The Problem with Frenchness
Readers have asked me for comment about the riots in France that have now provoked emergency laws and a curfew. What I would rather comment on, however, is the myths that have governed many rightwing American comments on the tragic events. Actually, I can only think that the disturbances must produce a huge ice cream headache for the dittoheads. French of European heritage pitted against French of African and North African heritage? How could they ever pick a side?
I should begin by saying how much these events sadden me and fill me with anguish. I grew up in part in France (7 years of my childhood in two different periods) and have long been in love with the place, and the people. We visited this past June for a magical week. And, of course, I’ve been to Morocco and Tunisia and Senegal, and so have a sense of the other side in all this; I rather like all those places, too. How sad, to see all this violence and rancor. I hope Paris and France more generally can get through these tough times and begin working on the underlying problems soon. At this time of a crisis in globalization in the wake of the Cold War, we need Paris to be a dynamic exemplar of problem-solving on this front.
The French have determinedly avoided multiculturalism or affirmative action. They have insisted that everyone is French together and on a “color-blind” set of policies. “Color-blind” policies based on “merit” always seem to benefit some groups more than others, despite a rhetoric of equality and achievement. In order to resolve the problems they face, the French will have to come to terms with the multi-cultural character of contemporary society. And they will have to find ways of actively sharing jobs with minority populations, who often suffer from an unemployment rate as high as 40 percent (i.e. Iraq).
Mark Steyn of the Chicago Sun-Times commits most of the gross errors, factual and ethical, that characterize the discourse of the Right in the US on such matters.
For instance, Steyn complains that the rioters have been referred to as “French youths.”
”French youths,” huh? You mean Pierre and Jacques and Marcel and Alphonse? Granted that most of the “youths” are technically citizens of the French Republic, it doesn’t take much time in les banlieus of Paris to discover that the rioters do not think of their primary identity as ”French”: They’re young men from North Africa growing ever more estranged from the broader community with each passing year and wedded ever more intensely to an assertive Muslim identity more implacable than anything you’re likely to find in the Middle East. After four somnolent years, it turns out finally that there really is an explosive ”Arab street,” but it’s in Clichy-sous-Bois.
This paragraph is the biggest load of manure to hit the print media since Michael Brown (later of FEMA) and his Arabian Horse Society were profiled in Arabian Horse Times.
The French youth who are burning automobiles are as French as Jennifer Lopez and Christopher Walken are American. Perhaps the Steyns came before the Revolutionary War, but a very large number of us have not. [Actually Steyn is Canadian and if he lives in the US he is either an alien or . . . an immigrant!] The US brings 10 million immigrants every decade and one in 10 Americans is now foreign-born. Their children, born and bred here, have never known another home. All US citizens are Americans, including the present governor of California. “The immigrant” is always a political category. Proud Californio families (think “Zorro”) who can trace themselves back to the 18th century Spanish empire in California are often coded as “Mexican immigrants” by “white” Californians whose parents were Okies.
A lot of the persons living in the urban outer cities (a better translation of cite than “suburb”) are from subsaharan Africa. And there are lots of Eastern European immigrants. The riots were sparked by the deaths of African youths, not Muslims. Singling out the persons of Muslim heritage is just a form of bigotry. Moreover, French youth of European heritage rioted quite extensively in 1968. As they had in 1789. Rioting in the streets is not a foreign custom. It has a French genealogy and context.
The young people from North African societies such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are mostly only nominal Muslims. They frequently do not speak much Arabic, and don’t have “proper” French, either. They frequently do not know much about Islam and most of them certainly don’t practice it– much less being more virulent about it than Middle Easterners.
Aware of their in-between-ness, young persons of North African heritage in France developed a distinctive identity. They took the word Arabe and scrambled it to produce Beur (which sounds in French like the word for “butter”). Beur culture can be compared a bit to hip-hop as a form of urban expression of marginality and self-assertion in a racist society. It is mostly secular.
Another thing that is wrong with Steyn’s execrable paragraph is that it assumes an echt “Frenchness” that is startling in a post-Holocaust thinker. There are no pure “nations” folks. I mean, first of all, what is now France had a lot of different populations in it even in the 18th century– Bretons (speakers of a Celtic language related to Welsh and Gaelic), Basques, Alsatians (German speakers), Provencale people in the south, Jews, etc., etc. “Multi-culturalism” is not something new in Europe. What was new was the Romantic nationalist conviction that there are “pure” “nations” based on “blood.” It was among the more monstrous mistakes in history. Of course if, according to this essentially racist way of thinking, there are “pure” nations that have Gypsies, Jews and others living among them, then the others might have to be “cleansed” to restore the “purity.”
Yet another problem: France has for some time been a capitalist country with a relatively strong economy. Such economies attract workers. There have been massive labor immigration flows into France all along. In the early 20th century Poles came to work in the coal mines, and then more came in the inter-war period. By the beginning of the Great Depression, there were half a million Polish immigrants in France. Their numbers declined slightly in the next few years. There were even more Italians. There isn’t anything peculiar about having large numbers of immigrants who came for work. And, few in France in the early 20th century thought that Poles were susceptible of integration into French society. Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy, who has made himself unpopular by exacerbating tensions with intemperate language, is the son of immigrants (I guess he does not count as “French” according to Steyn’s criteria.)
Steyn wants to create a 1300-year struggle between Catholic France and the Muslims going back to Tours. This way of thinking is downright silly. France in the 19th century was a notorious ally of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, and fought alongside Muslims against the Christian Russians in the Crimean War. Among contemporary French, 40 percent do not even believe in God, and less than 20 percent go to mass at all regularly. Many of the French of non-European heritage are also not religious.
The French repaid the compliment of Tours by conquering much of the Middle East. Bonaparte aggressively and viciously invaded Egypt in 1798, but couldn’t hold on there. But in 1830 the French invaded Algeria and incorporated it into France. Algeria was “French soil.” They reduced the Algerian population (which they brutalized and exploited) to marginal people under the colonial thumb. The French government of Algeria allowed hundreds of thousands to perish of famine in the 1870s. After World War II, given low French birth rates and a dynamic capitalist economy, the French began importing Algerian menial labor. The resulting Beurs are no more incapable of “integrating” into France than the Poles or Jews were.
So it wasn’t the Algerians who came and got France. France had come and gotten the Algerians, beginning with Charles X and then the July Monarchy. They settled a million rather rowdy French, Italians and Maltese in Algeria. These persons rioted a lot in the early 1960s as it became apparent that Algeria would get its independence (1962). In fact, European settler colonists or “immigrants” have caused far more trouble in the Middle East than vice versa.
The kind of riots we are seeing in France also have occurred in US cities (they sent Detroit into a tailspin from 1967). They are always produced by racial segregation, racist discrimination, spectacular unemployment, and lack of access to the mainstream economy. The problems were broached by award-winning French author Tahar Ben Jalloun in his French Hospitality decades ago.
(Americans who code themselves as “white” are often surprised to discover that “white people” created the inner cities here by zoning them for settlement by racial “minorities,” excluding the minorities from the nicer parts of the cities and from suburbs. As late as the 1960s, many European-Americans were willing to sign a “covenant” not to sell their houses to an African-American, Chinese-American or a Jewish American. In fact, in the US, the suburbs were built, most often with de facto government subsidies in the form of highways and other perquisites, as an explicit means of racial segregation. Spatial segregation protected “white” businesses from competition from minority entrepreneurs, who couldn’t open shops outside their ghettos. In France, government inputs were used to create “outer cities,” but many of the same forces were at work.) The French do not have Jim Crow laws, but de facto residential segregation is a widespread and intractable problem.
The problem is economic and having to do with economic and residential exclusionism, not with an “unassimilable” “immigrant” minority. (The French authorites deported a lot of Poles in the 1930s for making trouble by trying to unionize and strike, on the grounds that they were an unassimilable Slavic minority.)
On the other hand, would it be possible for the French Muslim youth to be pushed toward religious extremism if the French government does not address the underlying problems. Sure. That was what I was alluding to in my posting last week.
The solution? Recognizing that “Frenchness” is not monochrome, that France is a tapestry of cultures and always has been, and that sometimes some threads of the tapestry need some extra attention if it is not to fray and come apart.