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Why do French police kill French Algerian boys?

The award-winning author, Faïza Guène, wants to make sure the descendants of people from France’s colonies are no longer overlooked and calls for the generational trauma to end here

People gather to protest the death of 17-year-old Nahel, who was shot in the chest by police in Nanterre on June 27, in Paris, France. Photo: Ibrahim Ezzat/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Faïza Guène has déjà vu. After a police officer shot Nahel Merzouk, a French teenager of Algerian descent, in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre during a traffic stop, rioting and protests erupted across France. However, what unsettled the award-winning French-Algerian author most was that her community had felt this grief before. Their anger was far from new. 

“They killed him as if he wasn’t a child – or even a human being,” says Guène. When the news first broke, she felt rage which was soon overtaken by empathy for his mother, having children herself. Next, she was flooded with alarm when she saw how media outlets had chosen to report the tragedy. The coverage was, she thought, at times, “overtly racist”. 

“We’ve seen the same demonstrations for another victim of violence. The same anger, the same young faces on placards demanding justice followed by the same excuses couched in colonial language,” Guène tells me. Merzouk’s death comes 37 years after the murder of Malik Oussekine, the French-Algerian student who died in police custody in 1986. Following Oussekine’s death, protests broke out across Paris, and France entered a period of reflection, especially when it emerged that Oussekine had been beaten to death by two officers in the station hallway. Last year, Guène co-scripted the Disney+ series, Oussekine, based on the student’s death and his family’s fight for justice. “Nothing has changed, she continues, “except that now we have the footage.”

Guène soared to literary fame in 2004, aged 19, with her debut novel, Kiffe Kiffe Demain (Just Like Tomorrow), which has sold over 400,000 copies, and been translated into more than 30 languages. It captured the world of 15-year-old Doria as she navigated adolescence on a tough estate. Two decades and six books later, often compared to Zadie Smith and Monica Ali, Guène is hailed as one of the most important voices of her community and generation. She has been a writer for 20 years, but when I speak to Guène and her translator, Sarah Ardizzone, she admits that it’s only now that she feels “legitimate”. 

“I would never have written Kiffe Kiffe Demain if I was conscious that that was what I was doing. It happened through serendipity,” she says. Her draft manuscript was discovered by chance when she left her notebook behind at a writer’s workshop, where it was read by someone who insisted on showing it to a publisher. “I was just scribbling for my pleasure,” she adds. 

Her latest novel, Discretion, is different. “My priority was to write for people who have a relationship with exile,” she explains. “It was the first time where I was conscious that part of it at least was going to resonate for people like me.”

The novel also has a far more political edge. Earlier this year, President Macron announced that he would not ask forgiveness for France’s 100-year colonisation of Algeria, even though he had previously called the occupation a “crime against humanity”. Macron’s response to the recent protests has made it even more clear that resolution is not on the cards, adding a new sense of currency to Guène’s novel. 

Set between modern-day Paris and 1950s Algeria, Discretion follows Yamina and her family as they navigate two contrasting cultures. The heroine’s tale is a reflection on the lives of Algerian women, wives and mothers who immigrated to France after Algeria gained independence in 1962. 

“Give or take a few tiny details, from 1949 to 1981, Discretion is the tale of my mother,” explains Guène. She has often been asked whether her family inspires her work. “For once,” she smiles, “it is easy to answer this question.”

When Guène’s father, who was of Algerian origin, passed away, the grief she experienced was two-fold. “I realised a few years later that there was a part of his history that I would never know,” she recalls. “It was buried with him. So, there was this grief of losing a loved one and the grief of losing part of your past. This was extremely hard.” Immediately, she felt a need to piece together what she could of her ancestry, so she turned to her mother. 

“My first question was simple: ‘What was your first childhood memory?’ Her answer was to tell me the story that made it into Discretion,” she says. In this early chapter set in the province of Msirda Fouga in 1954, French colonial soldiers arrive at Yamina’s childhood home. 

What about your husbands,” roars one officer, irritated to find a room full of women without their spouses and, in turn, they all reply “Franssa”. Another soldier holds his gun against a baby’s head and the scene instantaneously switches pace, from rushed ransacking to mothers and grandfathers not daring to move an inch. When one objects (“he’s just a baby”), the officer replies: “A baby who’ll grow up and turn into another armed bandit – a fellagha – fighting French rule!” The chapter closes with Guène writing that Yamina’s childhood, there and then, came to an abrupt end. 

That story came from her mother – the baby was her uncle. “This memory made me realise I had to pursue this book,” she says before quoting the Martiniquian philosopher Frantz Fanon. “Each generation has its own mission. For me, ours is about harvesting these stories.”

In 1974, President Valéry-Giscard d’Estaing passed the family reunification law (regroupement familial) which permitted Algerian men working in France to bring the rest of their family to the country. “Before this, the women just weren’t there, they weren’t in the country. This meant you had the classic scenario of men, married or single, working and living in bachelor halls. In the history of Algerian immigration, the mothers were erased from the picture,” Guène says. This is why she wanted a matriarch as her focal character. 

“When I was writing the resumé for this novel. I pictured Yamina as the everyday hero. You’re aware of this woman, you’ve passed her on the Metro, on the bus or maybe she cleans your house. But, you don’t know her. She’s invisible in society,” says Guène. She knew people didn’t see figures like Yamina – like her mother. Now, they would read about her and they would do so through the eyes of a daughter.

In Discretion, Guène’s frustration is embodied in the character of Hannah, Yamina’s daughter, who fights back when she sees society belittling her. In one passage, an official at the doctor’s surgery dispensary over-articulates his words for Yamina. “She’s not an idiot. You don’t need to talk to her like that,” Hannah immediately retorts. Her frustration only worsens when the employee has a jibe of her own (Let’s keep a lid on it shall we? You people are all the same!”). Hannah’s character bangs her fist against the screen while Yamina insists she mustn’t make a fuss. “There is so much anger inside her throat that it leaves a bitter taste of ancient anger, increasingly hard to contain.” Her writing captures a rage that’s been denied for decades, so instead it erupts into the banal. It’s a routine that Guène grew up witnessing. 

Photo: Marie Huguenin

“When I was 15, my friends’ mums would reminisce: ‘Ah, well when we were 15 we didn’t have mobile phones!’ My mother would often respond: ‘Ah, well when we were 15 we had cholera, we didn’t have shoes but we had the French colonial army…’ There was a gap between my mother and me but also a lack of understanding between my contemporaries and me.” The teenagers Guène grew up alongside didn’t know what her family had gone through.  

Yet, despite this, Guène doesn’t shy away from making her writing intersectional. In one monologue Brahim, Yamina’s husband, is consumed by the societal death which, he feels, divorce had brought on his eldest daughter. “Women die so many small deaths before their actual ones. Brahim is of a generation that doesn’t notice how men enjoy the privilege of dying just the once,” writes Guène.

When I ask her about this line specifically, she raises its universality. “There is always a woman who loses. It doesn’t matter your ethnic background, age or race, that phrase could equally apply to a white woman,” she tells me. However, she is quick to add that it is always more powerful when discussing an Arab woman. “It is exacerbated with a character like Yamina.”

Discretion is dedicated to Guène’s father who, she writes, “died of discretion”. “At one level, I hope the phrase is self-evident,” she says. “It’s about someone like my father who was not residing in his own country, making all these sacrifices to ensure life for the next generation is better.” The idea of “dying of discretion” goes beyond her father. It’s a battle all migrants face between assimilation and not losing their own culture. “This is the motive behind my writing. To leave these marks so people, my parents, are not overlooked,” she says.

“You can never completely heal the Algerian trauma. However, you can put words to that experience,” Guène adds. She believes this is paramount to stopping the generational damage of history repeating itself and she has even recently coined a literary phrase to that effect: “writing is breaking the curse”. Meanwhile, France itself had only recently begun this process – until 1999, the Algerian war was not officially documented as a war, but rather as a series of “events”. 

But Guène doesn’t see the murder of Merzouk as a flashback. Instead, it highlighted a harsh reality. The violence that follows the crime obscures deeper social problems, including the racism experienced by the Algerian community in France. 

“When it comes to youthful mistakes, such as non-compliance or driving without a licence, our sons are granted no second chances. Yet I must regain my sense of hope because this is a time to fight and that fight begins with finding the right words,” she says. 

Discretion is proof that Guène has found them. Time will tell if Macron will discover some of his own. 

Discretion by Faïza Guène, translated by Sarah Ardizzone, is published by Saqi Books

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