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UC Historian Explores Modern France, Anti-Immigrant Politics and Parallels with Republic's Past

UC history professor’s award-winning book challenges conceptions about the roots of France’s flirtations with the far-right.

Date: 5/17/2017 12:00:00 PM
By: Jonathan Goolsby Other Contact: Julie Campbell
Other Contact Phone: (513) 509-1114
Photos By: Ethan Katz, University of Cincinnati
JERUSALEM — Ethan B. Katz, associate professor in University of Cincinnati’s Department of History, is a busy, busy scholar.

Photograph of Professor Ethan Katz.
Professor Ethan Katz

He’s currently on a research fellowship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he’s been working on his new book — about an oft-overlooked, mostly Jewish Algerian underground movement that lasted from 1940 to 1942, and helped the Allies wrest control of North Africa from the Axis powers during the Second World War.

In the meantime, his already-completed book, The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France, is garnering awards and strong praise.

Published by Harvard University Press in 2015, Burdens won a 2015 National Jewish Book Award, given by the Jewish Book Council, and the 2016 David H. Pinkney Prize, awarded by the Society for French Historical Studies for best work in the study of French history. It also won the 2016 J. Russell Major Prize, given by the American Historical Association, and the 2016 American Library in Paris Book Award.

Now, it has been recognized with the Ohio Academy of History’s 2017 Publication Award in the Junior Faculty category. This year’s OHA prize for a Senior Faculty manuscript also went to a UC history professor — department head Christopher Phillips — marking the first time UC had swept the Publication Awards.

Reached via Skype at his office in Israel, Katz said the idea for the book was born out of a schism in French Muslim-Jewish relations that has played out over the past 15 years — the same crisis which was in danger of coming to a head during France’s presidential election earlier this month.
Book cover for The Burdens of Brotherhood

That contest was between Emmanuel Macron, a centrist populist from a newly-formed, pro-European party, and Marine Le Pen, a seasoned populist from the far-right National Front (several of whose prominent members have been accused of anti-Semitism or Holocaust denial).

Le Pen campaigned on an anti-immigration platform and actively courted French Jews’ support by trying to distance her party from its previously espoused anti-Semitism. She also attempted to pit French Jews against French Muslims.

Indeed, Katz wrote in a recent contribution to The Atlantic, Le Pen described her party as the, “best shield,” to protect French Jews and Christians alike from, “the only real enemy, Islamist fundamentalism.”

The National Front “regularly treats the two faith groups as sources of danger residing at the edges of the French nation,” Katz noted in the Atlantic piece.

In Burdens, he said, he tried to outline and examine this “triangular relationship” between Jews, Muslims, and the French state and society.

Although Macron has since won the presidency (by a reportedly wide margin), one shouldn’t assume the French electorate handed Le Pen a ringing rejection of exclusionary or isolationist politics. Katz noted that many voters in France undergo “periodic amnesia” about their relationship to non-native people living at its societal margins.

Whereas many people today might assume that tensions between Muslim, Jewish and Christian-influenced French, are resultant spillovers from today’s political crises between West and East, or from largescale emigration from war-torn areas to the Western democracies, Katz might argue that French othering of Muslim immigrants today is merely a continuation of a long cycle.

Over the industrialized centuries, he said, immigrants from Belgium, Italy, Eastern Europe, people who flooded into France from its former colonies, and now North African and Middle Eastern economic migrants, have all been scapegoated by hardliners.

“The history of French colonialism, especially in Algeria, is fundamental to understanding the current state of affairs,” Katz asserted.

During its time as a colonial master, France arrogantly envisioned itself carrying out a “civilizing mission” abroad, he reminded.

When its empire collapsed in the wake of the Second World War, the First Indochina War, and the Algerian War of Independence, France didn’t want to be reminded of its “failures.” So, immigrants in mainland France bore the brunt of embarrassed nationalists’ fury.

Many North African nationals — most whom were Muslim — had been granted residence in mainland France over the course of the mid-20th Century as the mother country sought to fill its critical labor and military service needs.

But native-born French citizens tended to view North Africans merely as temporary guest laborers who would “rotate home” to the colonies. Many of them were disappointed, if not angered, when mass migrations back to France’s devolved colonies did not occur.

“By the 1930s, you have 140-150,000 Muslims living in mainland France. About a million by the late 1960s,” Katz said. “By the mid-1970s, family reunification laws allowed wives and children to join male migrant workers in France. And they wanted worker protections and benefits, as well as the ability to speak on behalf of political or cultural identities distinct to their ethnic background.”

“In the same moment, a significant number of Jews are focused on publicly expressing pride in Israel and need for recognition of the Holocaust. In the 1980s, there is the first establishment of official support for multi-culturalism, then the beginning of a backlash in the form of far-right politics.”

“Insistence on assimilation re-emerges as part of that. With its empire gone, the need for cultural assimilation became more pressing,” Katz noted. “The National Front led a backlash that in many ways persists to this day.”

That may seem at odds with visions of an open, accepting French society that we so often see portrayed through the globalized, mass media lenses of Paris and Marseilles.

But, Katz cautioned, “France really struggles to accept itself as a nation of immigrants.”

"The values of its large and diverse urban centers should not conceal the more broadly held prejudices within the French electorate, he said.

“For many French people — in particular, ardent nationalists — as long as French culture is at the center of things, assimilation of different groups is possible,” Katz stated. “But that’s a very rigid set of terms.”

Katz’s exploration of the topic won praise from the Ohio Academy of History’s 2017 Publication Award selection committee.

“The story is compellingly told,” it wrote, and “makes important contributions to scholarship on postcolonial France and French ethnoreligious history.”

The Burdens of Brotherhood incorporates primary source materials from archives located on at least three continents, including dozens of interviews,” the award citation read. “Katz uses French Jewish-Muslim relations to help readers rethink mid-20th-century French history.”

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