You don’t need a film to know that France’s relationship with immigrants from its former colonies is complicated. In an unequal relationship, the onus of resolving complications lies on the one wielding the greater power by removing the operation of power that allows exclusion, xenophobia and stigmatisation. An unusual film, May Allah Bless France, shown at the International Film Festival, 2015, Goa, and based on the true story of Abd Al Malik, an African-origin rap artiste, raises questions about France’s unresolved immigrant question, which is also its Muslim question.
France is now home to huge populations from former colonies. They stay in the suburbs subject to close scrutiny, with dead-beat jobs. In one such locality, teenager Abd and his friends run their life on dope and petty crime. Raids and taunts to prove their Frenchness by cops is common. Abd’s uncle underlines the need for caution: ‘We love this country but this country doesn’t love us, that’s really the problem.’Abd wants to rap his way out of the situation. His class teacher praises him for a school essay where he has referenced the myth of Sisyphus but says he should have mentioned the name of writer Albert Camus. The Camus suggestion shows the desire to own Camus as a Frenchman despite the Algerian-French writer’s mixed feelings about the country he was born in.
Algeria — the French colony’s story of national liberation, has of course, been portrayed in the cult anti-war Gillo Pontecorvo film, The Battle of Algiers — is also the birthplace of Omar Ismail Mostafai, one of the suicide killers in the recent Paris bombing. He belonged to the five million-plus Algerian community in France, for whom living in France is still not a post-imperialist situation. Being an African immigrant, being Muslim, and being both in France — there are too many things that Abd, too, has had to negotiate. A revealing moment in the film is when the same teacher meets Abd after he has become a celebrity. She compliments him for cutting irrelevant things out from his life, and choosing a French success. Extraneous to a ‘French identity’ would the street he grew up and his cultural experience of being an African of which his Muslim-ness is an important part.
A new documentary titled Je ne suis pas Charlie has commentary both on the Charlie Hebdo incident as well as the latest Paris attack. It asks whether the French idea of secularism has actually meant hostility towards public examples of difference such as the wearing of the veil on the part of Muslims. May Allah, however, tries the balancing act — both the host country and the immigrants themselves must not try to reject each other.
That ordinary French citizens should have to pay in violence for its former colonial behaviour is indefensible. But so is the French policy that makes several African independent countries still pay a colonial tax. All violence, usually, does have a context.