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France's identity crisis: seeds of change

The traumatic attacks in Paris provoked agonised public debate. But to be productive this needs to range more deeply through France's colonial history and modern society. 

Francis Ghilès
5 February 2015

France has had long experience of responding to political convulsions with a bout of self-examination. In 1815, in the wake of Napoleon’s final defeat, it began to search its soul about its loss of dominance in Europe. But it remained proud of its culture and society, and though constrained by the Treaty of Vienna it decided, in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, to look beyond Europe to project its “grandeur”; hence its conquest of Algeria in 1830.

If 1815 was one turning-point, as dominance in Europe passed to Britain, others were to follow: 1870 and defeat by Germany, 1940 and a more thorough German military conquest, 1944-45 and the arrival of American popular culture (which was to replace the British empire as the bugbear of many French politicians and intellectuals), 1989 and a painful encounter with globalisation.

France's latest effort to come to terms with a deep change in the political environment has now spanned the generation since the cold war ended. The country's confidence in its ability to reform its economy and create more jobs for its permanently large pool of unemployed has been waning for years - hence the departure from France of thousands of bright young professionals to the United Kingdom, Germany, north America and Asia. At the same time, what it sees as its unique culture has been badly shaken. Moreover, no towering political figure has emerged of the stature of General de Gaulle, able to emulate what he achieved in 1945 and again in 1962: in effect to create a new founding myth of the modern nation. 

In this broad context, particular moments of violence and conflict act to illuminate France's struggle with itself. The latest is the ferocious assault on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015, and later on a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris, leading to the death of seventeen innocents and a national trauma. These events took place against a background of profound anxieties afflicting France today: of creeping Islamisation, rising anti-semitism, and economic stagnation, as well as of growing resentment of European neighbours (not least Germany) who seem to be consistently doing better than France. France continues to mourn the loss of its former glory, and to find distasteful many aspects of the post-1990s world. Its last three presidents have been incapable of articulating a new identity for their country, its public intellectuals (such as Bernard Henri-Lévy and the newly fashionable Éric Zemmour) are equally of far less merit than the likes of Raymond Aron and Albert Camus.

Thus the Paris murders amplified an existing sense of collective crisis about the state of France, its national identity, and specifically the impact of the country's 7 million Muslims on its core republican values. But they also provoked a show of unity unprecedented since the victory parades of 1945. This double reaction shows that if France is not about to collapse, its leaders and citizens must ask themselves some hard questions.

The mental traps

In attempting to analyse the issues, France is caught in the polarity between the (allegedly) rational views of the left and the irrational views of the extreme right. The traditionally secular anti-religious agenda of the left has mutated into a public discourse on identity, while the anti-immigration obsession of the Front National has become part of the mainstream debate. The FN leader Marine Le Pen has shifted from the anti-semitic rhetoric of her father (who notoriously said that gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps were a “detail" of history) to an anti-Muslim discourse which suits the European far-right’s new agenda. Both sides have come to secure equal space as contributors to the national conversation about multiculturalism, yet neither can say how France will hold together in future.

France’s political leaders, again both left and right, no longer know which fence they are sitting on, their own or that of their opponents. For example, François Hollande sought to dissuade Binyamin Netanyahu from coming to Paris to join the massive "solidarity" march through Paris, even as France's prime minister Manuel Valls was encouraging his Israeli counterpart to attend. Meanwhile, Hollande's predecessor in the Élysée palace, Nicolas Sarkozy, proclaimed on television that he would seek to meet with leaders of the Muslim community, such as the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman of the Grande Mosquée de Paris. Such organisations tend to represent nobody but themselves and carry no weight in local communities: the Grande Mosquée's rector, Dalil Boubakeur, is an Algerian stooge, others are Moroccan or Saudi stooges. Indeed, there is no such thing as a Muslim community except in the fevered imagination of terrorists, some politicians and certain media figures.

But French intellectuals too can find no solid ground. Several argue that terrorism is the inevitable and extreme expression of a “true” Islam which entails the denial of the "other", the imposition of strict rules in the guise of shari’a law and ultimately jihad; even, as the lucid analyst Olivier Roy characterises their view, that embedded in the subconscious of Muslims in France is a Qu'ranic software which renders them incapable of assimilation into French society. In face of this threat, such intellectuals find salvation only in repetitive allegiance to France’s republican values.

The politicians and "talking heads" alike seem quickly to have forgotten the revolts against Arab dictators in 2011, with young people and liberal, cosmopolitan ideas in the vanguard - elements that hardly fit the current view that every Arab or other Muslim is defined above all by the Muslim faith. But how can 1.6 billion people spread across the globe be so "homogenised"? The Moroccan journalist Ahmed Benchemsi points out: "As long as coercion is not replaced by freedom of choice (in Arab countries), the extent to which these people can be truly identified with the Islamic faith is dubious." From this flawed assumption, so much else flows - not least the tendency to see Muslims as either misunderstood moderates (and the very expression “moderate Muslim” sounds suspiciously like the bon nègre of colonial days) or guilty of moral association with terrorists.

The historical roots

In these respects, little in France seems to have changed since the debate which followed the banlieue riots of 2005, which some observers cast in Marx-vs-Bin Laden terms. Then, apocalyptic portraits of “the first instance of semi-organised Muslim insurgency in Europe” contrasted with more prosaic arguments about teenagers deprived of hope for a good future and a decent job. (A senior French diplomat told me that the more violent rioters in Paris reminded him of young Catholics ready to join the IRA in Belfast in 1970).

Indeed, the violence as well as the stridency does seem even greater today. The murder of journalists, systematic targeting of Jews, and assaults on mosques are reaching new levels, while the factors which previously allowed successful integration of previous waves of immigrants (schools, workplaces, the Communist Party and, via compulsory military service, the army) no longer fulfil this function. Yet in other ways, current problems also express the legacy of a deeper past, and in particular the darker side of the French republic’s cherished values of secularism, freedom of speech and civil liberties.

Many of these took shape in the colonial era. The historian Arthur Asseraf shows that France’s iconic law on press freedom, passed in 1881 and still enforced, was designed in part to exclude France’s Muslim subjects. It protected the rights of all French citizens, explicitly all those in Algeria and the colonies, but excluded the majority of the population. The law is particularly interesting when viewed in its Algerian context because it targeted Muslims specifically. In colonial Algeria (officially three French départements attached to the ministry of the interior in Paris), "citizens" were all those who were not Muslims and the term "musulman" or "indigène" usually overlapped. Muslim was a racialised legal category deprived of any religious significance.

In this light, maybe the banlieues of today could be best understood as the Algeria of the 19th century. In these neglected settlements on the outskirts of Paris, more than half of young people are unemployed, separated from the workplace by a glass wall; in French prisons, young men with a father born in north Africa greatly outnumber those with a father born in France. Several surveys, conducted by the Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) and other organisations, have studied racial discrimination at work and found results that indict French companies (such as the need for young, qualified Muslims to adopt fake Christian names and identities to have a chance of getting a job, and preferably not post their letters from a banlieue). The discrimination is even worse if their parents were of Algerian origin, as opposed to Moroccan or Tunisian.

Yet the radicalised young people who attacked Charlie Hebdo in no way represent the vanguard or express the frustrations of Muslims in France. (The victims, after all, included a Muslims policeman and sub-editor). Thousands of French Muslim men and women marry non-Muslim partners every year, and the well educated hold good jobs in the civil service, police, medical services, banking and legal professions, as well as politics. Such people far outnumber those who seek solace in an imagined community of Muslims or to invent an Islam in desperate opposition to the west.

The pressing need

If violence and the threat of violence emanates from a small minority, however, the roots of France's current problems go deep. That the largest number of Jews in Europe are living alongside the largest number of Muslims makes France's situation all the more brittle. But neither Islam nor the Jewish faith are encoded in anyone’s DNA. Amartya Sen has argued that identities are multilayered, an insight that should guide French political leaders in the very necessary task of creating a new founding myth for a more diverse nation.

After 1945, the Gaullists and communists pretended that a majority of French people had resisted the Nazi occupiers and the Vichy regime. It is now accepted that this was not the case. In the same spirit of coming to terms with the truth, the recognition of some buried elements of French-north African history would be of great benefit: for example, the intimacy of Muslims and Jews in French Algeria, including at times of great anti-semitism from the French population, the support of Morocco's King Mohammed V for his Jewish subjects in 1940-42, the way that Tunisian landowners hid thousands of Jews on their farms when Rommel's forces were retreating after defeat at El Alamein (and who are are little recalled, even at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem). As in any recasting of identity, France’s will have to open itself both to troubled and accommodating aspects of its history with respect to the "others" who became, or are in the process of becoming, its citizens. 

Civil liberties were idealised in a republic which did not always respect them. Today they are universal, and not specifically French. Yes, freedom of speech must be defended, but the real challenge for France is to sustain the solidarity shown in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo and supermarket attacks. French minorities, not only Muslims, must be encouraged to preserve whatever identity they embrace, but equally to pass through the glass walls (and ceilings) which have surrounded them for so long.

Above all, French leaders must invent a new identity for their country that builds on its vibrant culture yet accepts the modern world. They must dare to undertake bold economic reforms which offer jobs to young people. This new identity will take decades to build but if the enterprise fails, the future of one of the two founders of modern Europe looks bleak indeed. And a failure in France could spell failure for democratisation in north Africa. The stakes have never been so high.

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