A brief response to Benjamin Stora

On his blog “French Politics” Art Goldhammer directs attention to two articles in today’s edition of Le Monde. The first is an interview with Manuel Valls in which he regrets that France has become an apartheid society.   The second is in the same issue of Le Monde, in which the historian Benjamin Stora notes one sign of this de facto apartheid in the absence of young people from the banlieues in the great republican mass held on the Sunday after the killings.

Goldhammer notes that, by way of explanation, Benjamin Stora, like Manuel Valls, invokes the riots of 2005 along with many other things:

« Cette faible présence nous dit plusieurs choses. D’abord, la crise du lien républicain, crise installée depuis plus de dix ans. Et dix ans très exactement après les émeutes de 2005, la fracture ne s’est pas résorbée. On en connaît l’origine : l’effondrement des idéologies collectives, le refuge dans le religieux comme idéologie de substitution aux engagements naguère menés par les gauches (politiques ou syndicales), les retards pris dans le regard porté sur le passé colonial, les crises des sociétés de culture musulmane prises entre des États autoritaires et des oppositions islamistes, la tragédie terrible des événements algériens des années 1990 juste après la chute du mur de Berlin, etc. Ajoutons la montée de l’antisémitisme et l’aggravation de la crise économique, avec près de 4 millions de chômeurs… »

Goldhammer then asks:

But what exactly is this “crisis of the republican bond” and this de facto apartheid? Perhaps it’s the “republican” ideology itself that needs to be re-examined. Can immigrants and children of immigrants and grandchildren of immigrants integrate themselves into the fabric of French life if they can’t organize as a community to demand their rights? ” Everything to the Maghrebis as individuals, nothing to the Maghrebis as a nation”–Clermont-Tonnerre’s promise to the Jews, mutatis mutandis–won’t work today. Arguably, it didn’t work for the Jews either: it took World War II to get them fully integrated, in compensation, as it were. North African immigrants have a different hurdle to overcome: they were and in some respects still are seen as a colonial people, an internal colony. What they need, as Stora suggests, is a civil rights movement to counter the tendency to take “refuge in the religious as a substitute ideology for [political and trade-union] commitments formerly led by the left.”  But such a movement would be immediately denounced as “communitarian” by the more zealous defenders of “republican values.” So be it, I say. The experiment must be attempted. France needs a Martin Luther King.”

To begin with, I agree with Art Goldhammer that Manuel Valls is to be commended for acknowledging that France has become an apartheid society. Indeed, I believe it would be fair to say that Europe itself has become an apartheid society. But let’s be honest about the source of this apartheid of which he speaks.

Europe wanted cheap labour but had no interest in acquiring burdensome new citizens. The cheap labour was a blessing for European economies trapped in the death spiral of globalization’s race to the bottom. The immigrants were isolated and marginalized so that they would be out of sight, out of mind and out of everybody’s way and that’s the way it stayed until 2005 when the poverty, violence and toxic culture of the banlieues exploded in an orgy of violence that terrified la France profonde.

For their part, these immigrants wanted jobs, but nothing more. The Muslim immigrants at first came as guest workers. As globalization, mobility of capital, corruption and cronyism wrecked their societies; the trickle of guest workers from Africa and the Islamic World became a flood of economic refugees. They certainly did not come to Europe seeking a new identity and adapting to Europe’s culture was never a part of the bargain.

Regrettably, the left’s contribution of “multiculturalism” has only made things worse for everyone. The most conservative, most religious and most tribal elements of the immigrants’ societies were lauded as the most “authentic” and were made the conduit through which the host societies would deal with the immigrants. The well-meaning condescension of the left has been every bit as consequential in trapping generations of immigrants in the tribal cultures of their parents as the hostility and bigotry of the right.

This contrasts very sharply with the way in which my great grandparents immigrated to America to build a new life for themselves and become Americans. Becoming Americans was a part of what America offered but also something demanded of newcomers. The new country offered immigrants a cleansing, a rebirth, a chance for a fresh start. This was the notion of America as a melting pot. But the ideal of becoming an American required letting go of old loyalties and old ways of life.

The republican principles of the American melting pot were good and might well provide a model for republican France. Without doubt, the implementation in my country has been far from perfect. “No Jews, no Irish, no blacks and no dogs” was the sign posted everywhere to exclude immigrants and minorities from houses, bars, restaurants and hotels. For centuries, it was the rallying cry of the South and much of the WASP society throughout the country. But the desire on the part of African-Americans to be fully accepted as equals in American society is what MLK and the Civil Rights movement marched, bled, and often died to achieve.

As for what needs to be done now in France, I think both Benjamin Stora and Art Goldhammer make many valid and important points. But, on the whole, I cannot agree with their rejection of “republican values”. Undoubtedly, the response of the left to the riots of 2005 was woefully inadequate. That was the moment for an urgent discussion of how to remedy the physical isolation and cultural isolation and the discrimination against immigrants.   This failure to do so has proven disastrous for everyone.

Nevertheless, it seem to me as if Stora is ultimately talking about doubling down on the failed policy of multiculturalism that is in no small part responsible for our situation.   Although he professes to support républicanisme, his solution seems oddly disconnected from the promotion of républicain principles.

Perhaps I have lost something in the translation (which would be normal for me) but I do not really understand whose history and culture Stora thinks needs to be transmitted better to immigrants and, particularly, to the Beur community. He seems to be speaking not of a need for better, more accessible, teaching of French history and of the causes of the revolutions or for better transmission of French culture and the principles of republicanism but instead of the need for better teaching of the history and culture of Islam and the Maghreb.

As an outsider looking in, I say that the problem is that there are two Frances where there needs to be only one. For me, the solution is integration and acceptance of the newcomers into a French society governed by républican principles, including the principle of laïcité, which makes it possible for people of all faiths and none to share public spaces and participate harmoniously in civic life.

I just don’t understand how Prof. Stora’s approach would do anything except to drive everyone more deeply into their own communities.

UPDATE (January 22, 2015):

The main point I have been trying to make in responding to Prof. Stora is that doubling down on identity politics is a losing proposition. The version of “multiculturalism” that empowered the most conservative, most deeply religious, most primitive, tribal elements of the immigrant communities has been a colossal failure.

Clearly, it needs to be replaced by something—the question is, what should replace it?  My belief is that integrating newcomers is easier for a republican society where much of the national identity is derived by reference to a political and social ethos than one based on racial identity.  It seems to me that republicanism has a lot to offer.

All countries have their foundational myths and there’s no doubt that America’s myth of the melting pot has been more honored in the breach than in the observance.  But even so, it still has tremendous resonance and power here.  It gives immigrants a shot at claiming to belong that is intuitively respected by most Americans (or at least those who don’t belong to an explicitly nativist political movement like the Republican Party).  And, I believe, it is a myth that fits nicely within the America’s republican framework, which suggests that organizing the integration of immigrants along republican lines and inculcating them with republicanism is the best hope for an integrated France.

Martin Luther King and LBJ both understood the power of America’s founding myths and tapped into them to power a movement for inclusion of African-Americans into the mainstream of American life that has been extremely successful.   The advocates for immigration reform have finally begun to find success because they, too, have started to make their case as one of inclusion rather than of racial identity.  The thing that’s really caused their movement to gain very widespread support has been the descriptions of young people who have lived their entire lives in America and have defined themselves as Americans.

Again, obviously a country where the second largest (and arguably most powerful) political party is openly racist and avowedly nativist is one that is still struggling with the idea of integration. Whatever its failings in that regard, and they are many; America has pretty evidently done a far better job of integrating successive waves of immigrants than has Europe.  I believe that is in part because we are a republic and so what is necessary for belonging is more along the lines of the acceptance of republican principles than of racial identity.

I believe that a society like France, whose foundational myths are as much political and cultural as racial, should likewise capitalize on the fact that the French identity is potentially to be found in the acceptance of something along the lines of Patrick Weil’s Four Pillars of French Nationality. It’s a fair compromise: If you come to make a new life, you must accept the governing principles. For the indigenous French, a corresponding understanding must begin to take root that those who come to France and accept the governing principles of the country are French.