Joshua ColeMar 17, 2021
The Constantine Murders and the Politics of French Algeria
Cornell University Press 2019
Joshua Cole's Lethal Provocation: The Constantine Murders and the Politics of French Algeria (Cornell University Press, 2019) appeals to a few of the different readers in my head: the one who admires a critical history interrogating archival evidence, narrative, and categories of identity; the one who enjoys a localized story that illuminates a much broader context and set of themes; and the one who is completely fascinated by a mystery.
Examining a brief, but powerful, episode of political violence in Constantine in August 1934 that resulted in the deaths of 25 Jews and 3 Muslims, the book reveals fissures within colonial society in Algeria that French authorities had a vested interest in provoking and nurturing. The particular conflict that pitted Muslims against Jews with such intensity over the course of a few days during the interwar period gave the French state an opportunity to fuel tensions between these communities in order to resist political reforms extending key rights of citizenship to Muslims in Algeria.
The book also makes the compelling case that a particular figure, Mohamed El Maadi, a Muslim Algerian who served in the French military and developed ties to extreme-right politics, played a key role in the conflict, including planning and participating in the murders. Beyond the revelation of a principal culprit during the episode, Lethal Provocation also tracks the ways the French authorities, including the police and other segments of the colonial state refused to understand the riots and murders as anything other than the expression of an inherent and essential rift between Jews and Muslims. Reframing the Constantine murders, a tragic and violent set of events that took place in 1930s Algeria, the book also makes clear that the riots are/were also an episode of a very French history.
Roxanne Panchasi is an Associate Professor of History at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada who specializes in twentieth and twenty-first century France and its empire. If you have a recent title to suggest for the podcast, please send her an email (firstname.lastname@example.org).