Palestine and the Migrant Question in Postcolonial France
By Olivia C. Harrison
My new book, Natives against Nativism: Antiracism and Indigenous Critique in Postcolonial France, examines the intersection of antiracist and pro-Palestinian activism in France from the 1970s to the present. Against the ubiquitous association of pro-Palestinianism with Islamism and anti-Semitism, I show that the Palestinian question has served as a “rallying cry” for anti-colonial and antiracist activists for the past fifty years. My corpus includes the ephemeral publications of the migrant rights movements of the 1970s; novels and plays written by the children and grandchildren of North African migrants (so-called Beur and banlieue literature) from the 1980s to the present; Jean Genet’s Palestinian writings (Prisoner of Love, “Four Hours in Shatila”); Jean-Luc Godard’s Palestinian films (Here and Elsewhere, Our Music); and contemporary novels and artworks that make the link between the so-called migrant crisis and the Palestinian question (Maki Berchache and Nathalie Nambot’s Burn the Sea, Nathacha Appanah’s Tropic of Violence, Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow). In different ways, these texts articulate what I call indigenous critique: a critical understanding of the colonial production of indigenous subjects (“natives”) and the afterlives of colonial racism in the postcolonial era including, paradoxically, white nativist claims to indigeneity in France against former colonial subjects cast as étrangers (foreigners or strangers) rather than indigènes.
When I began working on Natives against Nativism, I envisioned it as a sequel to my first book, Transcolonial Maghreb: Imagining Palestine in the Era of Decolonization, which examines the central importance of the Palestinian question in North African literature and thought at the height of post-independence efforts to reimagine Maghrebi culture and politics. On the one hand, the central place of Palestine in Maghrebi literature and thought is unsurprising. To a student of Arabic literature, the watershed importance of al-naksa (the reversal or setback), as the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967 is known, and the flourishing of al-adab al-hazima (literature of defeat) in its wake might seem so obvious as to hardly merit further analysis. Yet Palestine was of central importance to Francophone writers of North Africa as well: Abdellatif Laâbi, Kateb Yacine, Edmond Amran El Maleh, and Albert Memmi, to cite the most canonic figures in this corpus. Why, I ask in the book, did the Palestinian question provoke not only solidarity, but also profound questionings within the field of Maghrebi literature and thought? What this turn to Palestine reveals, I argue, is the importance of non-Maghrebi interlocutors in the elaboration of postcolonial cultural forms and problematics. Palestine provided a way for writers and intellectuals to think through the legacies of colonial rule in the Maghreb, from the imposition of the French language and other forms of deculturation to the collusion of colonial minority politics and Zionist proselytism in foreclosing the possibility of Jewish indigeneity the Maghreb. I also speculate in the book on what the Maghreb brings to discussions of the Palestinian question, opening it up to transversal comparisons and productive points of tension. Transcolonial Maghreb unfolds between these two problematics: what does Palestine teach us about the Maghreb, and how, in turn, does the Maghreb enable us to think through the Palestinian question?
Transcolonial Maghreb began with a methodological imperative: to bridge the disciplinary boundaries between studies of North Africa and the Middle East on the one hand, and Arabic and Francophone literatures on the other. My starting premise was that these disciplinary boundaries replicated and reinforced regional divisions occasioned by colonial rule, and that they occluded linkages and transversal solidarities that were key during the anticolonial struggles and after independence. Reading Maghrebi literature through the lens of Palestine allowed me to sidestep the colonizer-colonized binary and to triangulate the Maghreb’s face à face with France. Yet one thing that became clear as I worked on this corpus was that Palestine also demanded a sustained critique of the endurance of colonial forms of governmentality in France, particularly with respect to migrants from France’s former colonial empire. In the second chapter of Transcolonial Maghreb, I analyze a play produced by the Algerian popular theater troupe Masrah al-bahr (Theater of the Sea) with the celebrated writer Kateb Yacine, who returned to Algeria in 1970, eager to work in the languages of the people, Darija (Algerian Arabic) and Taqbaylit (Kabyle, an indigenous language still spoken in Algeria). “Mohamed prends ta valise/Mohamed arfad valiztek” (Mohamed pack your bags), a play about the trials and tribulations of an Algerian migrant worker, premiered in Algiers in 1971 and then toured throughout migrant communities in France and Germany. Paradoxically, some migrant workers took the poster of the play as an invitation for all the “Mohameds” (Arabs) of France to go back home. [Figure 1] Anti-immigrant, nativist discourses were becoming ubiquitous at the time, and in 1972, the new far-right party Front National would begin a crusade against immigration. These migrant workers were wrong about the provenance of the poster, but not its intention. “Mohamed prends ta valise” was meant to encourage migrant workers to return to Algeria and continue the struggle there. However, on a more subtle register, the play also criticizes the production of the figure of the immigrant as a guest, in part through a scene of mistaken hospitality in French Algeria and colonized Palestine, where the French/Israeli foreman invites his worker, Mohamed, to share his home, Algeria/Palestine. The farcical battle for indigeneity that ensues is meant to historicize the presence of Algerian migrants in France: yesterday’s indigènes (“natives,” as colonial subjects were dubbed) have become étrangers (foreigners/strangers) in the postcolonial metropole, and the settlers of old are now the “natives” of France.
Natives against Nativism takes off from my discussion of “Mohamed prends ta valise,” tracking the articulation of the migrant rights movements and Palestine solidarity from the 1970s to the present. The stakes and focus of the project sharpened since I started working on it, partly in response to the rise of increasingly unapologetic anti-immigrant discourses across the political spectrum, and under pressure from a highly polarized cultural climate in which to speak critically of colonialism, race or Israel is now equated with islamogauchisme (Islamo-leftism)—an ill-defined amalgam of Islamism or Islam and critical race theory or wokisme, construed as foreign to France. Against this blatant disavowal of decades of anticolonial and antiracist activism in France, the texts that I analyze in the book are all invested to varying degrees in articulating indigenous critique: a critical understanding of the colonial production of indigènes (as colonized subjects of the French empire were legally defined) and the discursive transformation of indigènes into immigrants in the wake of decolonization. Natives against Nativism offers a genealogy of what Mireille Rosello has called the discourse of “postcolonial hospitality”: the notion that immigrants are unexpected guests that we should either welcome with open arms or send back to their countries of origin. It also documents the ways in which indigènes-turned-immigrants have claimed indigeneity to France, for example through a petition from 2005 entitled “Nous sommes les indigènes de la république” (We are the natives of the Republic), which demands equal rights for the descendants of the French colonizers.
I begin the story of natives against nativism with a chapter on the first autonomous migrant rights movements in postcolonial France, the Comités de soutien à la révolution palestinienne (Committees in Support of the Palestinian Revolution or CSRP) and the Mouvement des travailleurs arabes (Arab Workers’ Movement or MTA), which were active, respectively, from 1970-72 and 1972-1976 and paved the way for the migrant rights movements that followed. Palestine was central to these movements from the beginning. The Committees in Support of the Palestinian Revolution were launched by so-called “Arab Maoists,” students and migrant workers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine in the wake of Black September, the Jordanian army’s attempt to rout out the Palestinian resistance in September 1970, a massacre that resulted in the deaths of thousands of fedayeen and refugees in and around Amman. The very name of the movement, Committees in Support of the Palestinian Revolution, testifies to the enduring importance of Palestine as a rallying cry for migrant rights, connecting the decolonization of Palestine to the struggle of immigrants (most of them formerly colonized subjects) for equal rights in the postcolonial metropole. In the words of activists from the Arab Workers’ Movement, founded in 1972 by CSRP militants, “oppressed Arab workers have been living in France for years. Formerly colonized peoples, they were torn from their homelands to thin out the ranks of the unemployed in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, and to work in inhumane conditions and in this way increase the profits of the bosses in France.” These militants recognized their struggle in the struggle of colonized Palestinians. In the words of Frédéric Maatouk, “the immigrant is, in a sense, the Palestinian of France.” Although they did not wage armed struggle – tracts, newsletters, posters, and spray paint were their main weapons – migrant workers placed their activism within a global struggle for decolonization, with Palestine at its helm. The movement’s publications (Fedaï and Assifa, named after Fatah’s armed wing) and iconography brought Palestine to bear on the antiracist struggle in France: a cover story on racist crimes deploys a photograph of marching Palestinians to rally migrant workers to the streets; the MTA’s logo depicts a camouflaged worker whose silhouette sketches the shape of Palestine; a militant film shows three activists discussing the importance of forging an autonomous migrant labor movement, while a pro-Palestinian poster is visible in the background. [Figures 2, 3, and 4] The CSRP and the MTA set the stage for the antiracist battles that would be fought in the ensuing decades, from the so-called Beur movement of the 1980s (“arabe” in verlan urban slang, the term Beur was quickly appropriated in the mainstream media to racialize a movement that was first and foremost political, as evidenced in the title of the movement’s founding event, the March for Equality and against Racism) to “postcolonial anticolonial” movements like the Indigènes de la république, launched in 2005 to remind the French that “we are here (in France) because you were there (in the colonies).”
Palestine was central to these movements from the outset. The radical political significance of Palestine did not escape the attention of the French authorities, who collaborated with their North African counterparts to surveil pro-Palestinian militants, many of whom were also active in pro-democracy movements in their home countries. [Figure 5] As Yoav Di-Capua has documented, Israel also had spies on the ground, keeping track of migrant activism with the tacit approval of the French police. In the context of increasingly virulent anti-immigrant nativist discourses and a stark uptick in racist crimes, protesting for Palestinian and migrant rights was a risky activity for migrant workers. Beholden to “strict political neutrality,” these activists faced arrest, incarceration, and even deportation. The severity of the crackdown on Palestine solidarity cannot be attributed to pro-Israeli sympathies alone, as a February 1971 CSRP tract makes clear:
Fifteen days ago, Minute (a fascist journal that supported the assassins of the OAS [Secret Armed Organization]) published a cover story titled: out with the Algerians! The enemies of Palestine are the same as those who in France expel Arab workers from a foyer [state-run worker’s lodgings] in Suresnes without housing them somewhere else. They want to stop us from supporting the struggle of our Palestinian brothers by all means: they arrest and condemn our comrade Hamza Bouziri to a six-month prison sentence, they want to scare people by parading their cops everywhere; they want to sabotage the demonstration in support of Palestine that was held at Barbès; they deport a comrade from the CSRP. [Figure 6]
The authors of this tract were clearly aware of the colonial genealogy of anti-immigrant, anti-Arab racism, and in particular of the central role of French Algeria in the production of the figure of the immigrant as (unwelcome) guest. The nativist discourse displayed on the cover of the far-right daily paper Minute targets Algerians specifically, echoing the discourse of the New Right that was gaining traction at the time. To paraphrase New Right theorist Alain de Benoist, “we left Algeria, now you leave France.” But the authors of this tract go further, implicating the French authorities (the bosses and the police) in the anti-immigrant, nativist discourse of the far right, and flagging the central role of Palestine in organizing migrant workers against state, media, and civilian racial violence. For them, the police suppression of pro-Palestinian activism is tantamount to the state repression of migrant workers: the right to housing and freedom of expression go hand in hand. To protest against the criminalization of Palestine solidarity, Hamza Bouziri, who was arrested on December 29, 1970, for distributing tracts against the firing of a pro-Palestinian migrant worker, went on a hunger strike in prison. In the sixth issue of Fedaï: Journal de soutien à la révolution palestinienne (Fedayee: Journal in Support of the Palestinian Revolution), Bouziri explained his decision to go on hunger strike:
I was judged and condemned to six months in prison without parole because I am Arab and because I support the Palestinian Revolution.
I am in solidarity with the struggle of all other political prisoners in France who are struggling against the penitentiary system to obtain their political rights.
But also, inspired by the glorious example given to us by our comrades from the FLN [National Liberation Front] who were detained during the Algerian war, going on hunger strike is for me a way to actively support the Palestinian Revolution.
As far as I know, this was the first hunger strike in the history of the migrant rights movement in France. Others would follow, by fifty-six Tunisian migrants in the then working-class neighborhood of Ménilmontant, by antiracist activists in the 1980s, and by sans-papiers (undocumented) activists in the 1990s. A powerful weapon of anticolonial struggle, the hunger strike is also one of the last resorts of Palestinian political prisoners, and of migrants caught in the mass displacements of the 2010s.
The French authorities banned the CSRP’s principal publication, Fedaï, in February 1972. But the movement did not die. Until 1976, the CSRP and then the MTA continued to link the migrant rights’ movement to the Palestinian question. Palestine has continued to play an important role in subsequent antiracist collectives, despite efforts to portray Palestine as a foreign cause, and antiracism as an imported discourse not relevant to France (evident in the expression used to describe the urban rebellions of 2005, “Intifada des banlieues” or “ghetto Intifada”). Subjected to what MTA activist Philippe Tancelin has called “strategies of erasure,” the central role of Palestine as a rallying cry for migrant rights has been one of the casualties of the institutionalization of antiracism in France, where the term conveys liberal notions of tolerance, diversity, and inclusion, rather than the radical demand for equality at the heart of grassroots migrant rights movements. Against the dehistoricization of antiracism, migrant rights, and Palestine solidarity in France, where simply wearing a keffiyeh or waving a Palestinian flag is being criminalized, the archives of the migrant rights movements show that the Palestinian question is a distinctly French question.
Natives against Nativism is a book about antiracism and Palestine solidarity. What has become clear to me in the past few weeks is that it is also a book about the history of the suppression of pro-Palestinian speech. It is crucial to insist on the decades-long history of Palestine solidarity in France because Palestine has also become a reverse litmus test for French identity: if you are pro-Palestinian, you are not really French. The foreignization of Palestine solidarity, I argue, is part and parcel of the foreignization of racialized subjects in France since the 1970s, which marked the emergence of the nativist anti-immigrant right, and the invention of the figure of the migrant as a guest whom we should either welcome with open arms or send back to his or her country of origin, regardless of the risks he or she might face. The figure of the migrant as guest is based on the erasure of the intertwined histories that produced migration on a mass scale, histories that begin with Eurocolonial expansion and that include the ongoing colonization of Palestine. And yet, despite these attempts to dehistoricize the figure of the migrant, Palestine continues to remind us of the colonial genealogies of migration, as it did in 1970s France. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons Palestine solidarity represents a threat to “public order” in France: it is a threat to the neat division between French citizens and France’s former colonial subjects. To recognize Palestinian rights would mean recognizing migrant rights: the political right to equality within a truly decolonized state.
 Edward Said, The Question of Palestine (New York: Vintage Press, 1992 ), 125.
 Mireille Rosello, Postcolonial Hospitality: The Immigrant as Guest (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001).
 “Nous sommes les indigènes de la république!,” Parti des indigènes de la république, January 2005, www.indigenes-republique.fr.
 The inaugural meeting of the CSRP took place at the Maison du Maroc (the “Moroccan House” at the Cité universitaire), and included Tunisian students Saïd and Hamza Bouziri, the Palestinian Ezzedine Kalak, president at the time of the General Union for Palestinian Students (GUPS), the Franco-Syrian student Gilles “Fathi,” the Franco-Lebanese student Thérèse, the Algerian migrant worker Mohammed “Fedaï,” and the Moroccan migrant worker Mohamed “Mokhtar” Bachiri, who would co-found the MTA’s performance collective Al Assifa in 1973. Some of these activists were close to the clandestine Maoist organization Gauche prolétarienne (Proletarian Left), but the CSRP was an autonomous collective of activists. Abdellali Hajjat, “Eléments pour une sociologie historique du Mouvement des Travailleurs Arabes (1972-1976) (MA thesis, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales/École Normale Supérieure, 2005), 12.
 “Construisons le Mouvement des travailleurs arabes,” Al Assifa: La voix des travailleurs arabes (no date): 2, ARCH/0057/04, Fonds Saïd Bouziri, La contemporaine (hereafter FSB-LC). Saïd Bouziri, who co-founded the CSRP and MTA and remained active in migrant rights movements until his death in 2009, collected the archives of these movements and in 1987 co-founded an organization devoted to the memory of immigrant histories, Génériques. The archives collected by Bouziri are now held at La contemporaine: bibliothèque, archives, musée des mondes contemporaine at the University Paris Nanterre.
 Frédéric Maatouk, “Le théâtre des travailleurs immigrés en France” (PhD diss., Université François Rabelais, Tours, 1979), 118.
 On July 23, 1971, CSRP militants threw Molotov cocktails on the Jordanian embassy to protest renewed attacks against fedayeen in Amman. As far as I know this was the sole militant activity the collective attempted. According to some members, debates over this operation partly led to the dissolution of the CSRP and founding of the MTA. Abdellali Hajjat, “Les comités Palestine (1970-1972): Aux origines du soutien de la cause palestinienne en France,” Revue d’Études Palestinennes 98 (2006): 74-92.
 Yoav Di-Capua, “Palestine Comes to Paris: The Global Sixties and the Making of a Universal Cause,” Journal of Palestine Studies 50, no. 1 (2021): 19-50.
 Letter from police prefect to Saïd Bouziri, December 29, 1976. “Correspondance reçue de la préfecture de Police,” ARCH/0057/03, FSB-LC.
 “Tous unis nous vaincrons,” February 1971 tract, ARCH/0057/01, FSB-LC. The Organisation armée secrète (OAS), a paramilitary organization intent on blocking Algerian independence, carried out a number of terrorist attacks in France in the final years of the war of independence, and remained active after independence.
 “Déclaration d’Hamza Bouziri,” ARCH/0057/01, FSB-LC.
 In her 2017 video installation The Tempest Society, the Berlin-based artist Bouchra Khalili sketches a “continuum of resistance” from 1970s France to the ongoing mass displacements of the twenty-first century through a montage the assembles the photographic archives of the MTA’s performance collective, Al Assifa (1973-1978), and photographs of Moroccan, Algerian, and Syrian migrants on hunger strike in Greece in the 2010s. Bouchra Khalili, The Tempest Society, video installation, 2017.
 Alexandre Kauffmann, Bouchra Khalili, and Philippe Tancelin, “On Bearing Witness: Conversation between Bouchra Khalili, Phillipe Tancelin and Alexandre Kauffmann,” in The Tempest Society, by Khalili (London: Book Works, 2018), 81.
 On October 16, 2023, undercover police arrested Gazan feminist activist Mariam Abu Daqqa in Marseille, following an Interior Ministry expulsion order that claimed that her presence on French territory after the Hamas attacks of October 7 was a threat to “public order.” She was deported to Cairo on November 10. The Abu Daqqa case does not follow the same script as the repression of pro-Palestinian militants in 1970s France, but it underscores the longstanding links between the Palestinian and migrant questions, and the threat that Palestine continues to pose to the postcolonial state.
About the Author
Olivia C. Harrison is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. Her publications include Natives against Nativism: Antiracism and Indigenous Critique in Postcolonial France(2023), Transcolonial Maghreb: Imagining Palestine in the Era of Decolonization (2016), Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics (2016), and Clamor (2021).
Olivia C. Harrison, Palestine and the Migrant Question in Postcolonial France, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 03.01.2024, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/49934
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Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 3. Januar). Palestine and the Migrant Question in Postcolonial France. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 23. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/vfad