Sometimes things happen and its best to keep your disagreements to yourself. People who you cannot countenance not having on your side, people who you turn to for help, to think things through, start adopting a form of behaviour that you find alien. So alien to the high regard you hold them in, that you want to do the equivalent of asking for a quiet word with them. Just go, you know, what the fuck?
Let this open letter be that.
You’re reasonable. You are not the kind of person who would ever put up a union jack, or use weird internet virtual dye to make your Facebook face out in the Red, White and Blue of Britain. Even if the country went to war. Old fashioned war, young men like me called up to visit brothels and murder each other, line by line, in a country we hadn’t heard of sort of a war; you still wouldn’t put it up. Thinking about the first world war makes you uncomfortable, the sacrifices and the pointless slaughter of millions should be remembered but, I mean, we can’t support the actual army leaders can we? I mean this is the British Empire we’re talking about. We were still presiding over apartheid zones in Africa and the Middle East, and women still weren’t really allowed to vote were they?
Even the second world war makes you feel uncomfortable, and that’s Britain’s finest hour. We were briefly, unquestionably, the good guys right? Standing on our own fighting against fascism. A single light in the darkest night of history. But even then, we had colonies, and you’re aware of that. Obviously, there was the unfortunate stuff about us not letting in Jewish refugees, and the embarrassing business about locking up people of German descent and suspending elections. We even know nowadays that Churchill was an antisemite, and only really motivated to fight the war out of British chauvinism, not really any kind of principled antifascism. And, lets not even to go into the stuff about our side won the war by dropping atomic bombs on women and children in Japan, and incinerating them in Dresden. So why do you not feel the same about the French flag?
Nowadays whiteness doesn’t mean purity like it used to do. Or rather it means a more complex kind of purity, a purity of complexity and a purity of focused on enjoyment. The more ‛civilised’ in contemporary racial discourse is the one more ‛open to the other’. Its us over her who are ‛tolerant’ and ‛flexible’; its ‛them’ over there who don’t want to mix and don’t respect others. Unlike the nineteenth century colonialist, the modern European isn’t disgusted by North African and the Middle Eastern supposed sexual profligacy, but by its allegedly puritanical sexual austerity. (Which, lets face it, is another way of delivering wild, oriental, cruel sensuality: When Lacan said that the there is nothing more obscene than the urge to purity he perhaps had in mind a more clinical example, but I can’t help thinking of the almost proverbial Tory MP who wants to be whipped and spanked, whilst being told how ‛naughty’ he is.)
Its within the context of this new architecture of the ‛us and them’ central to the discourse of race that you have chosen to articulate you very particular support for France; your draping of yourself in the Tricolore. I have seen people claim, with as little evidence as self consciousness, that they are standing with Paris and it’s ‛cosmopolitanism’, or it’s ‛sense of fun’, or it’s ‛culture’. ‛Paris is about life’, someone tweeted yesterday. France is champagne and Sartre, Liberty, Egality and Fraternity, it is the Enlightenment, the Sun King. Its the Europe you want Europe to be, the Britain you wish you were from, stripped of the complexities of its post (and indeed current) colonial antics; shorn of all the reasons you would never drape yourself in a Union Jack.
Thing is though, there is no such place. No such Paris, and no such France. Instead their is a country, rather like ours, and a flag rather like ours. The flag exists to give some people a feeling of welcome, belonging and freedom; and others a feeling of alienation, exclusion and subservience.
We don’t have to look into the brutal history of the French colonial empire, its massacre of almost one tenth of the population of Algeria, its continuing presence in so-called Francafrique, its death squads and its brutal policing of the Arab and African ghettos around Paris and other major cities. Or rather we needn’t do that first. Internal to the dynamic of French history, is the playing out of the social struggles that first gave rise to the Great Revolution of 1789. Through the nineteenth century these battle lines were drawn agains and again, leading to the declaration of the Commune in Paris, in 1871. The Commune acted as a rallying point around which the two factions of French post revolutionary society could reform their ranks. On the one hand, the reactionaries, who were not comfortable with democracy and wanted to see the restoration of the monarchy; their’s was the Red, White and Blue flag. The Communards, fighting for social justice, radical democracy and women’s rights had the red flag. So after the fighting was over, and the Commune was defeated, it was the Red, White and Blue that was stitched to the sleeves of the triumphant reactionary soldiers of the Empire. The week after the fall of the Commune is known as the ‛Bloody Week’ in France. 18,000 were killed, 25,000 imprisoned and thousands more executed in the coming weeks. All under that flag, splattered; the red bleeding into the white and blood.
Over the next years, the French state brought in special laws to seize land and wealth, forcing the people of Paris’s most rebellious community to build the Sacre-Coeur as a ‛national penance’ to their blasphemous attempts to shake off the Red, White and Blue of domination by priests and aristocrats. But still that division between the two flags would remain. In February 1971 radicals occupied the church and asked the people of Paris to take back what was “built upon the bodies of communards in order to efface that red flag that had for too long floated over Paris.”
The state of emergency legislation that has been used since the attacks by Francois Hollands, is based on legislation brought in to deal with the Algerian war for independence, and the support for the Algerian nationalists in the then shanty towns outside Paris, which acted as recruiting grounds for the FLN (The Algerian National Liberation Front). This state of emergency legislation is still used, regularly, to introduce curfews in the kind of banlieues where French people of North African, Middle Eastern and West African descent are still ‛encouraged’ not to get in the way of the tourists of central Paris. Perhaps the most obvious example of the logic of draping yourself in the red, white and blue was David Cameron’s recent description of the ISIS massacre as the “most violent attack on French soil since the second world war”. A claim echo by the observer. That this is simply not true is one thing, the nature of the ‛violent attack’ it ignores tells you all you need to know about French Flaggery.
On 17th October 1961, members of the Algerian community in Paris, who were already under curfew, organised a peaceful march in solidarity with the struggle for freedom in their country of origin. Over the course of the day upto 300 Algerians were murdered in a massacre that the French state did not even begin to admit for nearly 40 years. From a recent anniversary article; “The most memorable- and vicious- atrocities saw policemen herding panicking crowds on to Paris’s bridges, where many were tossed into the Seine…Others died in police stations, or in nearby woods, where their mutilated bodies testified to truncheon and rifle-butt injuries.”
The next day graffiti appeared by the Seine ‛This is where we drown Algerians’, whether a protest by those of the red, or a warning from the red white and blue, is difficult to say.
You want a simpler version of yourself. A version for which you can mourn or celebrate, without the complexity of what you know about yourself. We all do. Its called love. In his seminar, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis the great French theorist Lacan says; “ “I love you, but, because inexplicably I love in you something more than you – the object petit a – I mutilate you.” This mutilation, and the complete, forgive me, historical and political blindness through which it functions is not something helpful or constructive. Over the past twenty four hours I have seen people trying to respond to the vague feelings of something being wrong with this, by adding the Lebanese Cedar Tree, to their French Tricolore. You don’t have to be a massive Freudian to see the irony in this. That isn’t a new flag that somehow stands above the history of the French state, and shows international solidarity, it is the actual flag used, in fact, by the French when they actually colonised Lebanon. It’s the flag flown, for instance, during the colonial massacres inflicted there.
France isn’t a better version of you, and its got as many people around the world who view it’s flag as a Butcher’s apron as do the Union Jack, so please, take that shit down, and I can stop going on.