In France, the notions of liberty, equality, and fraternity do not extend to ethnic or religious groups. The legal system does not recognize minority rights, and there is little patience for concepts such as affirmative action or identity politics. And indeed for more than 200 years, immigrants and ethnic minorities have tried to integrate as quickly and completely as possible.
Today, though, Muslims and Jews are under tremendous pressure to declare their differences. The sources of this pressure are myriad, from the Israel-Palestine crisis and the global “war on terrorism” to simmering domestic issues of poverty and race. Religious fundamentalists (Muslim and Jewish, French and foreign) are urging young people to renounce the secular, assimilationist ways of their parents. Intellectuals are challenging one another to proclaim their Jewishness or Muslimness—to stop hiding behind their Frenchness, to take sides.
The “Republican Deal”
In the late 18th century, the “Republican deal” (recognition of individual rights, no recognition of the rights of communities) offered French Jews something they had never had before—the full benefits and protections of citizenship. For the French government, which had fought for centuries to suppress religious and regional identity movements, it was a way of settling once and for all the question of divided loyalty among its people, whether Bretons or Basques or Roman Catholics. Indeed, the period just after the revolution saw the seizing of church lands, and the beheading of priests and bishops.
By the early 20th century, France had removed the Church from running the public schools, and banned school prayer and crucifixes from school property. Meanwhile, French Jews (more commonly known as “Israelites”) enjoyed the most secure position they had ever known in Europe. Although Jewish identity did not disappear, it became private, nearly invisible. The ideals of the Republic melded easily with the universalist creed of the Ashkenazi Jews (i.e., Jews of central or eastern European origin) under the rubric of laicite : a commitment to secularism in all elements of public life.
The New French
Then came the Sixties. France, enjoying possibly the greatest boom in its history, needed workers. They came by the boatload, from the readiest source on hand—the old French colonies and protectorates of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Most assumed they would return home after a few years. But their attitude changed when they began having children – children who, little by little, were becoming French. By 1980, huge, austere housing complexes had sprouted in the outskirts of Paris, Marseilles and Lyon, filled largely with North Africans. Meanwhile, large numbers of Sephardic Jews (i.e., Jews of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern origin) moved from North Africa to France, bringing with them a much more public form of Judaism than that practiced by the Ashkenazis.
The economic boom subsided, jobs declined, and disaffection grew among the recent immigrants. A generation of North Africans grew up being told that they were French citizens, but finding few opportunities after their schooling was finished. The government had few answers. To the republicanists, American notions of “affirmative action” smacked of the sort of divisive group rights that the laic principle had sought to eliminate.
The current unrest was spurred by two seminal events: the second Palestinian Intifada , launched in 2000, protesting Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank; and the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001. Angry over their worsening situation in France, frustrated by the prospect of becoming (as their parents had been) day laborers and street sweepers, many young French North Africans took the Intifada as a symbol of pride and self-determination. Fanned by sermons from extreme Islamist leaders, some came to see the “House of Israel” as a prime symbolic target.
The Pressure Mounts
Anti-Semitic incidents rose sharply from 2000 to 2002. Graffiti appeared, some children wearing yarmulkes were attacked, and a few Jewish schools and synagogues were burned. Ironically, these attacks became campaign fodder for the extreme rightist and one-time neo-Nazi leader Jean-Marie LePen. Not only an anti-Semite, LePen campaigned to send the Muslims back to Africa. In the presidential race of 2002, he won 20 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile, the global resurgence of Islamic identity began to resonate among middle class immigrants who, for the most part, had kept their religion quiet. More adult women began to don the headscarf, or foulard . Some of their husbands refused to let them be treated by male gynecologists and surgeons. And some of their daughters decided to wear the foulard to school. The “Republican deal” was of little interest to young men and women who felt they were being treated as second class citizens anyway.
President Jacques Chirac responded by appointing a commission to examine the question of Muslim integration. It produced 26 recommendations, from special job training to safer housing to more aggressive social support programs in predominantly Muslim schools. The commission also recommended two new school holidays, one Jewish and one Muslim, as counterweights to the many holidays of Christian origin. And it recommended an absolute ban on “ostensible” religious symbols (including headscarves, large crosses and yarmulkes ) in the public schools. So far only the headscarf ban has received serious attention by the Chirac administration.
– Frank Browning