Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Message of French "Natives" to Iraqis

"Don’t Emulate French Republicanism!"

Only enough French republicanism to hold the country together is actually needed in Iraq. Beyond that, the very communitarian logic of the recent Iraqi constitution might just as well inspire an updating of French-style integration.

"Indigenous Citizens"

Manifestation du 08 mai 2005

While many Iraqi radicals, democrats and patriots still hold French republicanism in nearly religious veneration, France’s postcolonial "natives" (i.e., second and third generation Muslim immigrants from ex-colonial Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa) consider it simply a form of racism. Occasionally, some of these discriminated and excluded Frenchmen may even feel attracted to extremely conservative (i.e., loose consociational and non agonistic) forms of communitarian political organization.

The fact is that the latest urban riots have showed to what degree French-style integration; i.e., French assimilation policy, has been downgraded and fallen in disuse.

Naturally, left-wing defenders of this integration model will continue explaining in social-economistic terms the revolt of the suburbs of Paris and the other cities of France. They will continue explaining November 2005 in terms of the cutbacks in government subsidies that have curtailed social services in the affected areas. They will invoke the rage stemming from neo-liberal policies and the need therefore for a "Marshall Plan for the suburbs" (Bernard Cassen, Le Monde diplomatique); they will invoke either the economic globalization (Toni Negri) or the imperfections of everyday French republicanism and (Olivier Roy).

Its defenders from a more or less extremist right-wing will continue equating identity politics with hatred and fanaticism. They will invoke Islamist fundamentalism as well as anti-French and anti-West racism (Alain Finkielkraut, France’s answer to Samuel Huntington).

In this sense, the controversy about the identity of the breakers – "Are they Frenchmen or anti-Frenchmen?" – exemplified the two positionings. To some all that these youthful insurgents ask for is being Frenchmen and finding their way back into their sweet France, to others these Afro-Arab-Muslim rioters simply hate France and everything French. In reality, neither neo-liberal globalization nor any Islamist or anti-West identity drift can, not alone anyway, explain why this violence had to burst in France precisely.

So what is the alternative to French color and identity "blind" assimilation; what sort of social and political integration qualifies as truly postcolonial?
Firstly, according to a widely held opinion among Frenchmen, communitarianism is the dominant integration model in the Anglo-Saxon world. To French Le Figaro, even Sweden is communitarian. This is to say that everything is relative of course. Or as they say: the one-eyed may be king among blind people. In truth, except for specialized political scientists, the word communitarianism (kommunitärism) has never been part of the language use of Swedish, rather Jacobin, monarchy.

What else are we left with than this liberal multiculturalism that is put into practice here, there, and everywhere else but in France?

Well, in the U.S. you can be American and Muslim, American and Black, indeed. The "and" that is officially banished in France is definitely essential to citizenship and can no longer be evaded, as Esther Benbassa states it. As she expresses it too, it is in the own interest of those in power in France "to take it into account." But let’s not be mistaken about it: in the U.S. hyphenated identities are accepted for individuals only; the federal system in the U.S. is based on territory and does neither recognize ethnicity and confession nor allow for communal political representation.

To be or not to be French is not the question. Rather, the question is whether or not France can offer its insurgent children a new form of Frenchness. Acknowledging a crisis of French identity, President Chirac spoke of those more than two weeks of unrest as "bearing witness to a deep malaise." "We will respond by being firm, by being fair and by being faithful to the values of France," Chirac said. Just which values exactly and how ready he was for a radical updating of the whole idea of Frenchness is the question.

What about a multicultural and inter-communitarian "republicanism," for example? What about a (consociational) political representation secured for all communities in France, one that is matched with a (agonistic) public sphere where all communal identities are freely discussed and perpetually called into question?

How about applying the "freedom-equality-fraternity" motto to the attitude communities are to take to each other in France, with all that this would imply in terms of quotas – in parliament, government, and the economy – and in terms of affirmative action measures in favor of the disadvantaged? How about a French fatherland defined by the loyalty of the said communities toward a certain Hexagonal territory and a certain cultural arena? How about citizenship defined by inter-communal consensual minimal individual protections, matched with maximal duties toward the fatherland?

I commented once (April 2005) on the history of the confessional constitutional system in Lebanon in these terms:

[…] we must then admit that a very strong alteration or hybridization of French metropolitan law had taken place on Lebanese colonised soil. (Following in emigrants’ wake, this subversive process has now reached the very French metropolitan soil, where much energy and money is spent these days in order to stop the new specter haunting la République or what the French call with strong disapproval "le communautarisme.")

Well, I think that time is ripe now to complete this cycle of hybridization. I‘m serious about it, updating the French-style integration might need draw on the very communitarian logic of the recent Iraqi constitution – I’m not speaking of drawing on the federal provisions of the said constitution but on its potential for a tight consociationalism with some more central power. But inversely too, only enough French republicanism to hold the country together is actually needed in Iraq. For example, the absolutist laïcité requirement is the last thing needed to save the Iraqi constitution. In other words, a consociational "République" is as badly needed in France as a "republican" consociation is in Iraq.

To those not directly concerned, I recommend this bilingual website for further reading:

Idées de France

Unity/Diversity: a Colonial Puzzle?
With its universalist dogma and legal denial of cultural and ethnic identities, in favor of the more abstract (and formally equal) "citizen" status, isn’t the French Republic in fact still in tune with its old colonial-era "civilising mission"? And isn’t the overwhelming feeling of social "exclusion" within the suburban housing projects to be blamed on a colonial heritage and some sort of continuity between the political inferiority endured by these kids’ grandparents and the still paternalistic tone of today’s Republican elites? Such are the latest questions raised by the defenders of a "postcolonial" approach to contemporary France.

The bottom line is the link between the official "unity" claimed by the French Republic and the ethnic and cultural "diversity" that is both a consequence of France’s colonial past and a historical key to the French nation. This link is a complex, dialectical one, which explains why working at neutralising identity politics — as France has for a long while — may very well result in actually reinforcing them. This type of postcolonial paradox is not encountered in former colonial powers such as Great Britain or Portugal — which points to the idea of a crisis of universalism specific to France. These questions and others are on top of today’s agenda, at a time when France is trying to make sense of what happened in its toughest suburbs in early November.

A Colonial Unconscious?
In the same way that De Gaulle’s 1945 France had opted for a version of Vichy as a historical accident to support national reconciliation — favoring a form of self-censorship regarding the history of France’s collaboration with the Nazis — some commentators now wonder whether De Gaulle’s 1960s and 1970s France hasn’t made a similar choice to defuse the many tensions between French nationals, repatriates from North Africa, and descendants of immigrants (that is, most often, of colonised populations): the untold idea was to remain silent about the damage inflicted by colonialism and the so-called "republican racism" it had fueled (to use a phrase favored by today’s prosecutors of republicanism). Which would be the reason why the colonial debate is being reopened so late today, and therefore in such a potentially explosive manner, after being silenced back when ex-colonies were becoming independent nations.

Immigrants/Colonized: Any link?
The broader question is that of the possible persistency of colonial-style behavior in the French Republic’s relationship with immigrant (and immigrant-origin) minorities — insofar as most of them are the direct descendants of the "subjects" of its old colonial empire. What raised such a question is the type of assimilationist policies favored in France, along with their "universalist" justification, and above all the government’s powerlessness and agressive attitude at the same time in the face of its poorest suburbs. A vivid reminder of this came in early November when the Villepin centre-right cabinet chose to revive a colonia era "state of emergency" regulation:
a 1955 law allowing city administrations to impose a curfew on their respective territories.
This idea of a direct connection — if not of a continuity — between France’s colonial past and contemporary urban policies is strongly rejected by traditional defenders of France’s republicanism: from conservative columnists warning against the risk of "a competition of victims", as
Le Figaro’s Alain-Gérard Slama to newsweekly Marianne’s columnists, all the way to the most vigorous advocates of Enlightenment values, such as André Glucksmann indicting "the fires of hatred" and Alain Finkielkraut denouncing in the Israeli press "those young anti-West rioters".

The Republic vs. the Natives
This same line of argument is followed by those who wonder whether neutralising (and legally denying) particular ethno-cultural identities, in the name of a humanistic conception of the abstract "citizen", does not actually help to reinforce them, by pushing them back toward identitarian modes of self-expression that can only be displayed away from the Republic’s framework.
Such is the suggestion made by the several hundred young activists who signed the now-much debated December 2004
"call to the indigenous people within the Republic" and demand that a symposium on "postcolonial anti-colonialism" be organized by the government: they claim that in the French Republic of the new Millenium, their only belonging is to a community of "descendants of slaves and African prisoners, sons and daughters of colonised people and immigrants" rather than to the French national community or citizenry. Another sign that the current return of the colonial repressed is fashioning new attitudes and discourses.


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