There is a fascinating, and exquisitely French, debate happening in France now. Second only to the vast public infrastructure projects, the grands projets, the French revere le grand dÃ©bat. Todayâ€™s debate is â€œNational Identity,â€ lâ€™IdentitÃ© Nationale. â€œWhat does it mean to be French?â€ read: can Islam be integrated into French society or not. Sarkozyâ€™s center-right UMP partyâ€™s thinly veiled strategy wants to wrest votes away from le Penâ€™s National Front and the extreme right. The forum for this debate is a website created by the Minsister of Immigration, Eric Besson, that poses the question â€œWhat does it mean to be French?â€ The French, whatever that means, are to respond to this heavily monitored site and explain just how French they are. The website has received enormous attention in the press.
The preeminent event of contemporary French politics is le Penâ€™s ascension to the runoff election in 2002 allowing the overtly corrupt Jacques Chirac to win his second term by default. The fractured Left, outraged and soundly thrashed, were faced with the painful duty of voting to the Right to save the nation from bigotry and nationalist hysteria. Immigration thenceforth became the dominant political key for the center right to keep winning elections. In anticipation of those upcoming in 2012, Sarkozy has fired the opening salvo. Only the effort has backfired. Instead of rallying voters to the center, it has stirred up the hatred and fear that fuels the far right who have cannily adopted the slogan, â€œchoose the original, not the copy.â€
More than any country in the world, France loves to debate. That is, to talk. One is reminded of this famous apocryphal saying by a mythical intellectual, â€œIt works in practice. But does it work in theory?â€ Not a factually accurate quotation by any means, but very accurate poetically in capturing the spirit of French verbosity. Whenever a single issue predominates the news in France at any given time, it is time to â€œopen the debate,â€and theyâ€™re off! Every night, dozens upon dozens of panels peopled with intellectuals, pundits and public figures of all stripes ,talk themselves into a trance. Beyond the pleasing cadence of a well-turned French sentence, my favorite piece of business in this drama is a gesture, the time-honored pairing of a shrug and a pout, melting into a â€œOui mais vous savezâ€¦â€ (Yes, well, you knowâ€¦), Or, â€œEcoutezâ€¦â€ (Listenâ€¦), the way every American pundit launches into his argument with the more practical, and therefore American, â€œLookâ€¦â€
Just as Le Penâ€™s triumph of 2002 forever shifted the tectonic plates of contemporary French politics, the defining political event of modern France is the deified law of the 9th of December 1905 that separated Church from State. Enter the tender infancy of Franceâ€™s beloved laicitÃ©, secularism, and in practical terms, the ideological firmament of the French Republic itselfâ€”the apotheosis of the secular ideals of the Revolution. After the 16th century wars of religion and the Terrorâ€™s ruthless annihilation of the Catholic clergy, the specter of Islam haunts the Continent. Especially in France, which boasts a proud 5 million Muslims, the largest Muslim demographic in Europe. Consider this very telling current ideological event: in May 2009, before a France-Algeria exhibition game, in France, the French national anthem was met with deafening boos. This is by no means a new phenomenon; the same situation arose October 2008, when the Tunisian national soccer team faced off with the French national soccer team, and against Morocco in 2007. In a grim irony, the French team being booed is dominated by Frenchmen issued from the former colonies, including many from Muslim North Africa.
Whose side are you on Muslims? Are you French or are you Algerian? Can one be both? I am an American who grew up in France. I am also an immigrant. If I celebrate Thanksgiving is the Minister of Immigration Eric Besson going to give me a stern talking to? The very idea is of course laughable. The immigration â€œproblemâ€ is not that of white Christians. France, the nursery of Human Rights and the values of the Enlightenment is tolerates everything but intolerance. The Jewish Question of yore is now â€œthe problem of Islam.â€ The spectre of Colonialism haunts the Continent, heralding the era of what is essentially Franceâ€™s version of the American Civil Rights movement of the 60s. The anti-colonial uprisings of that era have now moved to the home country.
Face to face with this very palpable racism the dispossessed French youth of the notorious banlieuesâ€™ identification with the old country is not particularly sincere. These angry young men are only connected to their cultural origins by abstraction and family traditions. Allegiance to Algeria over France, however, serves as a very effective vehicle to carry on the robust legacy of French revolutionary politicsâ€”Ã©pater le bourgeois. Or as the staunchly political rappers of France might put it: foutre le feu (set the place on fire.) In short: Eat the Rich. What could be more French than that? The French, that is, the Right, stubbornly insist that they live in an egalitarian democracy, that affirmative action, or as they so tellingly put it: â€œpositive discriminationâ€ has no place in a republic. Another thing has no place: the veil. And now, the burqa. Segue the fear soundtrack.
It hearkens back to the 2004 law against the veil, which I support. Letâ€™s be very clear how the two laws are different. France is a republic, that is to say, secular. The United States is not. We need not go into the importance of an American candidate to assert his Christian values in order to get elected. In France, the State is the embodiment of egalitarian politics and, in accordance with the separation of Church and State, is separate from religion. Religion is not taught in public schools and it is excluded from affairs of state. In America we want to have it both ways. So, in France, you canâ€™t go into a courtroom dressed head to toe in a burqa, or wearing a veil, or decked out in Hasidic dress, or appearing in a Greek Orthodox, vaguely star wars-esque costume. Ostentatious displays of religion in government buildings, that is to say, schools, are banned. It is an idea totally incomprehensible to Americans. And yet that is what State-Church separation means. The law against the burqa, however, and this is what is so radical, outlaws the garment in public, on the street, at the office. Itâ€™s a scandal. Whatâ€™s more, itâ€™s infantile. Everyone understands reverse psychology. This law will accomplish exactly the opposite of what it aims to do and arm fundamentalist imams who prey on the disenfranchised youth of the citÃ©s. Or is it actually exactly what the Right wants? To stir up hatred and then to prove to the terrified French public that they can trust the centrist UMP over the far-right National Front to handle the â€œproblemâ€ of immigration.
Strolling through Chinatown one spring afternoon last year, I saw the extreme-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders patrolling the area flanked by his security detail. I called out â€œHey Geert! Welcome to America!â€ He was in a state of shock that anyone this side of the pool had noticed a public figure from this discreet Northern country. The incongruity of this avowed racist transplanted into this Hong-Kong-in-the-New-World was truly a day-maker for me. He could barely muster a puzzled smile and a puzzled departure. My impulsive greeting, as a person completely disconnected from Dutch politics, speaks to how this figure has acquired something of an international reputation on the world stage as a canny fearmonger and rising political star, Ã la the late Austrian Jorg Haider, or a young Jean-Marie le Pen. Coiffed in a shock of flaxen hair, he caused a stir for producing an infamous documentary excoriating Islam, Fitna, Arabic for “test of faith in times of trial”. Filmed in the aftermath of the equally polemical Submission, released by Theo van Gogh, subsequently stabbed by an Islamic radical in an Amsterdam street in 2004.
Wilders must have been horrified at this brazen ghetto of foreign nationals, or most likely, illegals, completely disconnected from traditional white, America. Again, doom music. Here, the old Chinese lady carrying twin garbage bags of cans with a stick across her back. See her trudging through the streets, streets thronging with the atonal dissonances of varying Cantonese dialects. There, a fishmonger selling turtles and sharks. Oh, hello, a fish flapping wildly in his death throes! A garbage can filled with frogs. â€œHandba? Handba? Handba?â€ â€œwatches watches watches good price.â€ In short, a fun, colorful neighborhood right? No, says Geert Wilders. This is not Republican assimilation under the trinity of human rights, secularism, and egalitarian politics. This is treasonous rejection of democratic values, or as the French call it, communautarisme, a bad word.
Take New York for example, a case in point of so-called communitarianism. The cultural mosaic of the metropolis of New York is defined by its sections of isolated cultural identities; Chinatown, Koreatown, Russian Bay Ridge, Italian (Mafia) Bensunhurst. Formerly, the Irish Five Points, Kleindeutschland around Thompkins Square Park, the Jewish Lower East Side. In a Republic, say the French, this is bad, or rather, undemocratic. But Paris follows exactly the same pattern: The Kurdish Gare du Nord, Chinese Belleville, Black and Arab BarbÃ¨s, the Jewish Sentier. Bad! Bad, bad, bad. In their view, the very idea of a Republic demands acceptance of the values and laws of said Republic. We are all French. French liberals, gauche caviar oblige, allow that one can be first French, Moroccan second. But both sides agree that if not French first, democracy is in peril.
The perfect example is the veil. A simple syllogism: public schools are secular. Visible displays of religion are not. Ergo, the veil is not allowed in public school. Period. You either cheer for the French team or you cheer for Algeria. You are not Franco-Algerian. In America, on the other hand, not a quarter hour of conversation goes by in social circles without an allusion to our ethnic heritage, that we come from hearty Scotch-Irish stock, or an old Mayflower dynasty, Eastern European Jews, wretched Sicilian peasants. â€œGive me your poor, your tired, your huddled massesâ€¦â€
Or, more vulgarly, the old gag:
â€œDo you have any Irish in you?â€
â€œWould you like some?â€
When the trumpets sounded Barack Hussein Obamaâ€™s triumph, a post-racial America was proclaimed. A year later, buckling under the loss of the supermajority we have become a little less credulous. Bipartisanship, or the naÃ¯ve belief that Left and Right have become antiquated concepts, has cost Obama a seismic defeat. As for the so-called â€œpost-racial Americaâ€ the race card is played more fiercely than ever. But it would be foolish to ignore the gains weâ€™ve made since the Civil Rights movement. 50 years later, France is entering its own Civil Rights movement. The impotent French Left fails to grasp the extraordinary potential to seize this debate in their favor. But the cries of hate stoke the black magic of conflict; the fiendish, reptilian addiction to exacting street justice against the sacrificial scapegoat. This pagan human sacrifice to the Nation unites the Nation in its hatred of the Other. It reminds me of the Lenny Bruce bit, â€œLet us all band together brothers and sisters, and unite, against the Greeks!â€
French President Nicolas Sarkozy with caption: â€œVote [far right National Front Party leader] Le Penâ€