On a warm October night in Paris, a crowd assembles on a left-bank bridge overlooking the Seine. Dusky blue clouds hover on the skyline; Notre Dame Cathedral looms behind.

Spilling into the street and blocking traffic, 200-odd people gather in one of Paris’ perpetually clogged tourist arteries to commemorate a massacre that occurred in the vicinity 44 years earlier. On a north corner of the Saint-Michel Bridge, a plaque reads: “In memory of the many Algerians brutally killed during a peaceful demonstration, October 17, 1961.”

“I was thrown into the Seine, but I escaped,” says Mr. Tahar, an Algerian-born French resident in his 70s. “The police lined us up and asked who could swim. Those who said they could had their hands bound behind their back and were tossed over. I pretended I couldn’t swim,” Mr. Tahar adds, without a flinch. He is accompanied by another elderly man whose eyes well up with tears. The latter won’t give his name but says he, too, was there.

It was on that night, with France in the midst of a brutal war to suppress then-French Algeria’s independence movement, that 20,000 to 30,000 French Muslims and their supporters staged an unarmed protest against a discriminatory curfew in Paris. Police Chief Maurice Papon, once a Nazi collaborator who detained over 1,500 French Jews during the World War II German occupation, deployed forces to suppress the demonstration.

The following morning, officials announced only three deaths. Worldwide, media accorded the event relatively little attention, and public access to records was swiftly banned. Access to archives remains highly restricted.

Nearly half a century later, France has only begun to seriously consider what many historians say really happened that night: around 200 protestors shot, beaten to death, or drowned, 200 unaccounted for, and thousands arrested or tortured. In 1991, historian Jean-Luc Enaudi published The Battle of Paris, 17 October 1961, which set a new estimate of deaths at “at least 200.” Maurice Papon attempted to sue Enaudi for libel in 1999, but the latter won the case. Since then, though official estimates have not changed and those of historians vary, mainstream media and increasing numbers of scholars consider Enaudi’s figures plausible.

Nonetheless, October 17 has not yet been fully integrated into the country’s memorial fabric. The events of that night seem to occupy an uneasy place in France’s imagination, despite increased media attention, documentaries, and a feature film Nuit noire, released in October 2005. France has yet to officially recognize the massacre, and when Paris’ Socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, inaugurated the Saint-Michel commemorative plaque in 2001, he was met with opposition from several conservative city officials. There is no “consensus of memory” around the massacre.

Henri LeGrand, a 72-year-old Parisian originally from Fort-de-France, Martinique, says he participated in the demonstration and witnessed “terrifying” violence. “I could have lost my life,” he said, explaining that the police asked for his “papers” and then advised him to leave the scene after confirming he was not Muslim. “They told me I’d better get out of there because there’d be shooting everywhere. On my way home … I saw people being beaten … I saw police throwing people over bridges.”

LeGrand is an activist and former educator. With his kind and slightly haggard features, worn collar, and nearly impeccable English — he lived in the United States for several years — he evokes the verbose muckraker Ralph Nader. Saying he has suffered heavily from racism and “colonial mentalities” as a French Antillean, he believes France refuses to face its past. Telling of being blacklisted in the 1950s for dodging the draft to fight in the Algerian War, Mr. LeGrand says France systematically fails to confront its colonial history.

But current trends suggest otherwise. If colonial history remained fairly obscured in France until a few years ago, today October 17 is a haunting symbol of a colonial legacy that has never been more passionately debated. Even while “collective colonial memory” remains hazy and taboos persist, Gallic society is in an unprecedented introspective mood regarding its past empire.

The legacy

French colonial history sweeps across four centuries and two main periods. The first era includes the annexation of modern-day Quebec, Louisiana, and the French Antilles in the Caribbean. That empire culminated with the independence of Haiti and the abolition of slavery in 1848.

The second empire began when France invaded Algeria in 1830. Over the course of the 19th century, France established Indochina in present-day Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and secured protectorates and trading posts over enormous swathes of the African continent. Algerian independence in 1962 marked the formal end of French colonial power.

The Algerian War in particular is a scar on the French imagination. The North African country was considered a full-fledged part of France for over a century. The war, which erupted in 1954, divided both native French and Algerians so sharply that it resembled a civil conflict. Comparable to the Vietnam War for its psychological impact, a majority of French and Algerians counted family members fighting in the conflict.

Independence resulted in Europe’s most massive exodus since World War II: the brusque flight of roughly one million people to France. The relocated included Pieds noirs (residents of Algeria who were of French descent), Jews who had found refuge in North Africa during the Spanish Reconquista, and harkis, native Algerians who fought to maintain French rule. The displaced, most of whom had never set foot in France, often resettled in Marseille and other southern hubs, where large communities remain today. Suffering from stigmatization and cut off from their birthplace, these colonial refugees are living testaments to a past that continues to haunt.

The specters of empire

That past is increasingly being confronted, head-on. Recent years have seen a vigorous stream of films, academic conferences, dissertations, and books addressing the specters of empire both directly and implicitly.

A 2005 film with Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil, Caché, portrays a man tormented by his cruel treatment of an Algerian boy orphaned by the 1961 Paris massacre.

At generally traditionalist French universities like the Sorbonne, colonial history and “theory” have suddenly become hot topics, with social science and literature departments reluctantly embracing the primarily Anglo Saxon discipline of postcolonial studies.

A bestselling book, The Colonial Fracture, attempts to draw historic connections between social ills like racial and ethnic discrimination and unresolved colonial tensions.

The bestseller’s argument, called sensationalist by some critics, found resonance when riots swept through hundreds of economically depressed suburban areas around the country in November. Mostly involving French adolescents whose parents and grandparents emigrated from North and West Africa, the riots prompted newly pressing questions around postcolonial France’s success in integrating and fully including ethnic minorities. Many analysts pointed to soaring unemployment rates and discrimination in hiring and housing among young French Arabs and blacks.

The riots intensified soul-searching around colonial history. When Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin called a state of emergency November 9, asking “sensitive” municipalities to enforce curfews, some saw irony in reinstating colonial-era laws drafted in the heat of the Algerian conflict in 1955. In short, the riots have only intensified and lent a sense of urgency to France’s introspection.

Official reckoning?

The government, too, has made gestures signaling a more forthright approach to colonial history. Some recent legislative measures demonstrate this.

Often, the shift boils down to vocabulary. After decades of referring to the Algerian War as a “pacification” campaign or “maintenance of order,” a law passed in 1999 required officials to use the term “war.” Then in 2001, Guyanese deputy Christiane Taubira helped pass a bill bearing her name that made it obligatory to define slavery as a “crime against humanity” — particularly in school textbooks.

Diplomacy has also changed its tune. On an official visit to the eastern Algerian town of Sétif in February 2005, the French ambassador to Algiers called a 1945 reprisal campaign in the town “inexcusable” and a “massacre.”

He was describing the events of May 8, when, on the same day that the Nazis capitulated in Europe, French forces responded to a series of violent riots in the town by opening fire and killing between 15,000 and 40,000 civilians, according to widely varying estimates.

The ambassador’s comments marked France’s first formal acknowledgement of the town’s suffering.

Lost grandeur?

But current interest in colonial history is not limited to shaping semantics or recognizing atrocities. If some see colonialism through a prism of oppression and violence, others regard the period with wistful regret. Some argue that French colonial power brought valuable infrastructure to undeveloped nations, implying that ex-colonies have been worse off since — and that France just hasn’t been as grand.

While extreme-right groups and certain Pieds-noirs organizations make up the most vocal proponents of this positive take on empire, the center-right government took a dramatic role early last year.

In February 2005, the conservative-majority National Assembly passed a law calling for recognition of colonialism’s “positive” aspects, sparking an emotional polemic in France. One article of the legislation stipulated, notably, that history educators at secondary and university level should recognize “the positive role of the French presence overseas, particularly in North Africa …”

The law, ostensibly aimed at Pieds-noirs, harkis, and certain veteran’s groups reclaiming increased recognition, applauded “the national contributions [made by] repatriated French citizens.” It has drawn heavy criticism and calls for repeal from historians, educators, and human rights groups. Protests in Martinique and Guadeloupe prompted Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to cancel a meeting with Martinique’s most celebrated poet, Aimé Césaire, in early December: Césaire refused to honor the meeting, citing his opposition to the legislation.

After months of controversy, the Chirac administration has recently moved to modify the polemical bill. After a January press conference in which Chirac promised the law would be “re-written,” arguing that shaping history should not be the province of the state, he called the Constitutional Council on January 25th to assess the validity of the law’s most contested article. While indicating that he supports the eventual omission of that article, Chirac wishes to retain the sections of the law that commend veterans and expatriated civilians.

On the Paris street, reactions to the law seem to fall along generational divides. “It’s a good measure … it recognizes … the people who helped develop those countries,” says Youf Aimé, a 67-year-old Parisian and retired printer. “In Algeria especially, they’re asking for us [back] again. It’s like [Algerians] were abandoned.” Mr. Aimé believes, however, that decolonized France is more economically sound. “It’s better now, with the money no longer going over there … it stays here now,” he adds.

In Saint-Denis, a working-class suburb north of Paris, a group of freshmen theater students say the law is misguided. “I think students should be left to think for themselves … nothing should be imposed on them,” says Chlöe, 18. Saïd, also 18, adds: “A historian’s job is to be objective. I don’t think colonialism had a positive side.”

Some see colonial nostalgia in the measure. Claude Lauziu, Professor Emeritus of History at Université Paris VII Denis Diderot, assembled a petition to overturn the law, drawing 1001 signatures from fellow historians. He analyzes the polemic as a “battle of memory” between intellectuals eager to bring more critical analysis to colonial history, and center and extreme-right wing “nostalgics” who mourn the “lost grandeur” of the French Empire. Himself a Pieds-noirs, Lauziu opted for Algeria’s independence because “It was not our France … the France of torture.”

While he notes a significant rise in research and media coverage of colonial memory, Lauziu believes a majority of French society remains basically indifferent to the debate.

“Young people, especially, very rarely talk about [colonial history] or feel concerned with it. It’s essentially a battle between fringes,” he said.

It does seem questionable whether the general public takes a passionate interest in the country’s colonial legacy. But media images suggest nostalgia for empire remains in France — on a mainstream level.

Last year, Paris metro tunnels and bus stops were plastered with a Negrita rum ad featuring a black woman in a head wrap, alluding to colonial clichés of the sensual slave. Banania, a popular drink for children, continues to use a grinning, wide-eyed Senegalese cartoon infantryman as a mascot, virtually unchanged from its early 20th century guise. Raja, a film released in 2003, portrays a wealthy middle-aged Frenchman’s efforts to seduce an adolescent Moroccan girl working at the former’s villa in Marrakech. As colonial critiques gather steam, so, it seems, does the popular appetite for nostalgia.

Why now?

It’s tempting to ask why these parallel — and polarized — views of colonial history have come to the forefront now. Why not a decade ago?

Françoise Lorcerie is a sociologist at France’s National Scientific Research Center (CNRS) in Aix-en-Provence. She attributes new interest in colonial history — both of the critical and nostalgic variety — to intense questioning around immigration, discrimination and national identity beginning in 1998.

On one hand, she says, self-reflection led to society taking ethnic diversity into account: no easy feat under France’s universalist concept of citizenship, which is supposedly blind to difference.

The 2004 ban on “ostentatious” religious symbols like the Islamic veil in French public schools and administrations, and the explosive debate that followed, underlined France’s difficulty in reconciling a notion of the “universal” citizen with the reality of cultural and religious diversity.

But Lorcerie believes that what it means to be French is shifting.

“This [soul-searching] modified the parameters of the question ‘Who are we?’” says Lorcerie. “[France had to] recognize that its ‘interior borders’ are ethnically diverse. Then a new national identity had to be forged, taking diversity into account.” To do this, she argues, probing a colonial history thus far “never mourned” became imperative.

According to Lorcerie, the new spotlight on ethnicity and integration also helped intensify a tendency toward nationalism and xenophobia in France — leading to a surge of colonial nostalgia. Citing Jean-Marie Le Pen’s passage to the run-off in the 2002 presidential elections and public rejection of the European constitution earlier this year, Lorcerie insists “nationalist regression” is variably present along the political spectrum, from extreme-right xenophobia to extreme-left hostility at globalization.

Nationalism and fear of difference, Lorcerie explains, inspire nostalgia for the “former grandeur” of colonial France, a time when the “interior borders” of national identity seemed clear.

However, the researcher remains optimistic about France’s future as a multi-ethnic, postcolonial society. “I think the general sentiment is that we can live together,” she says. “More research is needed, but young people seem much less contaminated by nationalist fears.”

Living the remains

Barbes is a north Paris neighborhood where vintage tabacs, African markets, hookah bars and McDonald’s headily coexist. The streets are often packed with bargain hunters sifting through piles of discount clothes and wares. Tiny fliers advertising fortune tellers crunch underfoot. Southward, many of the residents are Muslim and of North African origin. A few blocks north are large West African communities.

Like every other quartier populaire in the city, Barbes is undergoing slow but certain gentrification. Virgin Megastore and Sephora cosmetics shops are springing up where family-owned boutiques once stood. Wealthier Parisians are buying and moving into apartments whose prices continue to soar. Barbes seems to exemplify the increasing proximity and overlap between working class communities and affluent ones in the City of Lights. It also gives a clear picture of just how ethnically and culturally diverse Paris is.

At the trade school where I teach English to future bank employees, students have slipped into French, unwilling to contain their animated debate on ethnic and racial discrimination in broken English.

They are drawing from their own experiences.

“Why should I have to work four times harder than others? I don’t want any special privileges, but I want to know that if I work as hard as someone else, I’ll get an equal shot,” says Mireille, 23, who was born in Ivory Coast, but came to France when she was three.

“I don’t feel like I belong anywhere,” she explains. “I’m cut off from my birthplace but nobody treats me like I’m French here.” Another student agrees. “Even if you’re born here, [if] you’re not white, or you have a different religion, people treat you like a foreigner.”

“I’m not justifying [the riots], but I understand why those kids do it,” interjects Ramata, 20. “How else can they get people to pay attention to their situation? I don’t think a peaceful demonstration would have interested the media as much.”

Tatiana, 24, raises her voice. “I really disagree! They’re just trashing their own communities. There’s a better way.”

Everyone seems to agree on one thing. “What makes me angry is the way people treat my black or Arab friends differently,” says Sophie, 22. “We’ll go into a bar and the waiter will use [the formal] vous with me, then turn to my friends and use [the informal] tu). It’s so degrading.”

Murmurs of agreement erupt around the room.

Getting a clear picture on discrimination in France is tricky: current laws prohibit classifying by race, ethnicity or creed in official studies. However, according to INSEE, France’s National Institute of Statistics, the jobless rate is as high as 20.7 percent for the general population in “sensitive urban zones,” compared to an already morose national rate averaging just below 10 percent. For young adults in “sensitive zones,” the numbers skyrocket to about 40 percent.

Daunted by the prospect of potential employers sending CVs headed with names that “sound ethnic” to the bottom of the stack, it’s not uncommon for French Arabs or Africans to adopt pseudonyms in hopes of landing interviews — echoing a similar problem of American employers discriminating against “black names” on résumés.

Recently, non-profits like SOS Racisme have staged “testing” campaigns proving candidates with the “wrong” color, name or address often get turned away, while similarly credentialed white candidates are not. In 2002, the Moulin Rouge was fined for discriminatory hiring after one such test. Last June, France created the “High Authority against Discrimination and for Equality” (HALDE), where discrimination victims can plead their case. Also last year, 40 top French companies, including Airbus, signed a charter committing to fair hiring.

For many, these measures would have been welcome years ago.

Eric, 35, lives with his wife and eight-year old daughter in the northeastern city of Metz. Born in Cameroon, Eric has lived in France from age five. Raised in one of Paris’ most brutal housing projects, he studied economics before going abroad to earn his Master’s degree in Marketing and Communications at Central Missouri State University. He then worked four years as a supervisor in a telecommunications firm in Houston, Texas.

Though he defines his time in Houston as “my best moment … the first time people treated me like a man,” he eventually returned to France to be with his family.

“I was raised by a single mother. I want my daughter to have a full-time father,” he says.

Gliding between French and English, Eric relates his painful search for a position that matches his qualifications. That search, after three years and roughly 2,000 résumés sent out, has yielded, he says, only three or four interviews.

“My worst experience was when I arrived for an interview, and the manager looked at me incredulously: ‘It’s you?’ Even if I have the best CV and the strongest motivation, they’re going to hire someone [else].”

An aspiring novelist who admires American writers like Toni Morrison and Paul Auster, Eric says he has no intention of leaving France. “My life is here with my family. And why should I have to go abroad? I have work experience and a degree. I prefer to stay and fight.”

“These days, I mostly worry about my daughter. What can I do to give her a chance? I want to fight so she doesn’t fall into the same trap.”

Define that trap? “Black or Arab, French society perceives you as coming from far away. Take someone from Martinique or Guadeloupe. They’re fully French, yet people often treat them otherwise. But nobody ever insinuates that Nicolas Sarkozy, whose parents are Hungarian, is a foreigner. Why is that?”

Eric rejects the idea of affirmative-action type programs. “I don’t want my daughter to learn I got a job because I’m black,” he said. “It should be like a jungle: the strongest should win the game.”

He pauses. Then his voice trembles.

“The problem is, you don’t understand why you’ve failed. It’s ridiculous … three or four times, I’d say it were a problem of competence. But 2,000 résumés? That’s frightening. Either I’m the world’s biggest idiot, or something’s wrong here.”

More brief silence. Eric concludes: “But you know, I had all odds against me and I made it. I’m proud. I’ve worked very hard, sometimes 18 hours a day. No way will I leave because of racist people. I’m going to be a citizen of this country.”

Eric’s experience echoes others’. But not all seem scarred by persisting discrimination in France. Sonia Tebbakh, a postdoctoral fellow and visiting scholar at Oxford, grew up in Grenoble, a city bordering the French Alps, to Algerian parents. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on French North African (Maghrebi) political identity. One section of her research explored the role of colonial memory and history in that identity.

Growing up in a community with few immigrant families, Tebbakh attended a school in a neighborhood more affluent than her own. Despite her difference, she says, she never felt stigmatized.

“I guess I’ve been sheltered — I wasn’t raised in the projects,” she says. “Also, academia is a specific milieu where most people are … less prone to discriminate.”

Believing that the French school system didn’t “allow Franco-Maghrebis to reconstitute their own cultural memory,” Tebbakh undertook to find answers herself.

“My parents have spoken very little about their experiences. But [they] come from a farming milieu, so they weren’t necessarily equipped to transmit memory, to explain the context of those experiences.”

Comparing French colonial memory to “a hot potato that everyone shifts around in their hands and has no idea what to do with,” Tebbakh says conflicting versions of that memory have not yet been reconciled. For those who lived through the colonial period, painful associations are nearly universal. But lingering “misunderstandings” result because few efforts have been made to open dialogue between communities, Tebbakh explains. “Taboos and continued silence create frustrations … and with new generations, [colonial] memory grows dimmer,” she says.

For younger Franco-Maghrebis, “[colonial] memory has little substance. It’s fragmentary and based on rather general family myths.” Drawing from anonymous interviews conducted for her dissertation, Tebbakh notes that young Franco-Maghrebis often associate their feelings of rejection from French society with the sufferings of their parents and grandparents under colonial rule.

“People use colonial memory to explain their exclusion … and to make a ‘neocolonial’ link,” Tebbakh says. “There’s often this belief that colonial power structures are still prevalent and can explain discrimination today.”

While saying that “colonial reflexes might still be at work” in contemporary society, the scholar finds it “annoying” when some attempt to explain discrimination solely in those terms.

“I’m not convinced racist attitudes are principally linked to colonial history,” she says.

Despite her skepticism, Tebbakh believes breaking through silence and encouraging dialogue about colonial history might help heal social barriers in France.

The (sweet?) hereafter

Several months have passed since stories of “France burning” stopped flooding the wires. Combined with the still-raging controversy over the February 23 law, the three-week November riots, which incurred an estimated €200 million in damages, have left far greater marks on the way French society perceives its heritage and its future. As passionate interest in problems of poverty and class in the United States eventually subsided following Hurricane Katrina, perhaps the current French preoccupation with colonial memory and equal opportunity will wane as well.

But debate being one the French national sports, it is just as likely that these inward-looking identity questions will keep France rapt for a long while to come.

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