When I moved to France 12 years ago, it was like arriving in an unfriendly paradise. Sure, hardly anyone spoke to me. But there was national paid maternity leave and free preschool. Practically everyone seemed to agree on the need for strict gun laws, and access to birth control and abortion. Not only did the whole country have health insurance; most undocumented immigrants could get medical and dental care free. (Cruelly, their thermal bath cures weren’t covered.)
I also came to appreciate the way the French think, as explained by Sudhir Hazareesingh in his aptly named new book, “How the French Think.” How could I resist a country where rappers mention Rousseau, philosophy is a compulsory subject in high school and ordinary people point out the duality in everything from outfits to marriages?
As a journalist, I marveled at people’s capacity for abstract thought. When I interviewed Parisians about infidelity, many began by asking whether “fidelity” meant being faithful to your partner, or to yourself. The French believe “they have a duty to think not just for themselves but also for the rest of the world,” Mr. Hazareesingh writes.
All that thinking can have an admirable moral mission. When hundreds of thousands of refugees fled Vietnam in the late 1970s, France’s pre-eminent intellectuals — led by Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron, who had been feuding for decades — teamed up and pleaded with the French president to help. “These are men in mortal danger whom we must rescue because they are men,” Mr. Sartre said at a news conference. (They were also fleeing a former French colony.) France took in nearly 130,000 “boat people” from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
That influx, and others like it, have helped make France a nation of immigrants. Nearly a quarter of the population has at least one foreign-born grandparent.
Of course I fretted about the rise of the far-right National Front, and the fact that many sub-Saharan and North African immigrants — and their descendants — are marginalized.
But what the headlines don’t say is that daily life in Paris, and in most French cities, is also full of pleasant multicultural experiences. My local cheese stand is owned by a Moroccan lady who’s married to a Serb. My children have public-school classmates who speak Chinese, Italian or Arabic at home. At my twins’ recent birthday, a table of kids descended from Greek, Lebanese, Portuguese and American immigrants insisted on singing “La Marseillaise.”
So when hundreds of thousands of migrants began arriving in Europe, I assumed that France would be welcoming.
It wasn’t. President François Hollande said in September that France would take in an additional 24,000 refugees over the next two years. In a national poll afterward, 70 percent of respondents said 24,000 was “sufficient” or “very sufficient,” and half said they would refuse to accept refugees in their own city.
To put that in perspective: The International Organization for Migration estimates that some 724,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean into Europe so far this year. Many others have arrived by land. Germany expects to receive at least 800,000 asylum seekers this year.
France’s strategy is apparently to be so unwelcoming that most migrants won’t want to stay. The French refugee camp known as the Jungle has swelled to about 6,000 people, most of whom aspire to get to Britain. When French officials went to Munich in September to bring the first of the new refugees to France, their buses returned half empty.
What happened to the nation that thinks for the world?
Prominent intellectuals have turned rightward or spoken out against helping refugees. Sartre was a global star. Today’s thinkers are mostly known inside France, where they appear alongside actresses on prime-time talk shows.
Politicians seem to have decided that there’s nothing to be gained from a big humanitarian gesture. Every party is getting tougher on immigrants, to reclaim voters from the National Front.
And there’s the elephant in the room (the French call this the “hidden face of the iceberg”): the fact that most of the migrants are Muslim. In a 2013 government survey, just 65 percent of respondents said French Muslims are “French like others,” down from 80 percent four years earlier.
I see now that France was never paradise. “Your alter country is all that your first was not,” writes the English author Julian Barnes, “commitment to it involves idealism, love, sentimentality and a certain selective vision.”
But France has also gotten worse. What once seemed like adorable grouchiness or “bleak chic” has morphed into something darker: a willingness to believe that people are walking here from Aleppo for free root canals; a sense that — despite being the world’s sixth-largest economy — France is powerless to help more.
At this point, the French even seem unhappy about how negative they’ve become. A positive approach to refugees would probably energize them. As it stands, France can no longer claim to have a universal message. These days, it’s just a flawed, ordinary country that mostly thinks for itself.
Pamela Druckerman is a contributing opinion writer.