The 1980s witnessed the emergence of a new and distinctive group of young Frenchmen and women: les Beurs. This apparently new and distinctive generation came to prominence in the context of rising racial tensions, particularly although not exclusively in les banlieues, the growing influence of Jean-Marie Le Pen and Le Front National, and the centrality of debates about immigration, integration, assimilation, the right to difference etc. in French political life in the period 1980 to the present.
The Marche pour l'égalité et contre le racisme, a march from Marseilles to the centre of Paris in 1983 to protest against discrimination was a key moment in this Beur generation gaining national visibility. However, it was not just through street protests and and other forms of collective political action that the Beurs became prominent as France in the 1980s and 1990s witnessed the emergence of Beur music and radio stations, Beur artists and photographers, Beur fiction and autobiography, and even a Beur cinema whose themes and preoccupations anticipate those of Mathieu Kassovitz in La Haine (1995) and other films de banlieue.
The 1980s then saw the emergence then of la génération Beur, a generation of young men and women with their own specific cultural identity at once different from that of their North African parents and from that of their peers of European descent. The term Beur expresses a bi-cultural identity experienced as either plenitude - both Arab and French and belonging to both cultures - or as alienation neither French nor Arab and belonging fully to neither culture. I shall return to this idea later.
The term Beur itself does, in fact, mean Arabe and is an example of a form of slang known as le verlan. Le verlan is based on inversion of the letters of a word or of its syllables. For example the word femme becomes would become meuf and the word café would become féca and so on.
The Beurs are children of North African immigrants (primarily Algerian but also Tunisian and Moroccan) who were born in France or who have spent most of their life in France. Many, if not the majority, are the children or even grandchildren of the North African immigrants who settled in France during the economic boom years of les trente glorieuses. The term Beur then, designates a second- or third-generation Maghrebian. By dint of being born on French soil or by a colonial situation which recognized Algeria as part of France, Beurs hold French nationality (people born before 1962 were not automatically accorded French nationality but had to request it). More important still, they have been educated within the French school system, the main agent of assimilation since the early days of the Third Republic (1870-1940) where boys and girls traditionally `learnt' to become French men and women.
The term Beur does signify a crucial difference, serving to stress the gap between a younger generation born in France of North African origin and their parents. This cultural difference or separation from culture of the parents is a defining characteristic of the Beur generation as the following extract from Leïla Sebbar's novel Parle mon fils parle à ta mère suggests:
Je sais pas pourquoi ils disent Radio Beur, pourquoi ça beur, c'est le beurre des Français qu'on mange sur le pain? Je comprends pas. Pour la couleur? Ils sont pas comme ça, c'est pas la couleur des Arabes ... Les jeunes savent, moi je ne sais pas, j'ose pas demander ... Peut-être c'est le Pays ... El Ber, chez nous en arabe ça veut dire le pays tu le sais, mon fils, c'est ça ou non? - Le fils apprit à la mère que le mot Beur avait été fabriqué à partir du mot Arabe, à l'envers. Il eut du mal à la convaincre que Arabe à l'envers, en partant de la dernière syllabe, donnait Beur; où étaient passés les a, on ne les entendait plus alors qu'il y en avait deux ... Le fils ajouta que Beur n'avait rien à voir avec le mot pays. On disait aussi Rebeu pour Arabe ... là il n'y avait plus de a et à l'envers, on obtenait facilement Beur. Elle ne croyait pas qu'on retrouvait pas le pays dans Beur ...
Leïla Sebbar, Parle mon fils parle à ta mère (pp.27-28)
Quite apart from the ethnic specificity of les Beurs, it should be added that for many the term Beur has clear class connotations. For the writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, originally from Morocco but now settled in France, the term Beur designates a particular class of socially excluded and second- generation Maghrebian occupying the troubled banlieues chaudes:
... `beur' est quelque chose de très particulier. Ce sont des enfants de ce sous-prolétariat de travailleurs immigrés et travailleurs manuels qui ont été élevés ici. ... `Beur' désigne automatiquement la banlieue, la galère, les problèmes d'insértion, etc.The term beurgeoisie has been coined to describe higher profile and more economically sucessful Beurs who do not fit into the category - or some might say the stereotype - of the unemployed banlieusard.
(quoted in Hargreaves: 1998 p.90)
It was not just events like la Marche pour l'égalité et contre le racisme that brought the Beurs to public attention. As I mentionned at the beginning of this lecture, from the early 1980s onwards, a specifically Beur culture began to emerge in France. Beur writing - in particular autobiography and autobiographical fiction - became a literary phenomena with the French publishing industry and literary reviews and television programmes all eager to give space to these new voices from France's most visible ethnic minority.
Although they are very different texts in terms of the class, ethnic, gender and generational backgrounds of their respective authors, they are all nonetheless interrogations of culture and of cultural identity. Beur writing is, above all things, about identity formation and identity politics: about what it means to French and not French, Arab and not Arab. What it means, in short, to be Beur. In many respects these texts are very similar insofar as they are all narratives of cultural confusion: of the experience of feeling split between two worlds, two classes, two nations and two languages and of a search for some form of stable cultural identity.
In some Beur novels this experience of is experienced as traumatic and disabling. Madjid, the young male protagonist of Mehdi Charef's Le thé au harem d'Archi Ahmed describes himself as `paumé [perdu] entre deux cultures, deux histoires, deux langues' (p.17). In many Beur novels a spatial opposition between ici (France) and là- bas (North Africa) is constructed with the main characters caught between the two. In Akli Tadjer's Les ANI du `Tassili' (1984), Omar, the young male protagonist takes a car ferry between Algiers and Marseilles. On board the ferry he meets a cross section of different national and social types with some involevement in the Franco-Algerian relationship (pieds noirs, immigrants, social workers etc.). Where does Omar stand in relation to these different individuals and where is he in relation to France and to Algeria. As the majority of the action takes place at sea, the suggestion is that his identity is neither in France nor in Algeria. The sense of `in-betweenness' is expressed in the titles of other Beur novels like Leïla Houari's Zeida de nulle part (1985). Indeed, the feeling of being alienated from both `homes', France and North Africa is a feature of many narratives. The experience of racism in France - a scene common to many Beur novels is of being refused admission to a nightclub - is found in much Beur writing. So too are scenes of a return to North Africa in which the young character's illusions of sharing an affinity with Maghrebian life and culture are destroyed.
The tension that drives most of the narratives of Beur writing is the conflict between cultures, or the psychological difficulties experienced by young Beurs subject to different sets of expectations:
More often than not, the Beur authors converge thematically in a shared preoccupation with the conflicts between rival cultural systems, and in particular with the difficult choices faced by those who stand astride such cultures.
(Hargreaves: 1997 p.47)
In much Beur fiction writing is conceived as an act or mode of ethnographic self-assertion insofar as it seeks to render visible occluded or misrepresented social groupings. Much Beur writing of this period set out to correct the misrepresentations of Beur experience by the media and by racist political discourse. Much of the Beur writing is writing as righting, putting the record the straight.
By the end of the 1980s and the beginnings of the 1990s the term Beur was beginning to fall out of favour with many young men and women of North African origin. Some saw the term as a construction of the French media which represented them through their own distorted neo-colonialist prism (see Hargreaves 1997: 20). Nonetheless, the term served its purpose and the génération beure gained valuable public visibility and a political platform.
- A. Begag, Le Gone du Chaâba (Paris; Seuil, 1986)
- F. Belghoul, Georgette! (Paris: Barrault, 1986)
- M. Charef, Le thé au harem d'Archi Ahmed (Paris: Gallimard, 1983)
- L. Houari, Zeida de nulle part (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1985)
- A. Kalouaz, Point kilométrique 190 (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1986)
- F. Kessas, Beur's Story (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1989)
- N. Kettane, Le Sourire du Brahim (Paris: Belfond, 1985)
- M. Lallaoui, Les Beurs de Seine (Paris: Arcantère, 1986)
- S. Nini, Ils disent que je suis une beurette (Paris: Fixot, 1993)
- A. Tadjer, Les ANI du `Tassili' (Paris: Seuil, 1984)
Overviews of la génération beure
- A.G. Hargreaves, `Language and Identity in Beur Culture' in French Cultural Studies 1 (1990) 47- 58
- A.G. Hargreaves, `The Beurgeoisie: mediation or mirage' in Journal of European Studies 27 (1998) 89- 102
- M. Laronde, `La "Mouvance beure": émergence médiatique' in The French Review 61 (1988) 684- 692
- W. Woodhull, `Exile' in Yale French Studies 82 (1993) 7-24
Critical Works on Beur Writing
- A. Begag & A. Chaouite, Écarts d'identité (Paris: Seuil, 1990)
- A.G. Hargreaves, `Beur Fiction: Voices from the Immigrant Community in France' in The French Review 62 (1989a) 661-668
- A.G. Hargreaves, `Resistance and Identity in Beur Narratives' in Modern Fiction Studies 35 (1989b) 87-102
- A.G. Hargreaves, Voices from the North African Community in France: Immigration and Identity in Beur Fiction (Oxford: Berg, 1997)
- M. Laronde, Autour du roman beur: immigration et identité (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1993)
- S. Mehrez, `Azouz Begag: un di zafas di biboufile (Azouz Begag: un des enfants du bidonville) or The Beur Writer: A Question of Territory' in Yale French Studies 82 (1993) 25-42