Decolonial Translation Group


Beyond the BBF Border (Benbassa – Blanchard – Fassin(s))

By Houria Bouteldja


Original intervention by Houria Bouteldja at the Center of Social Studies of Coimbra, directed by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Lisboa, 19 march, 2011.  In the following text, Houria Bouteldja, revisits the content of her intervention, integrating some reflections suggested in the debate that followed her presentation.

I would like to thank the team of the Center for this invitation.  As I am addressing a Portuguese public, I think it necessary to begin with a presentation about the party, Les Indigènes de la République –PIR (Party of the Indigenous of the Republic)[i] and the place it occupies within French political life, to then share with you some elements that will allow us to analyze the way in which the white French political field manages the postcolonial question in its actuality after six years [of the party’s existence]. I would like to clarify that what follows reflects the expertise of a militant, and is not a scientific investigation.  Though through me speaks experience and observation.


The Indigenous of the Republic are the product of a double disillusion:  that of the African independences, and that of integration.  This impasse has obliged us to reflect on a political alternative, which necessarily requires:

1.             A critical balance of the last 50 years:

The independences did not mark the end of colonization, but rather the first step towards decolonization. Therefore, it is necessary to retake the torch of anti-colonial struggle. Integration is a dead end. Notwithstanding our efforts to integrate, we have always been sent back systematically to our origins. We understand that racism is structural; it is a system of domination. Even though race does not exist, social races do exist. Racism is a system that offers benefits to one category – whites – to the detriment of another – the indigenous. These two categories are political. They refer to status and to the relations of power.

2.             A political rupture:

From the moment we became lucid and took consciousness about ourselves, that is to say in the moment we recognized ourselves as indigenous, the myth of the republic exploded. Henceforth, regarding integration, we counter it with our liberation as a political objective, a concept in perfect coherence with our project of decolonization.

We could no longer content ourselves in claiming an abstract autonomy. We needed to give it content. Our autonomy had to be ideological, political, and organizational (and, as a consequence, financial). Ideological: this entailed elaborating an autonomous political thought that situated its origins and references in anti-colonial struggles and those of migration.  A political thought that drew on our real life experiences. A political thought that defied the imposed margins: the margins of enlightenment thinking, of western rationalism/rationality, of Marxism, of universalism, of republicanism…  Political: with the benefit of the experience of the first generation of militants, we have learned to beware of the organizations of the left, and to be cautious with the instrumentalization of our struggles on the part of the Left or the institutional opposition, the moral antiracism. That is why, from the start, we have privileged our affirmation and internal constitution above alliances that do not open up favorable relations of forces. We were conscious that – to constitute solid alliances – first of all we must exist. Organizational: the associations referred to as “of immigration and of the neighborhoods”[ii] have always suffered from the grip of the state when it finances their activities.

Thus it [the State] has always been able to control most organizations and prohibit them access to politics.  It goes without saying that we privilege financial independence.  Since the beginning of our existence, we have never asked for the most minimal of spare change from the public authorities.  We have self-financed ourselves through our membership dues, from donations and from the sale of products designed and produced by us.

These two points constitute a comprehensive approach that has developed in the course of the last five years.  The PIR (Party of the Indigenous of the Republic) is now an organization that reflects a decolonial project departing from the indigenous question, but in the direction of the entirety of French society.  To liberate the indigenous, we must also liberate the whites.  And vice-versa.


Amidst the scandal and the shouting that was provoked by the call of the Indigenous of the Republic[iii], there occurred a number of specific reactions:

            An intense debate within the Socialist Party left: PC, ATTAC, NPA, Verts, LDH, MRAP[iv], and anti-racist organizations…

      We have been branded as being communitarians, ethnicists, anti-white racists, and even as a group seeking to provoke ethnic war.

      We have been accused of confusing the past for the present and of considering everything as colonial, although affirming the colonial fracture does not mean depreciating or ignoring other social fissures.

      Our movement engendered a strong incomprehension: what are the portraits of indigenous leaders (from the Americas) doing next to those of Arafat and Lumumba? A portrait of Angela Davis next to Nasr Allah?  The portraits of Rosa Parks, Césaire and Fanon next to Nasser?  That of Jamila Bouhired next to Malcolm X?

Nonetheless, a few weeks after the original Call (manifesto), the law of February 23, 2005 was passed,[v] and a few months later, riots broke out in the suburbs.  These two major events provide the flesh to our initiative.  In the five years that followed, actualities in France and in the world would impose the postcolonial question as inevitable for reading and comprehending the present.  But as we continued affirming our thought, our projects and our autonomy, more of our white “friends” (save for a few exceptions) would distance themselves from us upon realizing, on the one hand that we would not become an annex of the movements of the left, and on the other, that we were not situated in the right/left divide, but in the racial and colonial divide. A divide that required they rethink the eurocentrism that structures them and the privileges they enjoyed as whites.  And this was a step that they were not willing to take.  As a consequence, a great part of the left organizations re/appropriated postcolonial issues in the political plane as in the academic.  They re-read it and interpreted through their own analytical lenses and, in doing so, evacuated it of most of its subversive force.  An impressive number of works, of essays, of colloquiums about the racial and postcolonial question have emerged…  But without us.


If during the 1980’s when the left was in power—aided by the extreme left—they managed to eclipse the vindications of the migrant movements through support for antiracist organizations with apolitical slogans during a noisy and deafening scandal, the cooptation maneuvers[vi] of 2000 can be distinguished for their perfect discretion and extreme sophistication.  It is no longer fashionable to critique the Indigenous in a frontal way; this is now the work of Finkielkraut, the secularists or of the extreme right.  And, moreover, this is quite tricky.  They master their speeches and concepts, and appear to benefit from certain sympathy among their social circles.  And above all, they are not considered anti-Semitic even though they are accused of not being "clear" on the issue.  Let me be clear: to firmly support the Palestinian resistance, including Hamas, and not recognize the centrality of the “Shoah” (that we refer to as “genocide”), for us is also a form of Eurocentrism.  The strategy that is in place is no more than the expression of a convergence of interests within a left in search of a consensus and, further, determined not to be divided by [what they see as] "secondary" debates. Thus, the less is said about the Indigenous, the less they exist.  Henceforth, it is simply about trying to ignore them and light the counter-fires: Cran, Lest We Forget ... (I do not know if these groups are artificial as SOS Racisme or NPNS may be, but these movements have been supported generously - after our appearance - by the left press, from the front pages of mainstream newspapers and magazines such as Libération or Le Nouvel Observateur. Their consensual discourses are probably no coincidence.) This is the phenomenon I have seen in recent years. I have seen gradually drawn up before us what I symbolically call the BBF Border, from the names Benbassa, Blanchard, Fassin(s): three, recognized and media-savvy, white intellectuals, who have taken ownership of the postcolonial terrain and have become authorities on the theme (although this border is not reducible evidently to these three actors; we could add others like Geisser, Stora, Lacoste and others, but those I mention above seem to me emblematic).  It is a matter of a Border that has permitted the postcolonial and racial problematic to be made respectable before the gaze of the white political field.  At this time, from their perspective, it is they who represent the pole of radicalism on the issue. It is a boundary beyond which all turns into radical extremism. On the other hand, there is confusion as to sectarianism, extremism, revenge …  The BBF Border was not drawn by enemies.  Objectively, these scholars, researchers, intellectual activists are advancing and make respectable the issue of race and the postcolonial in the mainstream political left, in academia and in the media.   The political commitment and sincerity of these scholars, researchers and intellectuals is not an issue (although this does not apply to all).  They push the boundaries of debate, radicalizing leftist thinking, yet sometimes wrapped up with it. Their white word is more audible and respected than ours, which our party accepts as pragmatic.  I personally think they work in part for us, even when taking every precaution to be distinguished from us, which, I admit, amuses us greatly.  Traditionally, they start their sentences with "I disagree with the Indigenous, but..." or “The Indigenous?  But they only represent the 0.001% of the political and militant masses on the issue!”  What worries me and is important to note is the overall dynamics within which they are inscribed. For in fact, they are anything but the white translators of indigenous thought and condition.  First and foremost, they are the guardians of the temple. It is they who henceforth dictate what is lawful and unlawful, halal and haram [what is permitted and forbidden] in postcolonial questions.  The BBF Border embodies white power and the force of its system of resistance.  The whites retake control over a subject that they had not anticipated or even thought about.  And, at the same time, they exclude the Indigenous.  And too bad if the indigenous bring original thinking, if they contribute towards explaining reality from their own experience, if they explore unheard voices, or if they propose social and political alternatives that can be useful for the entire society, or at least to be discussed. How is it that the guardians of the BBF Border have never bothered to comment on the programmatic and organizational platforms of the PIR?  How is it explained that the two books of Sadri Khiari, “Pour une politique de la racaille” and “De de Gaulle à Sarkozy: La contre-révolution colonial”[vii] – that I personally consider major works for anyone interested in the racial and postcolonial question in France – have never been the object of serious critique or even discussed? Are they not obliged by their own curiosity as researchers or simply in their role as social actors to interest themselves in these books as have done numerous US, British and Canadian researchers?  It is in this way that they fix the limits, the contours of the BBF Border and select (or help to promote) within the activist and academic fields certain “moderate” indigenous and/or [those who are] not the bearers of a political project given that, as whites and conscious of being white, they seek both legitimacy and credibility.  For the guardians of the BBF Border, the authenticity of the “chosen” indigenous will be capital as much for their good conscience as for counterbalancing the influence of organizations not controlled by the Border.  In effect, the riots of 2005 left traces.  The indigenous people are much more demanding in terms of their representatives.  Harlem Désir, Malek Boutih and others, such as Fadéla Amara, only provide trust at the highest spheres, but not among the intermediate levels. I can tell you that the effectiveness of this strategy is formidable. For if whites move away "naturally" from us [our movement], it is not likewise for the Indigenous—the mechanics are not the same. The Indigenous are not part of the initiative to build the Border and the space it delineates, but they integrate themselves to it and therefore reinforce it. For their own political, academic, or associational survival, the Border tells them whom they can frequent.  And whom they cannot.  With whom they can think.  And with whom they cannot.  This is true both for incipient researchers, as well as for the brightest and most qualified.  They have no right to stray. However, should they transgress the Border, they will immediately give pretexts to excuse themselves.  It is thus that we are deprived of the membership of a significant pool of Indigenous. Those who have intellectual, political or militant capital will be afraid to offer it to an organization like ours, located on the darker side of the Border. We are not halal (pure) enough for such a sacrifice. Their careers may suffer.  If they cross paths with us on their way, they are embarrassed and perplexed, and swear to us that our fight is the same, and claim we lack strategy since they move the cursor from the inside.  If not, they are distant and polite, adopting a conduct of honor that consists of not saying anything bad about us publically. But they must remain careful if they risk crossing the Border.  It is in this ungrateful land that we the Indigenous are walled in.  Yet, it is on this land where a real social and decolonial political alternative can eventually be born.  The reason is simple: it is here that you find the mass of the social indigenous that the white left has excluded for 30 years and which is now lamented for their errors and ingratitude (their lack of commitment to the left, its dispersion in the political field, their massive support to the speeches of Tariq Ramadan, or beyond, their sympathy vis-à-vis de Dieudonné…). That is where the PIR can be found, involuntarily.  But especially voluntarily.


I cannot close this discussion without interrogating myself about that which explains the construction of the BBF Border as a kind of sanitary border that ensures our placement in quarantine (except for in “islamo-leftist” circles).  I will not develop this here, but I believe that we simply infringe on the rules of propriety.

We question white universalism.  We exit the matrix of western-centrism to elaborate a decolonial project and a critique of modernity.  Neither the academic world, nor the political world is ready for this alternative. Yet, all the indicators are there to oblige us to push our reflection in the following direction: the economic crisis, the ecological crisis and the crisis of Western modernity.

Translated by Roberto D. Hernández.


1- The BBF Border Illustrated:

Le Pari(s) du vivre ensemble / The challenge of living together (View archive editions of 2011) /

Between discrimination and recognition. What does racialize mean /

The colonial divide. French society through the prism of the colonial legacy / ?nav=evenement&no=5567  

75 years later, looking at the Colonial Exhibition of 1931 /

Anticolonial Week/    

Call for a multicultural and post race society /

Citizens or Indigenous of the nation? Robert Castel /


Discriminate to Better Rule, By Vincent Geisser /

Marianne and Allah: French Political Leaders Confronting the "Muslim Issue,"

by Vincent Geisser and Aziz Zemouri, La Découverte, Paris, February 2007.  

Here, the authors are careful to put a distance between them and us based on the criticisms made by Blanchard and Bancel Vergès about the colonial continuum and cite as radical critique of this view the very low and very debatable issue of the journal Herodotus of Yves Lacoste (


The Palestine Media Agency /

Debate: Popular Racism or State Xenophobia /


2 - Examples of work done abroad on the MIR / PIR and symposia with which the PIR is associated

    French muslims, new voices in contemporary France, Sharif Gemi /

    Decolonization in the heart of empire: some fanonian echoes today in France, Stefan Kipfer. Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

    "Global Dialogue" Program, Tarragona/Barcelona (Spain), July 2010, July 2011

    Fourth International Congress on Islamic Feminism, Madrid (Spain), October 2010,

   Antiracism, (post-)colonialism and political mobilization in contemporary Europe,   Center for Social Studies, Coimbra, Lisbon (Portugal), March 2011

    Series of conferences and seminars, University of California, Berkeley (U.S.), April 2011,

    Foucault and the Coloniality of Power, University of Coruña (Spain), May 2011,


[i] The notion of indigènes (indigenous) used here has a particular referent in French colonial history.  The French empire used the term indigènes to refer to colonial subjects in all its colonies across the world.  The Party of the Indigenous of the Republic in France is composed principally of French youth of African, Arab, Muslim, Maghrebian and Antillean origin, born and raised in France, who live the experience of colonial racism and its consequent social marginalization and exploitation.

[ii] In France, the neighborhood associations are often said to work with youth of the banlieues or “suburbs,” which are home to the marginalized neighborhoods of African, Maghreb, Arab, and Antillean communities much like those that one would refer to in the U.S. as the ghettoes, barrios or slums.  Since the 1980s the media has also charged the term with a negative connotation signifying dangerous, violent and poor neighborhoods

[iii] The original call for the formation of the Movement of the Indigenous of the Republic can be found at:

[iv] Communist Party of France, ATTAC, New Anticapitalist Party, Green Party, Human Rights League, Movement against Racism and Friendship amongst the Peoples.

[v] The Law of February 23, 2005 was an act passed by the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) conservative majority, which mandated high-schoolteachers to teach about the "positive values" of colonialism in the former and current French colonies.  The law created a public for its historical revisionism.

[vi] The absorption of movements by political parties, as in France being part of established political parties is the only effective way to be legible.  This dynamic accounts for the decision of the original Movement of the Indigènes to become a political party themselves.

[vii] Although these texts are not yet translated to English, the full titles can be read as “For a Politics of the Rabble/Scum: Immigrants, indigenous and ghetto youth” and “The Colonial Counter-Revolution: From de Gaule to Sarkozy”.