It was almost a century ago that Marcel Proust began publishing his 4,300-page opus, In Search of Lost Time. From his manuscript-strewn bed in a cork-lined room, he grappled with the conundrum of how an individual can recapture his vanished past. The time/memory puzzle is a tough one to crack, but what would Proust have made of his country's vanishing identity? Most likely he would have found the notion simply too absurd for words.
After all, he lived in a time when France had a strong, unquestioned fix on its self-image, as attested even by its very nomenclature: the people of a country called France, proud descendants of the medieval Franks, were themselves called French, their language was French, their currency the franc. Thanks to centuries of nation building and ruthless repression of minorities by French monarchs and Napoleon, this was the most tightly integrated nation in Europe when Germany and Italy were still loose collections of provinces. It was said, proudly, that French schoolchildren everywhere opened the same book to the same page on the same day, and read the same history lesson, often beginning, "Our ancestors, the Gauls..."
Small wonder then that the basic French attitude has long been an insular, self-absorbed composite of preening pride, often frankly chauvinistic, in being French, and barely concealed dislike, bordering on fear and loathing, of change. As a people they advance reluctantly toward the future, eyes fixed firmly on the past. Then too, most French are only one or two generations removed from village life and penurious peasantry. Their mentality and manners still reflect this in their feeling for le terroir, or soil, their avarice and cunning, their suspiciousness of others, their distrust of modernity. No mobile melting pot, this.
Then came the humiliations of WWII, the loss of their colonies, the subsuming of national sovereignty in the Common Market/European Union, and hurried, catch-up modernization of the economy. Even before globalization began diluting its essence, France had changed more in recent decades than even the protean U.S. In a few dozen years it went from an agricultural country where telephones and decent plumbing were luxuries -- in Paris, I once waited three years to get a phone line -- to one with a cell phone in every pocket, high-speed trains rocketing through the countryside, and three-quarters of its electricity derived from nuclear power. With this came the future shock and angst of a lost way of life.
The most unwelcome change has not been economic but sociocultural as France has tried, and largely failed, to integrate the rapid influx from its former North African and sub-Saharan colonies. That includes some 6 million Muslims, making Islam officially its second religion. Many French whose ancestors were indeed Franks or Gauls look on with dismay as their country, once considered the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church, is covered with dozens of mosques. Its second-largest city, Marseilles, now at least 25 percent Muslim, will begin building the biggest one next month, a $33 million structure with an 80-foot minaret that will compete for skyline with cathedral spires that now seem so hopelessly out of sync with the new France.
The consequences of France's failure to deal with its ethnic problems were driven home in December 2005, when angry, alienated minorities burned some 10,000 automobiles and trashed schools and public buildings, causing $300 million in destruction. To war cries of Allah Akhbar, they attacked arriving police with everything from Molotov cocktails to pickaxes. As wake-up calls go,
it was a humdinger.
But in its autistic self-satisfaction, Paris officialdom didn't get it. France is still averaging about 40,000 cars burned annually, including more than 1,100 last New Year's Eve (the government reported next day that "everything was calm, no major incidents"). And the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, is booed and jeered before international football matches -- not by fans of opposing teams, but by ethnic Arabs born and raised in France.
Paradoxically, a major handicap in dealing with the country's increasingly violent minorities is its insistence on laïcité, or secularism. France has no minorities, goes the official line, because everyone
is French and by definition equal. End of problem. The law prohibits statistics based on race or religion, as American correspondents soon learn to their astonishment. No yardstick exists even to begin to measure the crisis.
THE INEVITABLE BACKLASH is beginning. A member of President Nicolas Sarkozy's own UMP party and mayor of a town in northern France told his constituents flatly that the immigrant problem had been swept under the rug for too long. "It's time we reacted, or we'll be eaten alive," he said. "There are already 10 million of them, 10 million who are getting handouts for doing nothing."
More ominously, Muslims showing up recently at the main mosque in Castres, a normally quiet town of 40,000 near Toulouse, were shocked to find two pig's ears nailed to the door, the animal's mutilated snout hanging from the doorknob. The French equivalent of "White power," "France for the French," and Sieg heil in German were sprayed on the desecrated building's sides.
With danger signals like that flashing, the government's reaction has been a gaggle of gadgets: suggesting job seekers use anonymous CVs to give the Kemils and Mohammeds a better chance against the Jean-Pierres and Gérards; pushing schools to teach the Marseillaise and respect for national symbols; urging TV channels to hire multi-ethnic presenters; banning the Muslim head scarf in public schools and threatening to outlaw the head-to-toe burqa; asking France's elite colleges, the so-called Grandes Ecoles, to reserve 30 percent of their enrollment for minorities (the schools, bastions of the haute bourgeoisie, said forget it).
With local elections coming up this month, Sarkozy's latest gadget is a vast debate on national identity so the French can discover that je ne sais quoi that makes them special. He launched it with an editorial in Le Monde acknowledging the basic verity that people "don't want their way of life, their mode of thinking and social makeup, to be distorted." It had to be admitted that "the French feel they are losing their identity." In recent speeches he likes to say he was elected "to defend French national identity."
Organized in town halls all over the country, the grand national talk-fest is being led by Eric Besson, the government minister in charge of -- take a deep breath -- immigration, integration, national identity, and cooperative development. A former Socialist recruited by Sarkozy to give a leftist tinge to his cabinet, Besson is Morocco-born of mixed Lebanese and French parentage. His answer to what it means to be French reveals where he's coming from: "There's no such thing as being purely French. That doesn't exist." Not for him, it doesn't, many French mentally respond.
Judging by the tens of thousands of comments on the government website devoted to the debate, Besson is indeed a tad out of touch with his countrymen. The forum quickly became a vehicle for uninhibited immigrant-bashing. Nearly one-fifth of the comments had to be erased as xenophobic, i.e., politically incorrect. Samples of the more publishable ones: "Being French means being white, that's all." "To be French you have to have French blood." "Being French means having to park your car in a closed garage to keep it from being burned by Arabs." When one contributor of the Islamic persuasion ventured, "We Muslims have the right to our religion and minarets," the quick response was, "France taught you to read and write so you could express your opinion. You should thank her instead of foaming at the mouth."
As the debate turns into a brawl, Sarkozy is now seen by many as playing with fire in an attempt to siphon off right-wing votes from the National Front party. At a town hall meeting in the eastern city of Troyes, police had to be called in to stop the screaming and scuffling; several participants singing a full-throated patriotic Marseillaise were dragged out as the rest of the audience joined the melee. A similar donnybrook occurred in a middle-class Paris suburb when an invited speaker, a historian, criticized his host for holding the debate, calling it Vichy-style propaganda to stigmatize immigrants.
The National Front is gleefully turning the debate to its advantage, trumpeting the timely godsend of a recent surprise vote in Switzerland to ban the construction of minarets on mosques. "Nicolas Sarkozy has involuntarily woken up the French people," says Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Clearly feeling rejuvenated at age 81 by the affray over one of his favorite issues, he's calling for a full-scale referendum on immigration, "which is ruining French life, its finances, its security, its employment, and its educational system."
The great identity debate that nobody asked for shows every sign of boomeranging on Sarkozy. It is certainly not this kind of cynical ploy that will give the hoped-for boost to his poll numbers -- which have been hovering in the 30s -- midway through his agitated five-year term.