Monday, February 27, 2017

On France, Immigration, Islam, and Culture

I started this blog because I had a lot of time on my hands, as I had just lost my job.

Actually, wait. Let me back up a second. I was working on contract for a Boston-based higher education company, writing emails and website content to entice foreign students to enroll in American universities. One day I will write about the higher education bubble, but that is not today.

I don’t believe it is a coincidence that the last week I worked at this company ended on January 20th. Indeed, I would be extremely surprised if the travel ban didn’t adversely affect a company funded through student visas.

But my personal problems, inconvenient as they are, aren’t what’s at stake here. Instead, I’d like to talk about immigration, and France.

First off, I want to parenthetically state that I am not French, my spoken French is poor, and my understanding of French culture and politics is rudimentary at best. Nevertheless, France is an interesting case study, and many of its problems are same ones that the world is struggling to address. While there are no easy answers for their problems, their attempted solutions have implications which provide a snapshot for the next several decades of geopolitical activity.

Let’s start with the French concept of Laïcité. In short, “secularism” is not new in France. Since 1905, the state and religion have been officially separate (though the French history of secularism goes back at least to Napoleonic times). This goes somewhat farther than it does in America; the first article of the French Constitution is: La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale (“France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic”). Traditionally, religiously motivated thinking on political matters was incompatible with reasoned political debate, and candidates who used religious justifications for their beliefs were marginalized and not taken seriously. Laïcité is, essentially, a political correctness that makes the mention of religion in political affairs taboo.

This has changed somewhat, in the last decade, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who argued for a "positive laïcité", specifically, one that recognizes the positive benefits of religion in society. (Of note, France was historically very Catholic — separation of the church, not just a church. More on all this a little later.) Which brings us to another Sarkozy-era policy: the French burqa ban. The ban (which was ostensibly not religious, by including helmets and other face coverings) was upheld in the European Court of Human Rights, which begrudgingly recognized that the French argument of “vivre ensemble” (translated as “living together”) was legitimate. The defense was literally that the ban helped protect French culture.

Culture is such a slippery thing. What makes a culture? Does it need protecting, and if so, from what? Is it even possible to protect? (Witness the death of France’s “monokini beach culture, and the recent banning of the burkini)

Myself, I have an inordinate fondness for French culture. My eyes well up at the thought of Paris in spring, I am overwhelmed with joy at the sight of a boulangerie, and my only happiness in life comes from consuming French food. Nor am I alone in my adoration, France is an incredibly popular worldwide tourist destination and culture plays an important part of it. If the world had a single homogenous culture, with everything the same everywhere, what would be the point of visiting places? I’ll come back to this, but first, let’s talk about Algeria.

Algeria is here
Ignoring much of the earlier history, Algeria was run as a French colony from 1830 to 1962. Algeria, along with the neighboring protectorates Morocco and Tunisia, was the center of interest for France in North Africa. Nor was Algeria merely a source of wealth, in February 1863, Emperor Napoleon III wrote a public letter to the Military Governor, saying: "Algeria is not a colony in the traditional sense, but an Arab kingdom; the local people have, like the colonists, a legal right to my protection. I am just as much the Emperor of the Arabs of Algeria as I am of the French."

The Europeans certainly took this to heart, gladly settling throughout the Maghreb/Barbary Coast, and enjoying the benefits of French citizenship. The French system of government is organized differently than the United States’, but it is a decent approximation to say that Algeria was a state (département), with full representation and voting rights, albeit with a large population of surly non-citizens. By the 20th century, more than 10% of the population was European (mostly concentrated in the cities, where they numbered between 30-40% of the population).

While the French policy was ostensibly to “civilize” the indigenous population, in practice this meant seizing their land and forcing them to learn French (this should not be surprising to anyone with a modest knowledge of history). And while they did offer a path to French citizenship, this required complete submission to the French legal system, and a formal renunciation of certain aspects of sharia law. This did not go over very well with the native Muslims, and only a few thousand Algerians took this path to citizenship.

The remainder mostly stayed mad, and the colonial period was marked by strained relationships with the native Muslims, the Jews (who became French citizens), and the colonists. There were too many uprisings to list here, but most of them ended with a lot of Muslim Algerians dead, and the Muslim population of Algeria developed a lot of justified resentment to French rule, culminating in the long and messy Algerian War. By the end of it, the French government had collapsed and had been replaced with the “5th Republic” under the Presidency of Charles Du Galle, Algeria declared its independence, and over 800,000 people fled Algeria for France. Many of those left behind, including the Harkis (Muslims loyal to the French regime), were butchered, and I mean that very literally.

Much of France’s modern Muslim population is directly descended from the repatriated Harkis (many of whom spent years in internment camps before being moved to housing projects), which is why I’ve spent so much time talking about this. A lot of immigration activity in the intervening years were Muslim families being reunited on French soil. And even if many of them were not technically citizens, their children are by virtue of being born in France.

So, bringing us towards the current year, we have a whole bunch of historically mistreated and mostly poor Muslims living in France, who have been given a rough deal over the last few decades and, understandably, have relatively little interest or opportunity to assimilate into French society. Also, as you might expect, the French were not especially welcoming to their refugees, even the ones that were ethnically European and spoke French. To sum up, it was a pretty bad situation all around.

Now it’s finally time to bring another big piece of the puzzle into play: Le Pen, and The National Front.

I would like to take a second to direct any readers interested in the history of far-right political parties to read my series on Fascism and Tribalism, as many of these movements share important commonalities. As one would expect, far-right Nationalist views have a long history in France, with clear ideological lines leading from the pro-monarchy faction opposing the French revolution (the original 1789 one, which is apparently still a force actively shaping French politics), to the Action Français (which supported the Vichy Regime and was an ideological cousin of Fascism), to the current Front National (FN). In the case of the FN, the FN party formed as a direct reaction to the war in Algeria, with many of the members, including Jean-Marie Le Pen himself (who reminds me strongly of Lyndon LaRouche), having fought against Algerian independence.

At any rate, the party of Jean-Marie Le Pen did not enjoy much electoral support, struggling until the 1980s, when they were able to form a coalition (the French political system is structured differently) with the center-right Rally for the Republic and centrist Union for French Democracy parties. Since then, they have struggled to maintain more than 10-15% of the vote in most places, with a crushing loss to Chirac in 2002 (Chirac refused to debate Le Pen on television, and won 82% of the vote, with polls indicating that over half the votes were cast specifically to block Le Pen).

In 2010, Le Pen (the “Devil of the Republic”) stepped down as president of the FN, and was succeeded by his daughter: Marine Le Pen. Since coming to power in the party, she has attempted to “de-demonizethe National Front, attempting to soften their image, dialing back their public xenophobia, and threatening to sue anyone who called the FN “extreme right”. This, coupled with the rise in right wing nationalism worldwide has led the FN to a projected first round victory in the upcoming election. Needless to say, Marine Le Pen has also benefited from the rise in anti-Islamic sentiment throughout France, as well as from a spate of high profile riots and terrorist attacks .
“The Immigrants are going to vote… and you’re not?!!”
There have been accusations of criminality, as well as investigations into Le Pen’s financial ties and support from Russia (with corresponding public statements), allegations of Russian interference in the election, money, and a mysterious visit to Trump Tower.

But it’s poor form to attack the arguer, instead of the argument. The issues (and contradictions) raised by Le Pen are worth discussing on their own merits, whether or not she eventually turns out to be a Russian plant. But I’m wondering at the central contradiction: we have an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim “France first” party, led by the daughter of a man who fought to keep Algeria as part of France. Issues of a “migrant waveaside, the Muslims the National Front is struggling against are the children of the Harkis, who fought for France against their homeland of Algeria.

And, since I started writing this piece, Emmanuel Macron, a "left-wing" candidate in the French presidential election, is dealing with backlash and falling poll numbers amid criticism of his statement that France’s history in Algeria was a “crime against humanity”. That the sharpest criticism has come from Le Pen should not be a surprise, but what is shocking (to me at least) is the degree to which this view is controversial at all. It would appear, judging by the reaction, that a sizable plurality of France has yet to come to an honest account of their colonial history.

Looking at it, I don’t see why it’s controversial that the French should apologize to the people they massacred. In fact, I’ll go on record and say that if you kill a bunch of people, you have to at least say you’re sorry afterwards. It just seems like common sense. Clearly, I’ve bitten off more than I can chew with this particular essay, because I haven’t even got to the part I really want to talk about: Déclinisme

It should not be surprising that the people who brought us Sartre, Foucault, and Derrida are heavily interested in the decline of civilization. Nor should it be surprising that Le Pen and the right are able to harness this national zeitgeist towards their own ends. But what I want to talk about is something my audience might find uncomfortable: what if they’re right?

What if France really is declining? More to the point, what if it’s already doomed? While there are severe demographic challenges lurking in Europe’s future, and although the French birthrate has declined past the point of replacement, they’re still doing better than most… right? Maybe not. Quick note on the stuff to follow, this isn’t as robust as the data I normally provide — a direct consequence of the fact that France has laws against racism that extends to the concept of race. As a result, there is no officially recorded data available tracking demographic changes in France. That means there is no easy way to know what’s happening, unlike in America, where there’s clear evidence of these trends.

This is the kind of headline that makes some people nervous and violent. At this point, most of the intelligentsia is familiar with the concept of white backlash, and the resulting long term political trends are eminently predictable (this link is from 2014). But, returning to France, neo-reaction blogger Steve Sailer has pulled together some data that I’m going to take at face value for this article (I don’t have enough French to adequately review his sources).

Steve, who is not off the hook for the race stuff (I’ll get to that in a second), found a way to estimate the percentages of births in France to parents of non-European ancestry. The French government tests newborn babies for sickle cell anemia if and only if both parents (or one if only one is known) come from regions with high genetic risk for the disease, or if there is a family history for the disease. He found a steady increase, from 25.6% in 2005 to 38.9% in 2015. He also noted that in the Paris region (Île de France), the rate was 73.4% in 2015. This, coupled with the falling birthrate, suggests a significant downward trend in births to European French.

Look. Please don’t get it wrong. I know racism is bad. And, more to the point, I know that discussing it is often taboo, and talking about race is extremely difficult, especially on the Left. But I also know that if the Left is going to seriously challenge the [alt] Right on issues like this, they need to provide a stronger case. Because a not-insignificant percentage of the population are worried that they and their culture are going extinct (14 words is a well known example of this). Really responding to this viewpoint takes far more than what the Left is currently doing (some combination of ignoring it, disinterest, and actively praising multi-culturalism). Telling someone who (rightly or wrongly) is concerned for their children’s future to get over it, and that they’re racist for thinking it, is not and cannot ever be a winning strategy. I’m not sure what the answer is, but we have to do better.

But back to culture. Now this is a very shallow and selfish argument, and almost certainly not germane to the discussion but I like French culture. I like walking through the arrondissements, carrying a baguette and whistling Aux Champs-Elysées. Yes, I might have a problem. And while I’m also interested in visiting the Maghreb (I hear Morocco is amazing), I don’t want France to lose whatever essential quality it is that makes it what it is. 

And, loath as I might be to admit it, the National Front has a point about Islamic culture being incompatible with secular western values. It is not difficult to see why conservative Muslim communities might have trouble adjusting to Laïcité — their views on women’s rights, gender segregation, homosexuality, alcohol, and Judaism put them far out of step with modern French society.

America is also dealing with these issues. And, places with higher concentrations of Muslims in America are seeing similar ethnic and political tensions. Places like Dearborn, Michigan get extreme attention from the right, who are using rhetoric and voicing concerns indistinguishable from the ones echoed by the National Front. I don’t claim to know how to effectively respond, but an effective response probably shouldn’t look like this one (from the huffington post).

My conservative readers are likely shouting at their screens about me missing the obvious conclusion to all of this, but I don’t think it’s that simple. At the risk of being wishy-washy, both sides make strong points, but the outcome is still very much in doubt (though, as I’ve mentioned before in “Don’t Be a Reactionary, conflict is part of the plan on both sides).

The most important takeaway I see, other than the fact that France is struggling right now, is that the left’s current definition of culture is woefully insufficient. At the very least, the long term consequences and implications have not been adequately explored. The toxic and dogmatic atmosphere surrounding “leftist” identity politics is more than amenable to right wing co-opting. As the penalties for being seen to transgress from the ideologically accepted lines become more severe (witness the backlash Uber has received, despite their protestations to the contrary), the more reasonable rightwing reaction movements will seem. 

This is slightly off the main topic, but in a world where #killallmen can trend, it’s not so surprising that a “men’s rights” should exist. A brief viewing of the “#whitepeople” hashtag will see (non-white) people talking about how they don’t like white people, and white people who are talking about white genocide and posting swastikas. Which is not to say that the two are equivalent, but neither one is making things better for the world. Is it a choice? Is this just the price we have to pay to hold back cultural homogeny?

I’m not sure, but writing about this already seems anachronistic, like I’m swimming against the tide of history. While I’d like to believe otherwise, I sincerely doubt that there exists some answer that can placate all sides. Eventually, we’ll have to choose.  

1 comment:

  1. Daniel, Good insight on a difficult topic BUT your only enjoyment in Life, French Food?? Get over it !!