Introduction: a Short Colonial History of the French State of Emergency



Welcome to the 29th issue of The Funambulist. Although the choice of its topic preceded of several months the various policies undertaken by nation states worldwide in reaction to the global COVID-19 pandemic — many of which have been effectively called “state of emergency” — we hope that this issue can be a useful tool to contextualize these policies within histories of state violence, in particular colonial ones. In Palestine, the various settler colonial architectural apparatuses ensure more than ever the apartheid maintained by Israeli settlers upon pathologized Palestinians; in Iran, the united states sanctions prevent appropriate medical care. In the u.s. itself, the criminal contempt for any form of welfare state is currently resulting in millions of layoffs and tens of thousands of deaths, in particular amongst Indigenous nations and Black communities. In France, from where I’m writing, the state drafted and implemented a law called a “state of sanitary emergency.” Having worked for the last four years on the history of the French state of emergency, this name most certainly brought to my ears resounding echoes of the country’s colonial history. I will come back to this.

But first, it is crucial to disillusion ourselves from the idea that this type of legislation corresponds to the concept of the exception, as it is often claimed especially amongst academics — in particular, the work of Italian philosopher and thinker of the Holocaust Giorgio Agamben has come back as a not-so-useful mantra. To my understanding, states of emergency do not constitute a suspension of the law. On the contrary, they exacerbate the law and the potential colonial and/or militarized structures that the law manifests on a given territory. This perspective on emergency legislation makes it all the easier to understand why these policies almost always leave a significant trace into common law when lifted, even if they are not made permanent. This is also why settler colonial contexts allow for the notion of emergency to be mobilized for decades: emergency as an exacerbation of ‘normal’ violence becomes normal when exacerbated violence is the daily condition of people who are subjected to it.

The French state of emergency is a good example to describe this type of “emergency” legislation without falling into the traps of exceptionalism. As the leader of the 1984-1988 Kanak Indigenous insurrection Jean-Marie Tjibaou stated in 1985, a few hours before the French parliament voted the extension of the state of emergency in Kanaky: “We Kanak have been experiencing the state of emergency for the last 132 years [since 1853 when France invaded the Melanesian archipelago].” I will try to give a brief summary of this legislation’s history here, which will set the context to the “state of sanitary emergency” that is still ongoing, as we release this issue.

On November 1, 1954, a new revolutionary Algerian organization, the National Liberation Front (FLN) initiated a series of sabotages and attacks in colonized Algeria and proclaimed their will to fight until independence from French colonialism was achieved. This crucial revolutionary event occured a little less than 10 years after the Sétif and Guelma massacres (that started on the very day of Nazi Germany’s surrender), which killed between 20,000 and 40,000 Algerians after 5,000 of them demonstrated for the independence of their country. During this span of time, the French army proceeded to fight nine years of colonial war against Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodian revolutionaries (1945-1954) before its defeat. Algeria was nevertheless different from what the French distastefully called “Indochina.” Because of Algeria’s proximity to France and, more importantly, its settler colonial status (in 1954, 1.5 million of French and other European settlers for 8 million Algerians), French authorities considered the country as nothing more than an administrative region of France.

The November 1 offensive started an eight-year revolutionary armed struggle that mobilized over 1.5 million French soldiers, in particular within the eastern regions of the country, namely Kabylie and the Aurès, where the ALN forces (the armed branch of the FLN) in the maquis stood up against the asymmetric firepower of the colonial army. Within days of the offensive, the French army and police are already torturing militants or people suspected to be, rounding up villages, and evicting thousands of rural Algerians from zones deemed “forbidden.” In the next eight years, over 2 millions Algerians were evicted from their villages — six years after the Palestinian Nakba in a striking colonial echo — and relocated in semi-closed “regrouping camps” as closely analyzed by Samia Henni in her book Architecture of Counterrevolution (2017). In order to perpetuate the colonial narrative of Algeria being an integral part of France, this war had to be characterized as policing operations and to be “legalized” within the colonizer’s common law.

This is how, on April 3, 1955, a new law was voted in by the French parliament, and immediately implemented in Algeria (first locally, then nationally) to this effect: the French state of emergency was born. This legislation allows for six main measures: the implementation of curfews, the designation of special zones with limited access, the closure of meeting places, the searches of homes and other buildings, the possibility of placing someone under house arrest, or to expel them from a city or a region. Although this first episode of the state of emergency only lasted for eight months, these measures will be applied throughout the Algerian Revolution, sometimes implemented by a similar legislation entitled “Special Powers,” that enables the French government to rule through executive orders. These orders are most certainly at work in 1957 during the most famous battle of the Algerian Revolution: the battle of Algiers that opposed small forces of the FLN in the Casbah to the colonial paratroopers who undertook ruthless, vanguard counter-revolutionary tactics, which are still used today by many imperial and colonial armies, as repeatedly shown in Mathieu Rigouste’s work.

The second state of emergency only lasted for one month in May 1958, after generals of the colonial army, under the pressure of a mob of settlers, seized power in Algiers. Despite this event’s brevity, it forever altered the French Republic. The state of emergency was declared in France as the French government feared an invasion of the country by the colonial army and a subsequent coup. General Charles De Gaulle, former leader of the French resistance during the Nazi occupation (1940-1944) and head of the French provisional government (1944-1946), was perceived as the providential man for the situation — a perception he engineered for himself. He conditioned his return (in effect sustaining the colonial army loyal to him) to two main measures: a six-month exercise of full executive power, which he obtained from the parliament itself before it shut down consequently, as well as the possibility to reform the Constitution. In lieu of reform, it was a full revolution that pushed France to begin its Fifth Republic (the one still ongoing today), a regime of exacerbated presidential powers that allows for the head of the state to seize these full powers at will, thanks to Article 16 of the Constitution. Once the Fifth Republic initiated, De Gaulle was elected as its first president.

Lambert Funambulist (3)
“Here France drowned Algerians,” Graffiti by anticolonial female activists for the 2019 anniversary of the October 17, 1961 massacre. / Photo by Léopold Lambert.

1958 also marks the moment when the FLN opened a new front of the Revolution in France, where many Algerians lived, in particular in Paris and its banlieues (suburbs). As a response, Maurice Papon, the quintessential colonial administrator, is called back from his role as the prefect of eastern Algeria to work as the police prefect of Paris and its regions — in 1998, he was judged guilty of complicity in crimes against humanity during his time as a Vichy regime prefect for having facilitated the deportation of 1,600 Jews from Bordeaux to Paris, before they were sent to their death in Auschwitz. During his time as a colonial administrator in Morocco and Algeria, he had learned everything that needs to be known about counter-revolutionary tactics. Papon implemented them against Algerians in Paris, carrying out massive round ups, arbitrary detention, daily police harassment and torture.

In April 1961, four generals of the colonial army who felt betrayed by De Gaulle for negotiating with the FLN, attempted a coup and seized power once more in Algeria. The state of emergency was declared in France and De Gaulle took full executive powers. At the end, the coup was short-lived but the state of emergency did not end until May 1963. In October 1961, still with his full powers, Papon enforced an illegal curfew on only Algerians in Paris and its regions. In response, the FLN organized a massive unarmed demonstration that gathered about 30,000 Algerians in the streets of Paris on the night of October 17. The Parisian police responded to it by blocking all access to the city, arresting close to 10,000 demonstrators and systematically beating them down and detaining them in improvised prisons. They killed between 200 and 300 Algerians, throwing many in the Seine river. 60 years later, the massacre is barely acknowledged by France. In April 1962, independence accords between the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic and the French government were signed in Evian; on July 5, 1962, Algeria declared its independence.

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“We are the descendants of the Algerians you have not drowned.” Graffiti by anticolonial female activists for the 2019 anniversary of the October 17, 1961 massacre. / Photo by Léopold Lambert.

1962 is often regarded by France as the end of its colonial era, as most of its African colonies had gained independence (though with varying degrees of “strings attached” that are still heavily weighing on many of them today). Conveniently forgotten from this narrative are the remaining colonies of Djibouti that gained its independence in 1977 and Comoros that incompletely became independent in 1975 — one of its four islands, Mayotte, is still under French sovereignty today. There are also countries around the world that have been fully integrated to France’s administrative system and whose people had been made French citizens in 1946. These countries (just like all French colonies from 1946-1960) remain today as “French overseas territories.” In the Carribean, they are Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint-Martin, and Saint-Barthelemy. In the Indian Ocean, they are Mayotte and Reunion island. In the Pacific, they are so-called “French” Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, and so-called “New Caledonia” — that we will call by its Indigenous name here: Kanaky.

After Algeria’s independence, Kanaky became the French colony subject to the most intense settler colonial processes of Indigenous Kanak relegation and dispossession across the Melanesian archipelago since the French invasion in 1853. Today, settlers, whether French, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Japanese, Chinese, Tahitian, or Wallisians (each of whom settled in the country with varying degrees of coercion by France) account for about 60% of the country’s population. French settlers, whether they are descendants of deported convicts or more recent “expats,” account for two thirds of this number. In 1984, the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) and Provisional Government of the Republic of Kanaky were created (inspired by the Algerian FLN and provisional government) by Indigenous militants headed by Jean-Marie Tjibaou, Yeiwéné Yeiwéné, and Eloi Machoro. In November 1984, they organized the boycott of elections and the blockade of the country’s roads. The settler response was extremely violent and culminated in the massacre of 10 activists in Tjibaou’s tribe, Tiendanite. Machoro strategically organized the reclaiming of land on Kanaky’s Great Earth’s east coast between Canala and Thio. His men were armed but were successful in their efforts against settlers and military police without ever shooting a single shot.

Lambert Funambulist (5)
Auguste Boarato posing in front of the memorial to Kanak leader Éloi Machoro where he was assassinated by the French military police on January 12, 1985. / Photo by Léopold Lambert (November 2019).

On January 12, 1985, Machoro, considered as the settlers’ public enemy, was assassinated by the snipers of the French military police. The state of emergency was declared in the country by the colonial administrator a few hours later. For six months, the emergency was used to suppress the Kanak insurrection, implementing military police raids and curfews in Kanak tribes, and banning demonstrations. Regardless, the country’s independence was arguably close, until in 1986, France elected a right-wing government led by Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, which would crush the insurrection without implementing the state of emergency — which proves here again that the legalization of the counterrevolution in a colonial context is often unnecessary for the authorities. This colonial violence reaches an apex in May 1988 when the French army besieges the small island of Ouvéa after Kanak activists took 16 military police officers hostage into a cave. Negotiations for the release of the hostage were initiated, but Prime Minister Chirac and President Francois Mitterand, who were opposing each other in the French presidential election, give the order of military assault. 16 Kanak activists were killed in the raid, and three others, including group leader Alphonse Dianou, were coldly executed. This ruthless violence brings the FLNKS leaders to sign an accord to plan for Kanaky’s independence in the long term; a full sovereignty that has yet to come more than 30 years later.

Although the state of emergency was brought to effect so forcefully in Kanaky, it was not the only country of the Pacific that was subject to it. In October 1986, the colonial administrator of Wallis and Futuna used it for 24 hours to put pressure on Indigenous representatives. One year later, the French government declared the state of emergency in Tahiti’s archipelago which was the site of a docker strike preventing the supplying of the military basis on the Atoll of Mururoa, where French nuclear bombs had been tested since 1966 (this testings will stop only in 1996).
Before this happened, the bombs were tested in the Algerian Sahara. These links drawn provide a clear illustration of the French colonial continuum: a space-time surface where colonial administrators, militaries, laws, and techniques can navigate at will.

In this colonial continuum, we should also include parts of France where former colonial subjects (mostly under French colonialism, but not exclusively) and their families live. In fact, these neighborhoods that we call banlieues here share a certain amount of comparable characteristics with the ways colonized cities are administered. This mostly manifests in the engineering of structural inequality between white middle/upper-class parts of the city and racialized proletarian banlieues peripheral to urban centers, and the differences in people’s relationships to the police.

Lambert Funambulist (1)
Plaque commemorating the lives of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré.

The architecture of the banlieues can be characterized both by its eternal disposability and lack of public investment. Some of them were once shanty towns, later destroyed in the 1960s to make room for massive social housing towers and slabs, but only for them to be destroyed one by one within the past 35 years in gentrifying/pacifying projects. Political organizing in the banlieues have been continuous — shantytowns, for instance, constituted crucial sites for the Algerian Revolution — and today it is where revolts of the youth happen regularly. In October 2005, Bouna Traoré and Zyed Benna were two Black and Arab teenagers who died as a consequence of being illegitimately chased by the police in Clichy-sous-Bois (Paris northeastern banlieue municipality). Compounding this collective trauma with the aggressive racist rhetoric of then Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy (who became President two years later) led to an uprising in hundreds of banlieues in France. The police deployment was massive, and every night teenagers, who had nothing but stones and fire to express their political existence to an antagonistic state, clashed with them under the spotlights of police helicopters. 10 days into the uprising, the French government declared the state of emergency, which allowed prefects to designate zones where curfews can be applied. The spatial (and therefore, human) targeting could not be more explicit. During its two months of application, the state of emergency would mostly be used by prefects and mayors to declare curfews on minors (something that common law already allows) in banlieues, but in a mostly proletarian racialized neighborhood like La Madeleine in Evreux (Normandy), the entire population was prevented from leaving their homes several nights in a row.

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Banlieue neighborhood of the Chêne Pointu, where Zyed and Bouna were living, in Clichy-sous-Bois. / Photos by Léopold Lambert (2019).

The year of 2005 still marks a crucial new beginning for the current anticolonial and antiracist struggle in France today. On November 13, 2015, following deadly attacks in Paris and Saint-Denis, President Francois Hollande declared a new state of emergency that resulted in raids of thousands of Muslim-owned homes, offices, restaurants and mosques, as well as hundreds of house arrests. The political organizing against this new surge of police violence was led by people who lived through and were all fundamentally changed by the banlieue uprising of 2005. This last episode of the state of emergency, described by Hassina Mechaï and Flora Hergon in this issue, lasted two years. When it was finally lifted by President Emmanuel Macron on November 1, 2017, it was only to be replaced by a permanent law that transferred most of the state of emergency measures (to the exception of night-time home searches, and curfews) into common law.

As mentioned in the opening of this introduction, on March 23, 2020, the French government implemented a new law called “state of sanitary emergency” as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its name takes inspiration from the state of emergency and, like the latter, it can be unilaterally declared by executive power. Admittedly, this law allows for the state to implement requisitions, which leaves us daydreaming: could these requisitions possibly be toward the numerous empty housings in France that are used for financial speculation, and if so could they be given to people either homeless or living in insalubrious conditions? Could factories be requisitioned to manufacture the necessary masks and equipment to protect people, in particular the many workers who have been opportunistically deemed “essential,” and who are at risk of being contaminated any day? Could medicine be requisitioned away from the pharmaceutical industry that has made a profitable business of capturing the means of biological survival? Most of us highly doubt it, of course.

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First report of the State of Sanitary Emergency Observatory (April 16, 2020): “As soon as the confinement was declared, solidarity practices and self-organizing forms have emerged from many parts of the society. Intersecting our struggles these past years, we have gathered between banlieue and immigration activists, members of the Gilets Noirs and La Chapelle Debout!, autonomist, communist, and anarchist activists, feminist and antiracist activists, antifascist and anticarceral activists, anticolonial and antiimperial activists, mostly in Toulouse and Paris.”

In contrast, this law allows the French government to issue unilateral executive orders to implement its policies during the pandemic. Similar to the state of emergency, it materializes the punitive regime by implementing fines and even carceral punishment for people who are judged as not respecting mandatory self-confinement. One characteristic of this punitive regime is that it always applies itself in a drastically unequal manner. The “Observatory of the State of Sanitary Emergency” (a small group of anticolonial, antiracist, anticarceral, antifascist and undocumented activists based between Toulouse and Paris to which I belong) has made an inventory of numerous events of police violence in the banlieues, foreign worker housing, prisons, and migrant detention centers. Meanwhile, the white middle-class and bourgeois neighborhoods in French cities (many of which have been partially emptied of their residents, who apparently prefer to spend their confinement in their secondary home in the countryside or by the coast) have yet to see police officers controlling the respect of the confinement.

Countless activists and thinkers have already stressed that, everywhere in the world, current confinement policies are exacerbating the fundamental economic and racial disparities of the societies where they are implemented. What this text and this issue attempts to argue (through the example of France in this text, but the following articles make similar points about Kashmir, South Africa, the united states, Ireland, and Malay(si)a) is that such disparities have to be analyzed and resisted through an acute understanding of the structures of colonialism (and settler colonialism, for some of these contexts). I hope that you will find it as interesting to read it as it was for us to put it together. Have a very good read. ■