Tuesday, November 08, 2005

An argument from anecdote

In high school I spent six months in Montpellier, one of those mid-size cities in the south of France with substantial immigrant populations. I ended up at the bad high school in town (named after the aviator Mermoz) that had a large technical track and much smaller academic tracks. There were many Arabs in the technical tracks and far fewer in the academic tracks. Gym class was the melting pot for different social groups.

When I travel I tend to be more open about my religious affiliations and beliefs than is perhaps advisable: most everyone was well aware that I was Jewish, a rarity in Montpellier. So far as I could tell there was one other Jew in my class of 30+. Rather than this offending/troubling or provoking conflict, it was just a further bond with the Arab Muslim students in gym: we were not only outsiders by nationality, but also by religion. They showed me their multi-stage handshake and forced me to greet them with it. A few encouraged me to go to the flea market in the banlieu. When we played basketball, teams ended up being me and the Arabs versus the more "French" kids. I don't remember who won.

This was January to July 2003 when the great debate over the veil was raging. One of my teachers, Monsieur Moysan, would take rather long digressions to rail against the evils of the veil, and how this was destroying notions of community and etc. If one wanted to retain any sort of Muslim identity, one could not be French (though getting days off for Catholic holidays was perfectly acceptable: I was much chagrined to discover that "Ascension" had nothing to do with joining the EU and everything to do with Christ's body rising to heaven). Moysan enjoyed picking on one of the three Arab students in the class, Idriss, who was not only the most intelligent member of the class, but also the most intellectually curious (and it was for this curiosity that he was mocked, but the curiosity was that of an outsider trying to figure out how the world fit together). When n=1, it is hard to draw inferences (and Moysan was from Corsica...), but...

One day Idriss was listening to a Walkman before class and the teacher had yet to arrive (tardy teachers were a frequent occurrence). I was most entertained to discover that one side of the tape had Moroccan music and the other had American rap. This captured something about the problem of integration: French culture was not only not particularly welcoming, but not necessarily the desired culture. Though this certainly extrapolates far too much from the more banal observation that youth culture in France is largely American youth culture.

There is something very closed about France that makes it very hard to integrate outside groups. This has little to do with any particularities about one group versus another group and much more to do with how French identity is defined. France is a liberal's dream: we are all human, we are defined solely by our being human. There is no place for other group identities to enter. This doesn't really mean that group identity doesn't matter, it just means that there is no way to acknowledge that it does and then cope with it.

Update: Daniel Davies has a characteristically entertaining response to the riots:
The prevailing opinion appears to be that the problem with the young French North Africans rioting in towns like Clichy-sur-Bois [1] is that "they have not integrated into French society", or possibly that "French society has not been able to integrate them", depending on which cote of the rue you're looking from.

What utter rot. These young men have got a political grievance, and they're expressing it by setting fire to things and smashing them up. What could be more stereotypically, characteristically French than that? Presumably they're setting fire to cars because they don't have any sheep and the nearest McDonalds is miles away. "French society is threatened by anarchy and lawlessness". I mean really. Everyone would do well to remember that this is France we're talking about, not Sweden or perhaps Canada.

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