19 December 2009

So French

The French are currently engaged in a great debate — over whether to engage in a great debate. So far, the “Shut Up and Move On” contingent has the force of numbers behind it, according to a poll this week in the Nouvel Observateur magazine, but the “Let’s Keep Debating (Until Legislative Elections in March)” contingent has behind it the force of the President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and so onward we debate, whether the conversation does us any good or serves merely to drive us farther apart.

The subject is “l’identité nationale,” or what it really means to be French. On strictly legal grounds, the answer is simple: you’re either a native or a naturalized citizen, or else you’re not French. But that leaves out a lot of people (such as this writer), and it begs such questions as whether one can be taught to be French, and what the French state can reasonably expect from those who live here. At the moment, the government is scrutinizing displays of non-Christian faith, in particularly the Muslim veil in all its forms, and it’s a telling discussion.

For one thing, the separation of church and state has been the law of this land since 1905. (There were parties to celebrate the centennial.) Is it really within the government’s purview to ban, to permit, or even to question traditions of faith? And we had hardly begun to discuss the veil before we felt the shock, shock of remembering that many French Jews wear head coverings, too. If a Muslim woman can’t wear a veil, can a Jewish man continue to wear a yarmulke? And don’t Catholic nuns wear veils? Ooops. This is more complex than we thought, isn’t it?

Sarkozy: A soupçon of debate never hurt anybody, n’est-ce pas?

The debate wasn’t intended to round up the Jews (been there, done that), or even to touch them; neither was it intended to revive the anti-clerical measures of the Reign of Terror. Supposedly, it’s a security issue: how can the police identify you if you’re wearing a burqa? Yet at its heart, the present debate really asks “what to do” with the 5 million Muslims who live here. It’s a nasty question — neither Sarkozy nor any member of his government has phrased it this way — but a significant number of French people hear it clearly.

For among the French, in certain quarters, there’s a widespread mistrust of, and in some cases hostility toward, Muslims. We know who feels this way: in the Nouvel Obs poll, the oldest and the least educated registered the strongest support for the debate, which in turn legitimizes the expression of sentiments that, in a civil society, might better be kept quiet. A wave of terrorism in the 1990s, followed by 9/11 and the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran exacerbated the mistrust. These factors ostensibly elevate the debate now to a question of national security.

In turn, fears are growing (with cause) that some of these expressions of hostility will take the ugliest possible forms, from insults to desecration of mosques to ad hominem violence. And none of this — absolutely none of it — does anything to facilitate the integration of a vast population who are indeed French citizens, yet do not enjoy the rights, privileges and esteem that every other Frenchman takes for granted.

Villepin: Stop!

Among those calling for an immediate end to the debate are Dominique de Villepin, the former prime minister and Sarkozy’s onetime rival on the center-right; the entire Socialist Party, the principal opposition party; an assortment of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders; and an impressive majority of those surveyed in the Nouvel Obs poll.

Fat chance that Sarkozy will listen — to Villepin, who may have engineered an attempt to frame him in a criminal scam a few years ago; to the Socialists, who needless to say do not have his best interests at heart; or to anyone else. He’s hoping to attract voters on the far right, especially those who might otherwise vote for the Front National. He’s been down this path before, and to appeal to the FN voters he covets, he has several times adopted stances that — more implicitly than explicitly — indicate that he’s as nationalistic, as anti-immigration, and as racist as they tend to be.

Security risk? Sarkozy with an Immigrant

It’s anybody’s guess why Sarkozy, a man whose own heritage is Hungarian (and in part Jewish), and whose wife is herself an immigrant (from Italy), seeks to broaden his base with this segment of the electorate. Does he really think he can reform them from within, or channel their fear and rage toward constructive ends? Or is it really about getting the biggest parliamentary majority possible? As I say, it’s no coincidence that Sarkozy’s immigration minister, Eric Besson, is expected to deliver his report on the debate just ahead of the legislative elections.

In a purely philosophical context — of a kind which does not exist in politics and government — there is much to be said for asking, “Who are we? What makes us who we are?” Some of my favorite works by Henry James and Mark Twain address what it means to be an American, and I daresay I’m a better person for having considered the question under their tutelage. France, predicated on geographical grounds, and only later devising political and philosophical reasons to exist as a nation, might profitably indulge in some self-examination — that is, if it were more honest than the debate Sarkozy has launched.

Waxing Philosophical: Sarkozy, with a friend,
engages in his favorite kind of debate.

TOMORROW: Are you French? A handy checklist will let you know.

No comments: