In Marseille, the Gaza Tragedy Calls to Mind the History of Anti-Arab Racism

In the 1970s, immigrant workers in Marseille turned out in large numbers to demonstrate their support for Palestine. In 1973 the city was also the focus of an unprecedented wave of racist crimes. Today, when the left-wing city government maintains its contribution to UNRWA, various initiatives reflect the anti-colonial memory of a part of the Mediterranean harbour city’s population.

On 16 December 1973, thousands of people accompanied the remains of the Algerian victims of the bomb attack on the Algerian consulate in Marseille on 14 December 1973, for which the Charles Martel Group had claimed responsibility.

On 16 December 1973, thousands marched behind the coffins of the victims of the bombing two days earlier of the Algerian consulate in Marseille, responsibility for which was claimed by the Groupe Charles Martel.1

History repeats itself or rather casts its shadow. This is what we can glimpse in the commitment for Palestine of many French youths of North African descent. In Marseille, Dalal, 23, takes to the streets once a week demanding a cease-fire: ‘My family made me aware of the Palestinians’ cause when I was very young, my grandparents and great-grand-parents lived under the French colonial yoke.’ So too, Sarah, an Algerian student in the Aix-Marseille law school, relates her support for Palestine to her personal background and says she is ‘very sensitive to peoples’ struggles for independence and liberation on account of the history of Algeria".

In mid-November 2023, demonstrations in support of Gaza had been flocking through the Marseille streets for more than a month when students decided to create the Palestine Student Committee. This initiative coincided in the Phocian City with the fiftieth anniversary of a dark chapter in French history. In 1973, there was a wave of racist killings, targeting North-African immigrants: drowned, knifed, beaten to death. The city became the epicentre of an ‘Arab hunt’ as Le Monde would call retrospectively that series of murders which was to take some fifty lives all over France, including at least seventeen in the Marseille region. An outbreak of violence coming after years of vilification of the figure of The Arab.

Because racism is a specifically French narrative which meshes neatly today with the fallout from the conflict in the Middle East. Already during the June 1967 war, a huge majority of French public opinion was hostile to the Arab powers pitted against Israel in that region. At the forefront of the overwhelming pro-Israeli majority, the associations of settlers (pieds-noirs) repatriated from Algeria used the conflict as a pretext to attack Arab immigrants in France.

Colonial Memories

‘In France, the fact that colonial rhetoric has been kept under wraps has played a major role in the West’s support for Israel. For Westerners, Israel is a successful example of colonial reconquest.’ Ever since 7 October, Pierre Stambul, spokesperson for the Union Juve Française pour la Paix (UJP) has been making speeches right and left in support of Palestine. He proclaims his anti-Zionism as an extension of his anti-colonialism. On 16 October, the Gazan activist and member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (FPLP) Miriam Abou Daqqa left her Marseille apartment and was arrested by the police at the Saint Charles station. ‘We are witnessing the criminalisation of Palestine by the French government,’ Pierre Stambul protested.

He is the son of Yakov Stambul, a member of the Resistance and Jewish survivor of the Manouchian group, deported to Buchenwald. His voice is heard regularly in the demonstrations supporting the Palestinian cause in Marseille. In his view, naming things incorrectly adds to the sufferings of the Gazouis:

‘This is not a war between races, communities or religions, it is a colonial war. And we are dealing with a particular brand of colonialism, since Zionist colonialism has never aimed at exploiting the natives but at dispossessing and replacing them.’

Colonialism is a history shared by Israel and France. Those painful memories inherited from the settling of the ‘Algerian war’ anchor the Israeli-Arab conflict in the French debate as early as the war of June 1967. It ‘coincides with one of the most astonishing moments in the history of French passions (…) a veritable wind of anti-Arab madness started blowing which was not soon to die down’.2

Even before the June 1967 war, comparisons between Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hitler were frequent. As well as demonstrations in favour of Israel. On the left, as in the Communist Party, there was concern over the anti-Arab character which these acquired. On the Champs-Elysées, various associations of settlers repatriated from Algeria ‘provided ample battalions of demonstrators’ to honk the five notes of the slogan ‘Al-gé-rie fran-çaise’ reworked as ‘Is-ra-ël vain-cra’. According to an opinion poll, taken in October 1967, 44% of those questioned consider themselves to be more hostile to Arabs than the 3% who are hostile to Jews.3

Postwar Resentment

In Marseille especially, the identitarian rifts which survived the war in Algeria fuelled the hatred of immigrants and crystallised French colonial memories. Thus, on 7 September 1973, the Marseille daily Le Méridional, called Algerian immigration a ‘gangrene’. This was in reaction to the Munich attack. The day before, the Palestinian organisation ‘Black September4 had taken hostage the Israeli delegation to the Olympic games and in the end, 11 athletes were killed. A year later, France was to be the theatre of an episode of unprecedented racist violence.

Since its creation in 1972 by veterans of the Waffen-SS,5 Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National undertook to attract the pied-noir electorate. In the parliamentary election of 1973, it promised to make reparations to the persons repatriated from Algeria while denouncing the Evian Accords which had put an end to the war ten years earlier. In Marseille, its candidate Roland Soler, a former member of the Organisation armée secrète (OAS)6 claimed to represent the 100,000 pieds noirs residing in the city. Since the independence of Algeria in 1962, the flood of French repatriates from the former colony as well as immigrant workers had made the Mediterranean city the epicentre of migratory flows in France. In 1973, the statistics of the Ministry of Interior Affairs show a total of one million two hundred thousand North Africans in France, 19% of whom were in the South-East.

In those days, many of them gave up the dream of going home and ended up settling in France. A movement which coincided with May-June 1968 and a climate of anti-Imperialist revolution which shaped the orientation of the class struggle, especially in France. Following the Arab defeat in June 1967, the Palestinian cause definitely became rooted on the left.

“Encouraged by the winds blowing across the world, the Palestinian resistance saw itself as an alternative to the failures of Nasser’s Arab nationalism (…) and became the vehicle of a universalising revolutionary ideology.”7

In 1970, following the Black September massacres8 Palestine Committees were organised in opposition to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Jordan. Immigrant activists took advantage of the event to unify their demands. In Marseille, the local committee was hunted by the police, convinced that they will find among their number a clandestine cell of the FPLP. The authorities were worried for fear that support for the Palestinian cause among immigrants would cause disturbances of the public order. The Palestine Committees were an experience that lasted two years before they were incorporated into the new Mouvement des Travailleurs arabes (MTA) in 1972. “It was a way of acknowledging the change in the very nature of our action, which was now more than just support for the Palestinians and had become almost entirely centred around the question of rights and the fight against racism,” according to Driss El-Yazami, a Morrocan student in Marseille at the time.9

The spiral of violence

But in 1973, came the escalation. On 5 August, in the city centre, a bus driver was killed by a deranged man of Algerian origin. The next day, the editor-in-chief of Le Méridional, Gabriel Domenech, signed a landmark editorial: “W’ve had enough of Algerian thieves, enough of Algerian vandals, enough of Algerian blowhards, enough of Algerian troublemakers, enough of Algerian syphilitic, enough of Algerian rapists (…).

On 8 August 1973, the murder of Ladj Lounès, sixteen, shot three times, touched off a general strike by immigrant workers a called by the MTA. It was over the boy’s coffin, shipped to Algeria from the Joliette marine terminal that the strike call was issued. Between August and December 1973, there were seventeen murders of Algerians in the region, events mentioned briefly in the crimes and accidents columns of the local press: ‘In one or two lines, it is never a question of more than a fractured skull, death by bullets or hatchet blows, gunshots from passing cars, bodies fished out of the Vieux Port (…)’10

The violence was so serious that Algerian President Houari Boumedienne decided to prevent workers from leaving the country: ‘If France doesn’t want our nationals, they must tell us so, we’ll take them back!’ On 14 December the Algerian consulate was the target of a bombing, an attack for which the Charles Martel group claimed responsibility. Four people were killed and sixteen injured. But political anti-racism inspired by the mobilisations in favour of Palestine was already deeply rooted in the political experience of Arab immigrants in France. In 1974, the question of the immigrant vote was among the issues discussed at the first congress of foreign workers in Marseille.

Struggles on the march

The creation in 1982 of the Association des travailleurs maghrébins en France (ATMF) was an important stage in the development of a political approach to the immigration question. Originally called the Association of Moroccans in France (AMF), and founded by Mehdi Ben Barka11, taking account of the revocation of the 1939 decree.12 At that time, the creation of so-called foreign associations was possible on a nationality basis and subject to approval by the Ministry of Interior Affairs. It was very difficult for immigrants of different nationalities to join together in a single organisation. An obstacle which the Palestine Committees and later the MTA had begun contributing to overcome.

Today, however, though we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Marche for equality and against racism, which set out from Marseille on 15 October and made its triumphal arrival in Paris on 3 December 1983, a review of anti-racist struggles in France summons up colonial memories that are still repressed. The Socialist left is distressed by the demands voiced by young people wearing the Palestinian keffiyeh. Antoine, a 20-year-old flm student in Marseille and member of the Student Committee for Palestine: ‘The reasons for the violence, physical or institutional, perpetrated against immigrants and descendants of immigrants are ideologically connected to the (French) support for a genocidal State.’ As for Dalel, she points to the recent ‘bans on demonstrating at the beginning of October which are straight out of French colonialism’.

A dismal illustration of this was the participation of the far-right parties Le Rassemblement national (RN) and Reconquête ! in the march against anti-Semitism on 12 November in Paris, when Eric Zemmour (founder of the latter) could be heard non-stop over the 24-hour news channels on the alleged dangers of ‘immigration from Muslim countries’, which he claims is fuelling anti-Semitism in France.

On Monday 5 February 2024, more than a week after a number of countries had announced the suspension of their contribution to UNRWA (United Nations Office of Aid and Work for Palestinian Refugees in the Middle East), Benoît Payan, (ex-Socialist) Mayor of Marseille, declared he would maintain the city’s 80,000 euros aid to UNRWA. At the end of January, the UN agency had revealed firing 12 employees accused of being involved in October 7 Hamas attacks. Israel is at the origin of these accusations but refuses to provide the UN organism with its evidence. A petition asked the Marseille Mayor not to take part in the ‘collective punishment’ of Gaza. Message received, contrary to a number of Western countries, among them the United States.

1TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The Charles Martel Group was a French far-right anti-Arab terrorist organisation which operated in the 1970s and 1980s. It was named after Charles Martel, the Frankish military leader who defeated the Umayyad invasion of Gaul at the Battle of Tours in 732 (Wikipedia)

2Samir Kassir and Farouk Mardam-Bey, Itinéraires de Paris à Jérusalem. La France et le conflit judéo-arabe, tome II, 1958 — 1991, Minuit, coll. ‘Les livres de la Revue d’études palestiniennes’, 1993, Paris.

3Yvan Gastaut, ‘La guerre des Six Jours et la question du racisme en France’, Cahiers de la Méditerranée, 2005, p. 15–29.

4EDITOR’S NOTE: Organisation founded following the bloody repression, in September 1970 by the Jordanian army of the Palestinian fedayin who had made their headquarters in the Hashemite Kingdom, which had become the rear base of the armed Palestinian resistance in the West Bank. See Alain Gresh “Mémoire d’un septembre noir”, Le Monde diplomatique, September 2020.

5Like Pierre Bosquet, the first treasurer of the Front National, who registered the party’s status along with J-M. Le Pen in 1972.

6TRANSLAtOR’S NOTE: The Organisation armée secrète was a far-right French dissident paramilitary and terrorist organisation during the Algerian War. (Wikipedia)

7Georges Corm, Le Liban contemporain, La Découverte, 2003.

8In September 1970, the Jordanian army attacked the Palestinian fedayin throughout the country, especially in Amman. The following year the resistance will be run out of the country.

9Marie Poinsot, “An idea kept recurring among the workers: no politics!” Hommes & migrations, 2020, p. 25–29.

10Rachida Brahim, La race tue deux fois. Une histoire des crimes racistes en France (1970-2000), éditions Syllepse, 2021. On these events, also read the excellent novel by Dominique Manotti, Marseille 73, Les Arènes, 2021.

11TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Prominent Moroccan labour leader, abducted in the centre of Paris and murdered by French and Moroccan police in October 1985.

12A decree which forbade immigrants from forming associations under the 1901 and created a system of derogations for foreign associations.