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France Ablaze and Villepin’s “Moment of Truth”

The extraordinary 12-day state of emergency, which went into effect Tuesday at midnight, covered Paris, its suburbs and more than 30 other French cities from the Mediterranean to the border with Germany and to Rouen in the north– an indication of how widespread arson, riots and other unrest have become in nearly two weeks of violence.

The emergency decree invoked a 50-year-old security law that dates to France’s colonial war in Algeria. It empowers officials to put troublemakers under house arrest, ban or limit the movement of people and vehicles, confiscate weapons and close public spaces where gangs gather. It also paved the way for curfews in areas where officials feel they are needed.

Seventy-three percent of respondents in a poll published Wednesday in daily Le Parisien said they agreed with the curfew.

The unrest started Oct. 27 as a localized riot in a northeast Paris suburb angry over the accidental deaths of two teenagers, of Mauritanian and Tunisian descent, who were electrocuted while hiding from police in a power substation. ~The Chicago Sun-Times [1]

[Prime Minister] de Villepin was cheered by his Centre-Right colleagues and jeered by many on the Left in the National Assembly yesterday when he explained the imposition of the curfew law.

“The Republic is at a moment of truth,” he said. “What is being questioned is the effectiveness of our integration model.” ~The Australian [2]

Perhaps M. de Villepin should return to foreign policy, writing poetry and waxing nostalgic about Napoleon, as his judgement about the premiere political problem of his time at home is completely unsound. What is being questioned is not the “effectiveness” of an “integration model.” What a perfect Ecole elitist thing to say. It is that sort of thinking, and these sorts of governors, over the last 40 years that has produced the miserable, imploding France of today. What is happening is not a “questioning” of anything, but an assault, a rebellion, an act of contempt towards a stupidly open and vulnerable society that has not the most basic instinct to preserve itself. To borrow the foolish, vogue Popperian term, the worst enemy of the “open society” is the so-called “open society” itself.

The “integration model” failed. It failed as soon as it began, and not only because the new Muslim Maghrebi populations in France wanted no part of integration. It failed because there was no real attempt at integration, and because there was nothing into which anyone could be integrated. Rather, there was nothing into which anyone with his own sense of identity would suffer to be integrated. What does the Fifth Republic mean to an Arab from North Africa? How bereft of meaningful symbols and ideas does a people have to be that the only thing they can invoke with any conviction is “the Republic”? As the presidential elections of 2002 revealed, Frenchmen feel no attachment to or great enthusiasm for “the Republic,” and indeed the only thing that could garner any enthusiasm in that contest was the conditioned hate response directed against some of the last few Frenchmen who are actually committed to the French nation. The French Republic is made up of the institutions staffed by the deracinated elites–it has little or nothing to do with the French people (and as of this month, it should be clear that the inhabitants of the banlieues are not part of the French people by their own admission and actions).

“Tolerance” and “equality” are the very things that bar all real cultural integration, and the effects of this indifference towards reproducing French culture in Muslims in France (which is not to say that it would have worked) are exacerbated by the reality that it scarcely means anything to be French. Such is the fate of a country where even its romantic nationalists, such as Villepin, now idealise a foreigner who ruined the nation and define that nation by the principles of the Revolution that succeeded to some extent in divorcing France from her past, or at least in making her past distasteful to the children of the Revolution.

Even feigned French self-confidence in their 20th century colonialist phase betrayed an internal crisis of identity. No sane nation pretends that a colony of aliens and infidels, such as Algeria, is truly a part of itself. (The tremendous wisdom of our ancestors not to make the mistake of annexing most of Mexico in 1848 has been repeatedly vindicated down through the years, even if many of us cannot appreciate it.) If Algeria had really been an integral part of France, the restoration of French rule in 1945 would not have been the ugly, brutal affair that it was. The delusion that Algeria was an integral part of France, which made the Algerian Revolution so much more meaningful to French nationalists than their other failed colonial wars, has now given way to a new delusion. This is the delusion that the same imaginary convivience that failed 50 years ago will somehow magically succeed when l’Algerie is moved to France proper. But in transporting l’Algerie to France there may eventually come new versions of the Battle of Algiers across the country. The riots over the past two weeks have occasionally been termed a French intifada, and they have the potential to become much worse than that.

France cannot readily fall back on her historic Catholicism for her identity–the divorce from that tradition by left and right is essentially complete and has been for several generations. Even the rightist tradition of Action Francais, to which the Front National is heir, is fundamentally secular. Without a common religious culture, French identity, if the French decide to preserve it, will probably be defined increasingly in terms of ethnicity and race. A sense of shared history would be important in defining this identity, but French historiography is and has been so dominated and controlled by the narrative of the Revolution serving as the national self-definition and Marxist interpretations of that narrative that this will be very slow to change. What the French must not do, but what their elites probably will do, is to fall back on abstractions and propositions and attempt to solve irreconcilable cultural alienation through ideological posturing and a superficial civic identity based in political ideals. This ideology does not even satisfy the “Gaulois,” so why would it be compelling for people who come from an entirely alien civilisation and tradition?

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