consequences for France. Fanon writes that because ‘the French national consciousness has been conditioned by one simple basic principle—Algeria is France… France finds herself a prisoner of her conquest and incapable of detaching herself from it.’
By nature of France’s unique claim in Algeria, the quantities of culture and ethnicity were substantially broadened within its real and aspired borders. Even as Algeria has been independent for over 50 years, the spectre of France’s imperialist aspiration to annex Algeria and the Sahara still lingers. France must now reckon with having displaced millions, failing to extend true French citizenship and identity as the French colonial mission had promised. As such, the Algerian Revolution was a war of culture and identity as much as it was a war of politics and economics. In A Dying Colonialism, a text he wrote five years into the Algerian Revolution, Fanon described the French government’s tactic of Westernizing Muslim-Algerian women by manipulating the ideologies that were coming out of women’s liberation movements during the 50s and 60s. In response, Fanon observes, the leaders of the revolution saw the moment as an opportunity to infiltrate the enemy’s ranks. This was balanced by the additional response of ‘veiled’ women who used their garments to hide weapons and critical messages, capitalizing on the erroneous belief that women of the Muslim world had no autonomy and no potential as conscious political actors.
This history is further brought into contemporary relevance as in 2004 the French government passed a law banning the wearing of the hijab in public schools. Two days after Merzouk’s killing, the French Conseil d’Etat ‘upheld the French Football Federation’s ban on wearing any obvious religious symbols,’ regarding a specifically to the wearing of the hijab. The French government has attempted to obscure the country’s colonial legacy of cultural erasure by claiming these are efforts to preserve its national secularism.
Fanon recounted familiar assertions against Algerians or anyone else who refused to assimilate into French culture: ‘Why don’t they stay where they belong?’ ‘Sure!’ Fanon writes,
…that’s easy enough to say…the trouble is, they have been told they were French. They learned it in school. In the street. In the barracks…on the battle fields. They have had France squeezed into them wherever, in their bodies and in their souls, there was room for something apparently great. Now they are told in no uncertain terms that they are in “our” country.
On the political level, the anti-immigrant rhetoric in present-day France emboldened by Merzouk’s death is a rebirth of the rhetoric in imperialist France and regarding revolutionary Algeria.
ALGERIA, THE BRIDGEHEAD OF A PAN-AFRICAN REVOLUTION
An extension of ancient and medieval history, the history of French empire brought together ever so closely African and Arab communities in a common cause against imperialism in the 20th century and now in the 21st century. Fanon was a key progenitor of the political and economic networks which bridged communications between North and West Africa. In Towards the African Revolution, a posthumous collection of essays which also contains his resignation letter, Fanon wrote that ‘the military, economic, and political effort put forth by France in the Algerian war can be evaluated objectively only in relation to the whole “French” Africa.’ This essay, entitled ‘The Algerian War and Man’s Liberation’ was published in a 1958 issue of the leading revolutionary publication, El Moujahid, in which Fanon was a frequent contributor. Despite the presently professed distinctions between ‘North’ and ‘sub-Saharan’ Africa, Fanon envisioned a geographically unified pan-Africanism, and the Algerian Revolution ‘presented the colonial problem on the scale of Africa.’
Fanon, who used reciprocity as a tool against colonialism (e.g., violence begets violence), understood that because France’s imperialist aspirations took on a unique geographical element, liberation would require strategies to match scale. As a result, he described Algeria as a strategically advantageous pan-African vanguard, France’s ‘bridgehead in Africa’, considering Algeria’s geographical position as a literal port or blockade to France’s annexation of the land above and below the Sahara.
But this was not just theory, ‘the Algerian masses’, Fanon wrote in the same essay, were ‘conscious of the importance of their combat to the African continent as a whole.’ Fanon was a key intermediate between Arab leadership in the north and Black leadership in the south: two zones opposed in the service of a higher unity, a pan-African unity. In 1958, Fanon wrote that an Algerian delegation to Accra, Ghana, ‘received an enthusiastic welcome,’ and ‘that the great figures of the Algerian Revolution…have become a part of the epic of Africa.’ He mentioned that Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of an independent Ghana, announced ‘the intention of his government to recognize the Provisional Government of the Algerian Revolution.’ Two years later, while also stationed in Accra, Fanon facilitated the establishment of a base in Mali which provided arms and other assistance to Algeria once the French blocked access to support from Morocco and Tunisia.
Fanon’s universalist outlook on colonialism and pan-African revolution was guided by the equalizing force of violence that he witnessed. Individualism and excessive ethnic distinctions were a symptom of a Western ‘sickness’ that could only be fully cured by a unified front: ‘Henceforward,’ Fanon wrote, ‘the interest of one will be the interests of all, for in concrete fact everyone will be discovered by the troops, everyone will be massacred—or everyone will be saved.’
Merzouk’s death has translated that reality into the 21st century. French identity as an equalizing force as promised during France’s imperial era has not sufficiently protected the rights and human dignity of a certain sector of its citizenry as outlined by political geography. Just as Algeria presented the ‘colonial problem on the scale of Africa,’ and spearheaded a pan-African vision, Merzouk’s death represents the unity required of all France’s communities of colour which share the heritage of revolution and liberation.
One element that Fanon challenged was the effectiveness of religion, namely Islam, as a tool of liberation. Merzouk’s death presents its own challenge to Fanon, as thousands of people from various communities in France unite under the banner of Islam, itself an equalizing force that matches the scale of French identity. This unification of various, what one might even call disparate groups, under Islam is not necessarily surprising. Islam is a large thread in the historical relations between Europe, Africa and, Asia, and even the Americas. The point is that, in the spirit of Fanon’s theories on reciprocity in a colonial world, French identity as an equalizing force during Fanon’s life was matched by the impulse of ‘every African nationalist’ to ‘constantly (give) an African dimension to his action.’ Nationalism and pan-African revolution comprised the equalizing force that opposed forced French identity. Today, in the case of Merzouk’s death, we see Islam as the equalizer and unifier. Nevertheless, whatever the equalizing force equipped to challenge the French brand of colonialism, Fanon recognized that a total unified commitment to that force whether national, geographical or religious was imperative.
‘WE WHO PURSUE HIM’
It is no coincidence that Fanon ended up in Algeria. Indeed, it was a direct product of France’s geo-colonial structure. Fanon’s time in France among oppressed communities prepared him for what he would experience in Algeria among the Arab and indigenous African communities, where he pushed for a pan-African revolution that rejected the divisive nature of colonialism and acted as a beacon for the rest of the continent to follow. The Caribbean-born psychiatrist often interchangeably wrote ‘we Algerians’ and ‘we Africans’, using the first-person plural to convey his sincerity to this philosophy.
Resulting from Fanon’s critical experience supporting the Algerian Revolution, Fanon’s observations became the blueprint for political, economic, cultural and psychological liberation across the world for decades to come. The context of Merzouk’s death to which these observations arguably apply is quite different from Fanon’s time in all-out war. However, Fanon’s theoretical timelessness means that the fact that both the ‘uprisers’ in the 1960s and now, as Fanon wrote, ‘openly (brandish) the threat of violence proves that (they are) conscious of the unusual character of the contemporary situation and that (they mean) to profit by it.’ And though Fanon warns against un- and misdirected violence, he understood the revolutionary potential of such violence as a logical effect of an already violent situation, much like the contemporary conflict that spread across Paris since the death of Merzouk.
Fanon died from Leukaemia in 1961, barely a year before Algeria gained independence. However, he was already critically aware of the unlikelihood that many of the nationalist fighters would live to see the revolution succeed. The solemn, introspective tone taken in Black Skin, White Masks shifts dramatically as he experienced the violent colonial situation between France and Algeria. By the time of The Wretched of the Earth, a work an ailing Fanon dictated, Fanon was clearly on the offensive until his last breath: ‘The enemy thinks he is pursuing us,’ he declared, ‘but we always manage to harry his rear guard, striking back at him at the very moment when he thinks he has annihilated us. From now on, it is we who pursue him.’⎈
*Correction: a earlier version of this piece implied Nahel Merzouk was killed in Marseille. He was killed in Nanterre, a suburb of Paris.
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