Mirror, Mirror, Tell Me Who I Am: Colonial Empire and French Identity
Twenty years ago, at a party held in a New York suburb, a French woman, who had been brought in by her American friend, said to me, “Why are you objecting to French colonialism? After all, if we had not colonized Algeria, another country would have.” The implication was that Algeria was doomed to be colonized and so I should have been grateful that the French and not another European nation had done Algeria the honor or favor of colonizing it. In 2005 an acquaintance, an Englishman with a degree in economics, told me with a straight face: “Colonialism gave you, regardless of race, the chance to speak three languages [Arabic, French, and English], a different turn of mind. . . . It was a way for European nations to lend a helping hand to their younger brothers and sisters until they could stand on their own feet.” In 2009, at a conference, a French female historian stated in the course of a heated argument that “the French colonial government could not bring about significant improvements in native women’s lives out of respect for local customs!” While my English acquaintance could be forgiven for being unaware of the French linguistic policy of substituting French for Arabic in educational and administrative institutions, the historian should have been conversant with the twists and turns of French colonial gender politics, which varied from colony to colony but generally used women as a cultural weapon against native men, especially during crises. The unveiling ceremony staged by French generals on May 16, 1958, flanked by their wives, was a case in point. As the women dropped their veils on cue before the press and the crowd of onlookers, the generals declared that the last obstacle to a French Algeria had just collapsed.1
These incidents, which took place years after the colonial era ended, highlight two important and related issues. The first is how resilient the justifications of the European colonial ventures are across generations; they reached their apex when the French government decided on February 23, 2005, that schools should teach about the benefits of colonialism, especially in North Africa, but then rescinded the decision on February 15, 2006. The second is the necessity for some scholars across disciplines (especially scholars hailing from former colonial societies) to explain how it is that colonial ventures can be talked and written about in ways that remarkably leave out or diminish the importance of their racially discriminatory practices, cultural hegemony, and structured political and economic inequality. Such issues lead to questions aimed at examining how formerly colonized people, the famed “subalterns,” have over the years managed the social- psychological marks presumably left in them by their historical origins, how colonial domination produced a certain mode of being among natives that reproduces the logic of the system albeit through ambiguity, ambivalence, contradiction, or even violence. Whether a scholar takes as a starting inspirational source Frantz Fanon, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, or Michel Foucault, or some combination thereof, postcolonial studies juggles these issues, with mixed results, sometimes enlightening, sometimes downright obscure and self-serving.
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- For an analysis of this event, see Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism (New York: Grove, 1965), chap. 1. See also Marnia Lazreg, Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008), chap. 6.