Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Thinking About France

The New Republic this week is just about all-France, all the time, with long and thoughtful pieces by Paul Berman, Keelin McDonell, and David A. Bell. Berman's essay digs deep into French anti-American literature . . . and the French literature on French anti-American literature. He makes some fine observations, especially in the last part of the essay, when he makes use of a recent book by Andre Glucksmann to discuss parallels between anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny. Like most things Berman writes, even if you can't swallow his grand conceptual synthesis, the details are fascinating.

The Bell essay is also very rewarding, and very pertinent to events in France over the last month or so. His basic thesis is that France's "republican model of integration," which was really an unheralded success for several generations, has over the past 40 years irreparably broken down. This is something of a great loss, in Bell's telling--rather than approaching the pluralism of modern life through policies of (as James Forsyth, in another TNR article, put it) British or Dutch-style liberal or "laissez-faire" multiculturalism, France had shown the value of placing an "unyielding emphasis on universal, enlightenment values" in the education of its citizens. Becoming French had nothing to do with addressing, balancing out, or even acknowledging, racial or religious or ethnic grievances (that's why France famously refused to even gather ethnic data on its citizens); rather, it had everything to do with embracing French language, civilization, and history as steps on the road to enlightenment. To really make that kind of republican model work, however, you have to have a faith in the Enlightenment project, and a faith in its identity with the particular civic norms being taught in the schools. In other words, it required a sense of destiny and confidence in the place on one's own project. And Bell is very clear on the consequences of the loss of that confidence by the late 1960s:

It was into this changed and diminished France--stripped of its empire, unnerved by the wars of decolonization, deprived of its traditional peasantry, and shaken in its cultural authority--which the new immigrants from Africa arrived as cheap labor. Even had they come at an earlier time, their integration would have proved far more difficult than that of Italians, Portuguese, or Jews. The cultural differences were greater, as was the sheer extent of the racial and religious prejudice against them. But, in the context of the '60s, they had hardly any chance. The French state simply no longer had the will to apply the older model of integration fully. Instead, for a time, the state held fast to the fiction that the newcomers were mere "guest workers" who would eventually return home. When it became obvious that large numbers of Arabs, Berbers, and black Africans were in France to stay, the state shunted them into bleak suburban housing projects, effectively segregating them far more radically than earlier waves of immigrants. . . . I have known several French teachers who worked in suburban lycées where North African students were the majority. Only one of them saw the assignment as a chance to follow in the footsteps of those teachers who went forth to proselytize for French civilization, and she received precious little institutional support for her beliefs. The others have endured it simply as a purgatory and counted the days until their release.

[I]n practice, [the French model] was never simply about the principle of making everyone equal within the civic sphere. It was also about genuine missionary fervor--about taking little Gascons and Normans, little colonial subjects, little Italian and Jewish immigrants, and converting them, in the full meaning of the word, into French men and women. The absence of that sort of fervor in places like Clichy-sous-Bois or Saint-Denis, where some of the worst rioting has occurred, has contributed powerfully to the alienation that has expressed itself in the recent wave of arson and destruction. The very use of the word "immigrants" for these second- and third-generation French youths is an insulting reminder of just how little attention official France has given them.

Observations like this can't help but underscore the degree to which some kind of "faith" is a necessary component in establishing the boundaries within which a free and also multicultural society can operate. If the riots in France are even remotely the result of an anger which comes from the French establishment's inability to educate and incorporate the many North African Muslims who have called France their home for decades now into the mainstream of French life--an education and incorporation which would surely require, given France's (I think admirable) commitment to the republican ideal, a rethinking of just what destiny French men and women ought to have confidence in--then I would argue that much of this year's unrest was foretold a couple of years back, in the midst of the "headscarf" controversy regarding the banning of "blatant" (which in practice meant primarily Muslim) religious garb and symbols in the country's schools. As I wrote then:

"Secularism always has been a poor tool for solidarity. One could score cheap (though perhaps justifiable) points along these lines by pointing to the abysmal lack of "solidarity" manifest during last summer's heat wave in France, in comparison to other nations which haven't severed their ties to their religious heritage quite so firmly, but far more relevant (to my mind at least) is the simple truism that religious identity is almost inevitably communal: even mystics gather in groups. Of course rival groups can lead to Balkanization, but still: religion (even when the habits of faith are 'merely' ethical or social, rather than pious, for any particular individual) directs the inner person outward, towards an engagement with others, and why would anyone want to premise their social existence on an ideal which rejects personal manifestations of that public fact? This is a lesson as old as Tocqueville's writings on civic religion, and the evidence in support of his old thesis is plentiful; it's remarkable that France, of all places, was so desperate to reject the Catholic establishment that they forgot all about the insights of their native son. No, religious communities are not necessarily 'better' communities, but an aggressively irreligious community--especially one which actually goes so far as to label, as Chirac did, individual expressions of religious faith to themselves be 'an aggression'!--is a dubious accomplishment, at best. So the fact that this particular response to one aspect of France's (and to a certain extent, all of Western Europe's) identity crisis is so popular among French citizens is doubly distressing: because it is likely a poor way to negotiate that crisis, and because it moves, I think, in the wrong direction entirely anyway."


Hellmut said...

On balance, I would agree with you that civil society models are often more successful. The United States and Britain, however, are not doing that much better with poor immigrants either.

The Dutch have probably gotten it right. We must insist that everyone subscribe to a minimum set of values. Those include freedom, equality, and tolerance. Within these parameters diversity is an asset.

Those who do not want to uphold freedom, equality, and tolerance are placing themselves outside the bounds of civilization. Not so much because they have the "wrong" values but because their values constitute a threat to the rest of us. That takes us straight back to the state of nature. A state of nature where one party can rely on the state.

By the way, witnessing the role of organized religion in United States referenda that constrain human rights, one must conclude that Chirac is not entirely wrong. Many religious expressions are an act of aggression, especially if they invoke divine authority.

Human rights would be more secure if we insisted on their universal application regardless of people's tribal interests. 

Posted by Hellmut Lotz

Anonymous said...

"One could score cheap (though perhaps justifiable) points along these lines by pointing to the abysmal lack of "solidarity" manifest during last summer's heat wave in France, in comparison to other nations which haven't severed their ties to their religious heritage quite so firmly,..."

This is a common myth of the right-wing blogosphere. You might want to check out: 'Dying Alone'

Posted by Barry