Who Gets to Be French?

The French language is justly renowned for its clarity and precision. Yet on a seemingly simple matter its speakers stumble into a fog — who or what can be defined as French? The question arose afresh in the wake of the Toulouse killings. No one doubted that the perpetrator was 23-year-old Mohammed Merah, a native son of Algerian descent. But was Mr. Merah French?

Impossible, declared four members of Parliament belonging to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right party. In a joint statement, they insisted that Mr. Merah “had nothing French about him but his identity papers.”

Nonsense, retorted the left-wing journal Libération: “Merah is certainly a monster, but he was a French monster.” A childhood friend of Mr. Merah provided a poignant elaboration: “Our passports may say that we are French, but we don’t feel French because we were never accepted here. No one can excuse what he did, but he is a product of French society, of the feeling that he had no hope and nothing to lose. It was not Al Qaeda that created Mohammed Merah. It was France.”

These opposing approaches to what it means to be French — one rooted in an uncompromising ideal of assimilation, the other grounded in the messy realities of multiculturalism — struck a chord with me. While researching a book on the politics of diversity with my wife, Shareen Blair Brysac, I encountered not only the exclusionary attitude prevailing in metropolitan Paris, but also the more tolerant worldview epitomized by the port city of Marseille — a worldview that the rest of France would be well served to embrace.

To exclusionists, the test of French-ness is straightforward: have you relinquished any other identity you might have had? As articulated by President Sarkozy in 2011: “If you come to France, you accept to melt into a single community, which is the national community, and if you do not want to accept that, you are not welcome in France. We have been too concerned with the identity of the person who was arriving, and not enough about the identity of the country that was receiving him.”

It’s an old conundrum. From the days of the Jacobins to today’s Fifth Republic, lawmakers have differed strenuously as to whether nationality should be determined by birth, parentage, length of residency or assimilation. The French scholar Patrick Weil has noted that France has changed its nationality laws “more often and more significantly than any other democratic nation.”

How does one become a citizen of the exclusionists’ France? By knowing its cultural references and intricate folkways, as described in 1969 by the writer Sanche de Gramont: “The Frenchman is not someone who possesses a navy blue passport and speaks the language of Descartes, but someone who knows who broke the Soissons vase, what happened to Buridan’s donkey, why Parmentier gave his name to a hash, and why Charles Martel saved Christendom.” (Ironically, in 1977, Mr. de Gramont changed his name to Ted Morgan and became a United States citizen.)

The effects of this exclusionary mindset are palpable. France today has Europe’s largest Islamic minority, making up nearly 10 percent of its population. Yet Muslims remain a people apart, as documented in 2011 by a research team recruited by the Open Society Institute. “In France,” one researcher summarized, “you can be of any descent, but if you are a French citizen you cannot be an Arab.” Composite identities like Arab-French are, he added, “ideologically impossible.”

Hence the contrast one experiences in Marseille, France’s second largest city. Its 840,000 inhabitants include an estimated 240,000 Muslims (more than any other European city). Yet it is famously welcoming. Here, as we were told by Jean Roatta, a politician representing the port’s upscale central district, “you’re Marseillais before you are French.” In the fall of 2005, as ethnically charged riots consumed Parisian suburbs and spread to scores of other cities and towns, peace prevailed in Marseille. It’s still a long way from being a multicultural Eden (jobless Muslims credibly complain that they experience discrimination), but this second city still points the way in its welcoming civility.

Why? Doubtless, fine weather and abundant beaches help maintain a tranquil atmosphere, but the chief reason is that it has for centuries been a magnet for immigrants. And its minorities are not geographically ghettoized in suburbs but rather integrated into Marseille’s daily life. Just as important, successive mayors have bent the rules to provide special job, housing and political benefits to newcomers. Moreover, there’s the bonding power of its popular soccer team, Olympique de Marseille, which includes many players of African origin, and the salutary effect of its trademark cultural product: rap. Rap reached France in the 1980s, and almost instantly immigrant youths in Marseille vented their melancholy and frustration in verses salted with local slang.

Can and should the Marseillais spirit of civilized tolerance spread northward? My wife and I were reminded that it was a throng of volunteers singing a melody as they marched to Paris from already polyglot Marseille who gave France its national anthem, “La Marseillaise.” Nobody then asked the marchers if they knew what happened to Buridan’s donkey.

Karl E. Meyer, a former member of the New York Times editorial board, is a co-author of Pax Ethnica: Where and How Diversity Succeeds.

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