Friday, September 16, 2005

Immigration Discourses

Every few weeks the French press spits out the same article: polygamy is exploding the hexagonne, the result of the immigrants from Mali who refuse to abandon the practice in contravention of national laws and norms. They come with one wife, perhaps sneak another in later. Or they divorce in the eyes of officials, but remain domiciled. The women, both young and old, are trapped by economic dependence, their lack of familiarity with French, and their adherence to traditions.

The latest of such articles appeared today in Le Figaro. Fatou, who married her cousin, is one of three wives and who has seven of her husband's nineteen children, has been technically divorced since 1993. She would like to establish her own household, but she hasn't the means to do so. Making things complicated for her, officials have refused to renew permission that allows her to continue to live with her ex-spouse.

Certainly polygamy has become a major problem, both socially and legally. Men play a game of misdirection with bureaucrats in their native and adoptive countries. They bring over women who, because of their lack of familiarity with French culture and language, are functionally dependent. They feel powerless to resist their husband's further housemaking.

Divorces are farces, allowing the men to marry again and making the women eligible for government aid -- money which the husbands more often than not send home to their native communities. The government attempts to help them gain independence by giving financial incentives to separate, paying for apartments and care. Still, the economic and psychological costs are high.

The differences between France and the US are interesting. Both countries perceive that they have problems with immigration. But each focuses on a different archetypes. For Americans, the (illegal) immigrant is often a gang-banger or drug dealer -- a character who breaks the law and consumes public resources.

The French also associate their immigrants with hoodlumism, but they use a paradigm of the subordination of women to understand the problem. The wife in a plural marriage is a carryover from a primitive and corrupt society. Her condition worsens because she is incapable of assimilating: she has not been educated because the society from which she comes does not value intelligent women. Consequently, the French discourse focuses on saving these women (and their families) from men who liberate themselves by living in France but turn their households into bastions of tradition.

Women -- school girls, in particular -- have been a constant obsession of French politicians since the 1830s. The July Monarchy was the first regime to take widespread public education seriously. The laws, written by Guizot, did not cover girls, and religious institutions saw the education of girls as a domain wherein they could establish themselves.

Noticing this, Michelet raised the alarm that the clergy were turning women against the progress of democracy. Priests and nuns taught girls only to do the housework, but they armed them with stock phrases to counteract the republican ideas that men received in the public sphere. According to Michelet, girls were instructed to become counterrevolutionaries who turned the hearth into a battleground. Not only were the accomplishments of the Revolution at risk, but the French family itself: men and women were permanently pitted against each other.

To be sure, the French republicans and democrats were interested in nothing more than retrieving girls from priestly influence. They were not interested in educating women to liberate them.

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