Tuesday, July 13, 2004

France's Beacon Dimmed by Racism

In his Politicus column for the International Herald Tribune this week, John Vinocur discusses hard days for La France Universelle. (Do bear in mind that one of the events discussed in the past few days has since turned out to be false.)
Tomorrow is Bastille Day, and if France still represents some kind of universal message, it is having a miserable time matching the dim wattage of its current beacon with that of its luminescent past.

If this were a country with a more circumscribed self-description of its own worth to humanity, a cheery Denmark, or an exuberant but problematic Brazil, nothing horribly cosmic might be made of France's current corrosive reality of anti-Arab racism, hundreds of no-go communities penetrated by Islamic fundamentalism, or anti-Semitism that has gotten out of hand. But France defines itself, with historical legitimacy going back to July 14, 1789, as a vector of values for everyone, a universal proposition of intelligence and reason, offering assimilation for seekers of citizenship or psychic belonging for admirers of its good sense. Skipping over the pretense of grandeur, a serious argument could be made that alongside America's more pragmatic projection as the world's indispensable power, France kept in the game through the postwar years as a worthy adjunct, committed to freedom, human rights and fairness in its own brilliantly self-interested way.

These days, both the Republic's notion of itself as an inspirational force and example, and the affection of some of its friends — "To live like God in France," goes a German phrase describing a universal ambition for the good life — are hard put by events.

Last week, a sociologist, Pierre-André Taguieff, director of research at the state-sponsored National Center for Scientific Research, talking in an interview for a series of articles in Le Figaro called "What it is to be French today," described racism here as so lethal now that the French live in a fractured republic that no longer merits the label "one and indivisible."

After all, the day before, the government's internal intelligence service, les Renseignements Généraux, furnished the corroborative details, reporting that 300 "troubled neighborhoods" nationwide, grouping about 1.8 million residents, had become communities "in retreat." Decoded, this meant that a substantial part of the country's Arab population of five to seven million live in areas submerged in separatist-like situations involving what the Renseignements Généraux indicated were Islamic fundamentalist preachers, contempt for France and the West, anti-Semitism, and violence. Le Monde described the Renseignements Généraux's analysts as deeply pessimistic about circumstances they called "difficult to halt." Acknowledging the substantial failure of a system of assimilation which stops with brotherhood and equality in word only, this went to the heart of the notion of a universal French beacon. In terms of reality, verbal theory had never coincided with equal opportunity for France's Arabs or what the French-Arab community considers it merits in terms of respect from the state or the French themselves.

It is this jagged gap in France's relationship with Arab immigrants at home, paradoxically exacerbated by a continuous French message of pro-Arab sentiment to the Middle East, that appears to be a central element in deflecting the French-Arab community's anger toward French Jews.

Beyond attacks by Arab youths on Jews … and what Taguieff says is a demonization of Israel in France, the sociologist indentifies the presence of a new "judeophobia" here. While Taguieff says this is not the policy of the state, he believes it has entered the tissue of national life with the French "majority looking on as indifferent or complaisant spectators."

Running after events, but getting consciously ahead of the self-celebratory aspects of Bastille Day, Jacques Chirac, certainly no racist or anti-Semite, for the second time in a year pledged last week to put a stop to the problem. Unlike Taguieff, he insisted "the nation" shared the victims' pain. But Chirac offered no names, no responsible parties, just confirmation of a disgraceful but, in his formulation, near-virtual situation in which la France Universelle remained essentially blameless. In the same manner that Charles de Gaulle considered the Nazi collaborationist Vichy government illegitimate, and its crimes not those of France, specific official acknowledgment of discrimination in France against its Arabs, or that the hoodlums attacking Jews essentially come from the French Arab community, appeared too much in conflict with France's universalist aspirations to get spelled out by Chirac.

"In trying at any price to avoid stigmatizing certain segments of the French population," Taguieff explained, "we don't dare anymore to call anything by its right name or to describe it unequivocally."

This, in turn, seems mirrored in France's refusal to modify or fine-tune its approach to the world. Pascal Bruckner, the writer, talked years ago of the inflexibility growing out of his country's "unique mixture of arrogance and self-hatred." And this awkward French place between pretension and reality affects its current politics internationally.

If France weren't wedded to a desire for global resonance, its seriously challenged handhold on a share of leadership in Europe and its attempts to mark international affairs with its own stamp could be scribbled off in its private accounts as a bad run in day-trading on the global geopolitical bourse.

But because they treat leadership in Europe as a national birthright, France's politicians have now moved into the embarrassing position of not knowing whether they want to stage a referendum on the European Union's new constitution, or, ultimately, be for or against it — although the treaty is substantially the oeuvre of a Frenchman, former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.

The unspoken reason is that the constitution holds out no palpable, specific advantages for France. As a result, its political caste, across factions left and right, has atomized into groups weighing out potential gain by the gram of support or opposition on a scale of domestic political positioning. This has zero to do with Europe's interests or the greatness of the French example.

The situation came as a piece with Chirac's behavior two weeks earlier at a NATO summit in Istanbul as the Alliance offered up minimalist support for a mission to train the armed forces of the new Iraqi regime. A participant recounted later that after France raised no objections in a closed-door session with the entire membership, Chirac proceeded to trash the plan in front of the press.

It was a glaring moment of French unilateralism, with Le Monde, in a departure from its usual portrayal of French wisdom, describing Chirac as "isolated" and "in the role of eternal complainer and killjoy."

As the flags and the brass bands come down the Champs-Elysées on Wednesday, it would not be reasonable to expect a national expression of newfound humility to be included in the president's traditional television interview. All the same, taken together on Bastille Day, French life and politics in 2004 suggest a universal proposition that for the moment is one of considerable modesty.

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