French Without Tears

March 1, 2005 Topics: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: EthnocentrismSlaverySociology

French Without Tears

Mini Teaser: Cet animal est très méchant; quand on l'attaque, il se défend. Quelquefois.

by Author(s): Martin Walker

"We refused to establish a link between the terrorist networks and the Iraqi regime, and in the absence of a prospect of peace in the Middle East, we feared that violence in Iraq would only intensify the resentment and anger", is one part of Villepin's explanation in The Shark and The Seagull. France could simply not go along with the broad approach of the Bush Administration to the Arab world. Villepin goes on:

"But the misunderstandings proceeded less from such recent events than from much deeper historical roots. Against France, heir of the pragmatism of Cardinal Richelieu, supporter of a system of interstate relations based on custom, on the transaction and exploitation of national interests, the United States affirmed its power and refused to share it. For the Americans, any agreement would be seen in one way or another as a compromise. In the concert of nations, the United States saw its place only as conducting the orchestra."

Chirac contre Bush has the French president in that crucial two-week period recalling his days as a young officer in the doomed war to keep Algeria French and what he saw as the new danger of the Iraq War unleashing a clash of civilizations with Islam. Something else that lay heavily on Chirac's mind was the new Bush Doctrine that justified preventive war and the heady rhetoric from Washington of "regime change" in Iraq as part of a broader ambition to democratize the Middle East.

"If we want to intervene in order to change countries' political systems, then we're in another civilization", Chirac told the New York Times in an interview on September 8, 2002.

"Or in any case, we're not in a civilization organized like today's. I think such speculation is very dangerous, very dangerous indeed. You get started and you have no idea where you will end up. And think of the reaction on the street, among the people. If, for example, you want to change the monarchy in Morocco or Jordan, you'll have a lot of trouble with the people of those countries."

In that same interview, Chirac spoke of another matter on his mind, which may have had some bearing on his decision to back out of the war.

"We have about four million Muslims in France. Many of them are French nationals, a few are foreign, mostly from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia--i.e., essentially North African--with a few from Black Africa. But they are perfectly integrated in France and practice their Muslim faith undisturbed, when they practice at all. We have no Muslim problem, and we are making an effort not to have one. We have other problems, because we have some rough neighborhoods. In those neighborhoods, there are many young people whom we call beurs, whose families come from Arab countries; we also have many social problems that have not been effectively dealt with. But we have no concerns as far as terrorism is concerned, although of course, we have been victims of terrorism in the past. Islam doesn't worry us, per se; what worries us are Islamic terrorist networks from abroad. That's different."

That interview was given just four months after Chirac had been re-elected with a massive 85 percent of the vote against the National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, in an election in which French Muslims had played an important role. Chirac's complacency about the French Muslim population was also about to be rocked by the success of the radicals in the first elections for France's new national council of Muslims, when the French state thought it had arranged matters to ensure the safe old moderates would win. Surprisingly, the role of French Muslims (and most observers who include illegal immigrants reckon the number is more like six million than Chirac's four million) barely figures in any of the current books under review. Cogan has one reference, but it is striking:

"Multiculturalism is seen as an American disease and not as a French one, although this assertion is sometimes contradicted by facts on the ground--for example, there are certain sections of Marseilles that are de facto off-limits to non-Maghrebians."

That is putting it mildly. There are sections of almost every French city that are intensely Arab, and one reason why Sarkozy became so popular as interior minister was his announcement that there would be no more "no-go areas" for the French police, and he set up the special squads of riot police, gendarmes and customs agents to invade and bring the ruling gang leaders, or caids, to book. In an interview with Le Figaro in September 2003, he announced a tough new policy for visiting Muslims seeking to radicalize their French brethren:

"No one should expect any weakness from me. Mosques where extremist Islam is preached will be closed. Imams who give radical sermons will be expelled. And people coming to conferences who don't show proof of respect for republican rules will find themselves systematically denied visas to enter France."

Sarkozy, whose career seemed to have stalled in the 1990s, has now become the most popular, and also the most exciting, politician in France. Moved to the Finance Ministry after his impressive time as interior minister, he was again successful, blending almost Anglo-Saxon rhetoric about the free market with a traditional French regard for government intervention and bailing out of national champions. Chirac once saw Sarkozy as an adoptive son (not least when Sarkozy dated Chirac's daughter), but then Sarkozy jumped aboard the political bandwagon of a now almost forgotten technocrat named Edouard Balladur, and Chirac never forgives a slight. Sarkozy has now taken over the leadership of Chirac's ump party (now the letters stand for Union for a Popular Majority, but it was formed as the Union for a Presidential Majority), although Chirac insisted he give up his ministry and seat in the cabinet to do so. The stage seems set for a battle between the two men to win the presidential nomination in 2007, although Chirac may fight by proxy, with Villepin as his champion. Either way, one probable motive for Chirac is to secure a presidential pardon, or to continue using his presidential immunity to avoid any prospect of criminal prosecution over alleged bribes while he was mayor of Paris.

Characteristically, Sarkozy staged a very American kind of political spectacular for his investiture as head of the UMP, in a vast hangar at Le Bourget Airport decked out to resemble Bush's Republican convention arena in New York. Chirac chose not to attend (and made some waspish remarks about the reputed cost of $6 million), but 40,000 of the party faithful turned up to hear Sarkozy promise a new era for France and cheer him to the echo. As he told them,

"France is not nostalgia, a past that we venerate the better to forget the disappointments of a less glorious future. France is not a museum or an amusement park for tourists. It is not condemned to decline. It must reconquer its future . . . . To all those of you who came here today in the hope that things will change, I say to you that you will not be disappointed--they will change. France doesn't fear change; it is waiting for it."

Sarkozy has now produced a book, which translates as "The Republic, Religions and Hope", that seeks to address the issue of Muslims in France, which many voters put at the top of their concerns. It is a thin volume of 180 pages, mostly conversations with philosopher Philippe Verdin, but it is revolutionary by French standards in that it calls for an end to the 1905 law that established France as a secular republic, separating the state from religion. If the state can subsidize sports and culture clubs, Sarkozy asks, why not churches?

Religion is a quality essential to civilization and morality, Sarkozy insists (an unusual stance to take in what is fast becoming post-Christian Europe). "The moral dimension is most solid, most deeply rooted, when it proceeds from a spiritual or religious engagement, rather than when it seeks its source in political discussion or republican morality." Only religion can define and assert the moral absolutes that a just and self-confident society requires, he argues, adding that it is a weakness of the French state that it lacks this moral dimension. In a France whose schoolchildren are still inculcated daily with "republican virtues", and where the American political process is mocked for the power of religious groups and the prevalence of religious rhetoric, this is bold stuff. But Sarkozy is clear: "the Republic does not recognize the distinction between good and evil. She defends rules, the law, without grounding these in a moral order."

Religion is thus too important to be left to the faithful. The state is entitled to get involved, particularly with a relatively new religion (in France) like Islam. So Sarkozy wants to provide state funds to bring mosques out of the underground garages where extremists can fester, and into the open where the state can help train and set conditions for the imams. "What is dangerous is not minarets, but caves and garages that keep clandestine religious groups hidden", Sarkozy argues, but insists, "I don't want any more imams who don't speak a word of French."

Essay Types: Book Review