Copyright © Bernard Chazelle   |   Princeton, January 2006   |   home

France's Colonial Blowback

by Bernard Chazelle

T henever the fortune cookie fails to sate my literary appetite, I turn my voracious mind to the American state motto for nutrients. Consider Maine's sweetly delusional “I Lead,” for example. It may lack the gangsta rap spirit of New Hampshire's “Live Free or Die,” but it stirringly bugles the battle cry that feeds the famished soul. Or take Maryland; loosed from the shackles of good writing, the Old Line State flies high the banner of phallic pride: “Manly Deeds, Womanly Words”—its cloying way of saying “Maryland ain't Mary's land.” Hats off to New Mexico's “It Grows As It Goes” for boldly going where no motto should: the snappy rhyme of a viagra jingle. No such chutzpah from the Kansas prairie. Humble to a fault, and no doubt aware of how much it has be humble about, the Creationist State penned its motto to read like a school report card: “To the Stars Through Difficulty.” (If Kansas' new science curriculum is any guide, expect difficulty to prevail and the stars to be safe.) But it is to the Potato State, Idaho, that the grand prize goes, for “Let It Be Perpetual” may well be the nearest thing to an anthem masochism will ever have.

France's rallying cry of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” shuns literary aspirations for the comfort of platitudes. The early years of the French Revolution experimented with the more Dr Dre-ish “Liberty, Equality, or Death,” but an unhealthy focus on the last item (not to mention the mangled rhyme) led to the F-word substitution. My college-age reader—I don't use the plural form to avoid sounding boastful—will surely wonder how fraternity, that codeword for all-night boozing, stumbled its way onto the hallowed grounds of a national motto. This, my young friend, is wonderment at its best! Equality is the DNA of the French Republic—its innate belief. Liberty is its ideology—its chosen belief. Fraternity is its answer to the deepest question in moral philosophy: why bother?

A safety tip: should you one day be ordered at gunpoint to explain the provenance of the French motto in 10 seconds or else, you could do worse than say: “From the Enlightenment flows liberty; from the family equality; and from the Bible fraternity.” Then run. Liberty and equality are twin values doomed to live in perpetual tension. It is their sibling rivalry—not the relative merits of Yorkshire pudding and sauteed frog legs—that explains why the French and the Brits orbit in different planetary systems. This cosmological oddity did not escape Tocqueville's attention: “The French wish not to have superiors; the English wish to have inferiors.

For this, blame (who else?) the parents. Since the 17th century, the French peasant family has been governed by egalitarian inheritance rules that ensure the children equal shares of the loot. No such strictures across the Channel where, armed with that favorite cinematic device, the will, English parents have jealously guarded their freedom to screw over their least-favored kids.

This, argues the eminent historian Emmanuel Todd, is the reason egalitarianism is inscribed in the French DNA in big block letters [1, 2]. Ever pondered why the French commiserate with striking transit workers who leave them stranded in the rain all day? Ever puzzled over their indifference toward five-time Tour de France winner, Bernard Hinault, and adulation of zero-time winner, Raymond Poulidor? Wonder no more: that the French don't need inferiors explains the commiseration; that they can't stand superiors accounts for the indifference. Todd links it all up to the equality-obsessed 17th-c Bassin Parisien.

Who's this Emmanuel Todd, you ask? And what does he bring to the French table that, say, National Review's resident Francomaniac Jonah Goldberg can't swat away? Whom are we to trust: Todd, who foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union years ahead of everyone else; or Goldberg, who became a legend in neocon circles for never letting an Upper West Side cocktail party go by without correctly predicting which of the cheese dips would run out first?

But I digress. Under the monarchy, the egalitarian impulse of the French ran smack against its two nemeses: the king and the Church. The Bastille storming tipped off the royals to get ready for their curtain call. That was the easy part. The clergy proved a tougher nut to crack. To the bishops' chagrin, the Republic had cast its eye on the public school as its instrument of self-reproduction. Hell hath no fury like a Jesuit scorned, and it took nearly a hundred years of bitter struggle for the Church to comply with its eviction notice and “privatize” its schools. To this day, teachers across the land will curl up in bed misty-eyed as they reminisce about the trench warfare their heroic forebears fought in the name of laïcité (secularism).

Remember this next time you scratch your head wondering why all the fuss about veiled schoolgirls. Face it, a century-long jihad against the nun's cornet can blind a man to the charms of the hijab. More to the point, the Republic claims a monopoly on the definition of equality which the hijab challenges on two grounds: religious and chromosomal. (The irony is that a Catholic school will let a Muslim girl wear the hijab.) To ban “ostensible religious symbols” from the public school is one and the same with the inheritance rules of the French peasantry: within the unit of self-reproduction, be it the family or the public school, equality trumps liberty. Of course, in this case, not a lot of trumping is required since coercion is pretty much the essence of a school anyway—a point hijabists seem to have missed.

But why single out religious garb? If, in the name of equality, clothing should not advertise one's religion, why should it be allowed to flaunt one's social class? If the hijab can't make it to school then why should the crocodile, the swoosh, or the polo horse? In fact, why not revert to school uniforms? France has shown little patience for the multicultural exoticism of female circumcision, polygamy, and separate schooling for Muslim girls—rightly so. But the veil law? Isn't this sartorial fixation just a creative way of being ineffective and offensive at the same time? Won't the law fill madrassas with young girls keen to be schooled in the divine secrets of the Jihad Sisterhood?

Unlikely. But France is no stranger to the precept that when theory clashes with reality, reality should gracefully bow out. Mere expedience stands no chance against the dogma of égalité. Why such attachment to an abstraction? Because the French Republic, like the American version, is universalist: to be French is, above all, to adhere to a creed. That it helps to be white and non-Muslim is not a feature of the creed but a quirk of its adherents.

Of course, quirk is a mild word when it comes to hate lover, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Genius is more like it; for what else do you call a mongrel whose yappings persuade millions of half-breed chihuahuas to stand on their hind legs and yelp for breed purity? Le Pen is not even a French name, so one can always hope for the day he will decide to ethnically cleanse himself. But don't count on it. Frenchmen like to think of themselves as “Best in Show” but often forget their breed group: the mutt.

French blood has all the purity of an overflowing wine-tasting spittoon. No European country is as ethnically mixed as France: one citizen out of five has a foreign parent or grandparent; nearly one out of two has foreign ancestry dating back to the 19th or 20th century [3, 4]; the density of foreign-born—the highest in Europe—is virtually identical to that of the United States [5, 6]. More striking still, half of all immigrant couples are racially mixed [7] and a quarter of all French women of Algerian descent marry non-Muslims [8]. By comparison, only 2 to 4 percent of African-American women marry outside their race and 5 percent of Britain's South-Asian women do so [9, 10].

Why the difference? French racism is widespread and a major cause of the current crisis. More xenophobic than chromophobic, however, it keeps a healthy distance from the kind of “white race” paranoia that would lead 16 states in the US to ban interracial marriage as recently as 1967. As Harvard sociologist Michèle Lamont writes, “This [fieldwork] suggests a form of racism that is surprising to many Americans; it does not center on skin color per se” [11]. French racism is the fear of the Other who won't be us; American racism is the fear of the Other who will. This singularity partly explains French skepticism toward multiculturalism. This mouthful of a word is widely construed in France as a segregationist device for turning a society of citizens into a menagerie of caged exotica. It stands accused of promoting a “theme park” approach to cosmopolitanism, whereby adding multi to cultural is the quickest route from Homer's Odyssey to Hoboken's Annual Moussaka Parade.

First grade, first day of school.
The teacher, she asks me “What's your name?
I say “Sérigne.”
“Sérigne? What kinda name is that?”
I dunno what kinda name is that.
Did she ask Jean-Baptiste what kinda name is that?

by hip-hop artist Disiz La Peste (aka Sérigne M'Baye)

The world's oldest and most influential living body of civil law, Napoleon's Code Civil of 1804 enshrined equality before the law irrespective of creed or color—something the Land of the Free, oddly enough, would not achieve for another 150 years. The Code offered a grand bargain: join whatever team, tribe, or tradition you fancy: the Republic won't interfere. Just don't expect it to recognize any community besides itself. There was a sweet libertarian irony to this, insofar as to ignore, in this case, was to empower. Indeed, the Code Civil was instrumental in ending centuries of religious conflicts and spreading the emancipation of Jews across Europe. Today, the country known to the Vatican as the “eldest daughter of the Church” counts more Jews and Muslims than any nation in Europe. Which is not to say that much worshipping goes on in the land. Churches are little more than fancy alarm clocks for village neighborhoods. France is so secular, in fact, that 90 percent of all imams must be shipped in from abroad and 60 percent of them don't even speak French [12]. (But it's all right: they all sleep with an Arabic translation of the Code Civil under their pillow.)

France's idiosyncratic grandes écoles are a good example of egalitarianism gone mad. This unique (uniquely sadistic?) system of elite universities misses out on vast pools of talent because of its stifling rigidity. In its own demonic way, however, it is meritocracy incarnate, what with its anonymous, test-based admission criteria, free tuition, free stipend, free textbooks, etc. It proves that absolute fairness marinated in the right cocktail of obduracy and inflexibility can produce the ruling class' perfect engine of self-reproduction. The successful experiment currently underway at Sciences-Po to attract minorities points the way: American universities are the envy of the world and exhibit a degree of student diversity that French educators would be well advised to emulate.

Just don't tell them why US campuses are so gaga over diversity, for nothing will more offend the 17th-century peasant in them. Is it the moral imperative of equal opportunity for all? Not quite. Fairness is too serious a matter to be entrusted to college admissions officers—they have philosophy professors for that. The case for diversity rests chiefly on the marketing insight that broader cheese selections make for hipper restaurants. It's all about branding: Harvard as the Gucci of higher ed. And if it happens to be antisemitic, so be it: Ivy League schools capped the number of Jewish students until the 1960s. Universities always encrypt their mottoes so no one will understand them. Take the case of my beloved Princeton: “In the Nation's Service and in the Service of All Nations.” That's Latin for “In the Service of Itself.

Branding and nepotism go hand in glove. To this day, the Ivies maintain a Rich-White-Guy affirmative action scam that allows a certified cretin like George W. Bush to serve a 4-year boozing stint and get a Yale degree for it. The French chopped off their king's head for that sort of favoritism and are unlikely to be impressed; especially when they see the kind of simian chest-thumper it winds up bringing to power. America is the world's only nation with a democratically elected royalty. An astonishing 63 percent of US presidents are mutual relatives (of easily traced lineage) and Dubya—man of the people—counts no fewer than 15 US presidents among his relatives [13]. Naturally, it is Hillary's and Jeb's self-perceived destiny to raise these numbers to ever more ludicrous heights.

T here is the creed of the French Republic. And then there is the reality: riots that convulsed the nation for 3 weeks last fall. The roots of the crisis go back to the labor shortage of the sixties. Boatloads of North African immigrants landed on France's shores to provide the transient workforce needed to sustain an unprecedented economic boom. The transient part of the plan took a hit when the guests got the bizarre idea of having—gasp—children. Though of French nationality, this new generation, self-named Beurs (why Beurs? read on), grew up with the distinction of being neither truly French nor, for that matter, truly Arab. The Algerians among them bore the added stigma of a particularly nasty bout of decolonization.

The government parked the new immigrants in giant housing projects, called cités, apparently confident in the integrating virtues of reinforced cement concrete. To be fair, these were the same Le Corbusier-designed monstrosities that housed the poor in the wake of World War II. Fifty years on, priding itself on having inflicted the full brunt of architectural genius on two generations of urban guinea pigs, the government is finally calling in the bulldozers.

Strangers in their own land, young Beurs face an identity crisis that had spared earlier immigrants: France is their house but it won't be their home. Caught in the void between competing cultural narratives, they suffer social exclusion, employment discrimination, and a jobless rate that is twice the average. Social progress in France is often measured by the rhythms of civil protest. Aspiring children of the Republic, the Beurs have mastered the very French notion that taking to the streets is just politics by other means: always theatrical; sometimes destructive; rarely lethal. Last fall's unrest killed only 1 person, yet spread to 274 cities over 22 days [14]; a mere sideshow compared with the 1992 LA riots: 53 deaths; 1 city; 5 days [15].

Street protests in France are anti-authoritarian People vs. Cops dustups, not “multiculturalist” sports events like the race riots in Britain and Australia last year. The rioting Beurs took their cue from the farmers, truckers, and transit workers, for whom the street world is a stage. So secular, so Fight-The-Man, so French. The Union of French Islamic Organizations issued a fatwa against the riots, whose utter ineffectiveness only served to highlight the irrelevance of organized Islam in France. Hard as it may be on a neocon's digestive tract to swallow, religion played no role in the riots.

Predictably, the view stateside was fittingly twisted. Fresh from blowing away the competition in Iraq as the world's top manure producer, the US mainstream media saw the French riots as the perfect excuse to crank up production. The New York Times informed its readers that “No other country in Europe immolates cars with the gusto and single-minded efficiency of France. Even during tranquil periods, an average of 80 vehicles per day are set alight somewhere in the country” [16]. Never mind that, even during tranquil periods, an average of 192 vehicles per day are set alight somewhere in the UK [17]. But, to quote Saint Judy, why let facts get in the way of a good story?

The Washington Times wouldn't know. Taking a break from bouncing off his padded walls, the reliably batty Mark Steyn put on his tinfoil hat to identify the culprit: “an assertive Muslim identity more implacable than anything likely in the Middle East” [18]. (Take that, Osama.) By then fully intoxicated with his own brilliance, Steyn had to let his hallucinations do the talking: “France's Arab street correctly identified Jacques Chirac's opposition to the Iraq war for what it was: a sign of weakness.” Nothing like a nice big cup of Neocon Kool-Aid to cheer up the asylum.

Of course, the Islamofascist connection did not escape the paranoid gaze of the vigilantes manning the barricades at The New Republic: “If a significant fascist party existed in France, it is among these young Arab and North African children of immigrants [...] that it would recruit for its storm troopers” [19]. Yes, of course; and when the KKK tries to sign up new members it goes scouting the hood in Compton for recruits. TNR has been nicknamed the “in-flight magazine of Air Force One.” Evidently, it doubles nicely as a barf bag.

Men in designer suits order bombs to be dropped on pajama-clad children in the dead of night: some call them war criminals; others statesmen. Boys in hoodies shoplift burger patties from supermarkets: some call them vermin; others rotten vermin. And when they compound their crimes by having names that no decent churchgoer can even spell we call them rotten vermin twice evil—or Beurs, for short.

Poverty is the key variable that correlates crime and ethnicity. This correlation is the sea in which the racist fish swims. Distribute nonwhites across the social spectrum of wealth and watch racial discrimination recede like the ocean at low tide. Here's how you do it: have the government hire all unemployed white guys named Jacques and dispatch them all across France to steal burger patties. This way, when Ahmed applies for a job, the interviewer will sigh with relief and say: “Well, at least your name is not Jacques.” (To appreciate the full genius of my scheme, note that all Jacques will be fully employed, so it won't matter a whit if they're now the ones to suffer employment discrimination).

Another solution is to jail everyone named Ahmed. America has been working on a variant of this for a while now and the verdict is mixed: only 30 percent of all black males are expected to be incarcerated in their lifetime, so there's still some ways to go [20].

If all else fails, of course, one can always ask white people to stop being such racist pigs. But recent genomics research indicates that mutation from swine to angel requires more than a hectoring preacher with a wagging finger. It requires creating job opportunities and enforcing anti-discrimination laws. The latter is tough to do in France because the state may not gather any racial, ethnic, or religious demographics. The ban was meant to propitiate the gods of égalité but seems to have riled them up instead. Pinning yellow stars during the Vichy years was not the best advertisement for ethnic monitoring, and the idea is still unpalatable to many. But, regardless of what pleases its tastebuds, France needs the proper tools to fight discrimination. No one shines a brighter light on race than the racist, and it is an abiding irony that the Republic's blindness to the light has only enhanced its brightness.

France needs affirmative action; the preferred term is discrimination positive, a lovely oxymoron that evokes the upbeat desperation of “exquisite pain” while begging the transience of “hot ice cream.” The nutty fundies of the Republic can bleat all they want about the evil of affirmative action and the dread of communautarisme that it drags in its wake: it is a red herring. An ostracized, ghettoized populace is the ultimate form of communautarisme. Affirmative action is no panacea: in fact, it is the worst possible remedy—with the exception of all the others.

Political representation is another sore point. The marvelous chromatic unity on display in the gilded halls of the Palais Bourbon (the parliament) suggests a new French tricolor: white, white, white. Legislators recently passed a “parity law” meant to promote the presence of women in politics. It would do well to extend the idea to ethnic minorities. The Cassandras who read in the tea leaves of affirmative action the end of the Republic suffer either from bad faith or from a tragic lack of imagination.

From Tom Friedman's business class seat, 30,000 feet above the Calcutta Golf & Country Club where he'll soon be predicting the end of Indian poverty while practicing his tee shot, the world looks awfully flat. From the burning banlieues it is anything but. Friedman's cherished globalization has deepened inequalities and tied up the government's hands just as it needed more wiggle room. Despite its tight labor market and high unemployment, France has been a neoliberal's dream: more companies in the Fortune Global 500 than both Germany and the UK; more foreign direct investment flowing into it than into the US; tighter fiscal policies, etc. [4, 21]. If anything, the riots prove that France is well on its way to being fully Friedmanized: a flat world with cracks just wide enough to swallow up the impoverished masses.

Racism and globalization are the ingredients of the stew brewing in the cités: France's political class is the chef that keeps it stirred. Frighteningly competent and hopelessly out of touch, the chef suffers from advanced autism. The competence stares you in the face: trains run on time without the help of a fascist dictator; cell phones are real phones—not cheap excuses for standing outside in the rain while pretending to be searching for a signal; potholes are tiny orifices in the sort of kitchenware that... well, you get the point. As for being in touch, the ruling elite is passionately in touch with its favorite kind: itself. It is obsessed with self-preservation, ossified, and lordly. De Gaulle once compared the French to dawdling calves: apparently, someone forgot to tell Chirac it was a joke.

Both wings of the political spectrum have fused into a gloppy miasma of opportunism. Most politicians these days graduate from the same school, ENA, and learn early on to confine their differences to their choice of dessert in the school cafeteria. From the recent European constitution fiasco to Le Pen's day in the sun of the 2002 presidential election, French leaders have demonstrated a phenomenal ability to misread the electorate. The Beurs were born to be the left's dream catch. That the only catching they got was from the neighborhood cops says much about the socialists' state of decay. Alas, civil unrest invariably rewards the wrong side, and few sights are more repulsive than a smug Le Pen licking his drooling chops.

T rance might elect to treat its immigrant population as an ill to be cured. Perhaps the suitable medical attention will make the pain go away; the ENA graduates who staff government ministries are masters at scribbling analgesic prescriptions to keep the plebes sedated. This would be a tragic blunder. The current crisis is a blessing in disguise. Demographic projections show France overtaking Germany as the biggest economy and population in Europe in just a few decades. Immigrants are the key to France's future. Forget that the most admired Frenchman, Zinedine Zidane, is of North African descent. Forget that France's 1998 World Cup triumph was a gift from the seething banlieues to their country. France is an old, weary nation with a rich, heavy history: it badly needs the infusion of youth, talent, and vigor that sit untapped in the cités. Bring 'em on!

The past half-century of French pop music has been an uninterrupted feast of aural mouthwash. The standout exception to this orgy of sudsy gurglings has been French rap—the hottest hip-hop scene outside the United States and the most exciting musical act in Europe. (Sorry, Radiohead fans.) Freestyling requires a virtuosic mastery of verlan, the backslang that produces Beur by inverting the syllables in Arabe. Street language and wordplay conspire to make verlan confusing even to native speakers; that's its purpose. The word itself is verlanesque: invert it and you get lanver, which is the phonetic rendering of “backwards” in French. Verlan even verlanizes itself: arabebeurrebeu. Verbal pyrotechnics aside, French rappers have a story to tell and it is time that all of France listened.

New York Times homeboy David Brooks did. He recently shared some of his deeper insights about French rap [22]. It would be sinful to dumb down his meticulously chiseled arguments; and so, with apology to the readers who will find themselves unequipped with the proper neuronal apparatus, let me switch into intellectual high gear for one brief moment. French rap is bad, says ThoughtMaster Brookz, real bad—as in rotten, stinkin' bad. And it's very bad, too. By now ready to wrap up his analysis, Brooks plants the victory flag: the rioting is all rap's fault and you wouldn't believe the foul language! The only piece missing from this tableau was a picture of the horrified columnist flipping feverishly through his French-English dictionary with his ear glued to his rap-filled iPod.

Brooks's prose often reeks of the facile certitude of the clueless, but it takes on an added comic twist when the subject is hip-hop. French rap's marvelous rhythm and wordplay get lost in translation, but I hope some of the wit and poignancy survives my piddling efforts. Here's a sample from Shurik'n of Marseille's leading rap group IAM [23]:

In the heat where hearts wilt,
wide-eyed and kind, the southern rose has died.
Even Our Lady cried.
Not long ago, I'd go
trippin' at school cause of a “Your mom's a ho.”
Now I open the cage, tame the rage,
vomit my blackness on the page.
I write of twin dragons shooting for the dark moon,
of voices shouting from the hilltops “Liberty for all!”
Words that soar like hot air in the night, night flares in the sky,
skywriting through clouds of tear gas.
Word up. There's no Moses in the hood: shit ain't gonna part.
People die of cold, of boredom.
Others court amnesia,
forgetting that today's ho may become
yesterday's princess;
that mudslingers who spit upon our roots,
and see our destiny at the end of a rope,
soon find out that we all die the same—stretchin' out our hands
to the angels.

One day after 9/11, Le Monde famously headlined its editorial: “We are all Americans.” US observers were moved by this distant echo of John F. Kennedy's “Ich bin ein Berliner.” In fact, the echo was not quite so distant. In the spring of 1968, amidst massive student rioting in Paris, the threat of expulsion from France of Jewish-German student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit was met by 50,000 Frenchmen chanting “We are all German Jews.” It is time for the heirs of '68 to dust off their marching boots, take to the streets, and shout out the true motto of the Republic: “We are all French Beurs.”

             [1]   The Explanation of Ideology: Family Structures and Social Systems, by Emmanuel Todd, Blackwell, Oxford, 1985.

             [2]   La terre et les hommes, by Emmanuel Todd.

             [3]   Parions sur l'intégration, by Marceau Long, L'Express, May 1993.

             [4]   France, Wikipedia.

             [5]   The fires of disintegration, by Niall Ferguson, Los Angeles Times, November 7, 2005.


             [7]   Les immigrés en France: une situation qui évolue, by Chloé Tavan, INSEE, September 2005.

             [8]   Rien ne sépare les enfants d'immigrés du reste de la société, by Emmanuel Todd, Le Monde, November 2005.

             [9]   New marriages, new families: U.S. racial and Hispanic intermarriage, by S.M. Lee, B. Edmonston, PRB Bulletin 60(2), pp. 12, June 2005.

           [10]   Inter-ethnic marriage, March 2005. Source: Office for National Statistics, UK Census, April 2001.

           [11]   Who counts as "them?": racism and virtue in the United States and France, by Michèle Lamont, Contexts 2(4), pp. 36-41, Fall 2003.

           [12]   De la nécessité d'une loi inutile, Paul Bernard, Le Monde, February 2004.

           [13]   Burke's Peerage & Gentry, by Charles Mosley, American Presidential Families, Part 2.

           [14]   2005 civil unrest in France, Wikipedia.

           [15]   1992 Los Angeles riots, Wikipedia.

           [16]   A very French message from the disaffected, by Mark Landler, The New York Times, November 13, 2005.

           [17]   US vehicle fire trends and patterns, by Marty Ahrens, National Fire Protection Association, pp. 15, February 2004.

           [18]   Who will raise the siege of Paris? by Mark Steyn, The Washington Times, November 7, 2005.

           [19]   The riots could only have happened in France, by Pascal Bruckner, The New Republic, November 2005.

           [20]   African Americans, crime and criminal justice, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 2004.

           [21]   Can-do France, The Wall Street Journal, by Jérôme Guillet, August 19, 2005.

           [22]   Gangsta, in French, The New York Times, by David Brooks, November 10, 2005.

           [23]   “Our Lady” refers to Marseille's hilltop cathedral.