Monday, November 07, 2005

Drafting the Disaster

Now that the burning, upturned cars are finding their way into the center of Paris and other French cities, I want to bring up some places where I addressed issues relevant to the "Muslim question" in France. BTW, I think that Sarkozy has gotten a bad rap for his tough talk: before the riots, he was the only French politician addressing these issues.

May 13, 2004:

This cartoon appeared in
Le Monde on Tuesday (May 11, 2004). It shows a school in which Muslim clerics are being educated in French. The bubble reads “What do you call a female imam?” (Literally: “what is the feminine of imam?”)

The issue of Muslims in France is more complex than the banning of head scarves and other religious symbols in public schools. France is struggling with the question of how to harmonize Islam with political culture. ... secularization means more than removing faith from public life. It means making a French version of Islam: one that confirms the values that the society holds, and one that does not look outside France for leadership.

September 9, 2004
The law against wearing veils in French classrooms is not being enforced in Strasbourg. Because Alsace has unique rules about teaching religion in schools, some school officials feel that it is inappropriate to deny religious freedoms that other Alsatian students enjoy.

The school officials do not feel that they can act against veils because of the tradition of religious education. Islam is not taught in Alsatian schools (like other religions). However, officials do not feel they can act against the veils because the presence of religion is tolerated in schools. Furthermore, the local Muslim community feels that the issue of the veil can be used as an opening to introduce instruction of Islam into schools.
En raison du statut scolaire local, qui n'englobe pas l'islam, les élèves musulmans n'ont en effet pas cours de religion, à la différence de leurs camarades des cultes catholique, luthérien, réformé et juif. La situation peut-elle évoluer ... en préconisant un enseignement de la religion optionnel pour tous ?
So far 80 of the 100-120 cases in which girls have refused to uncover themselves are in Alsace.

October 20, 2004:

The hope that Muslims in Alsace would find some accommodation with school authorities has been dashed. Two girls have been expelled from two lycées in Mulhouse (southern Alsace) for wearing veils and bandanas as a sign of religious devotion, and two more cases are pending in Strasbourg (via Talk Left).

Update: The original law against the veil (loi de 15 mars) specified that religious attire was prohibited. The students attempted to meet the law half way, wearing bandanas as a means of keeping their heads covered in lieu of "Muslim veils". Education officials ruled that the bandanas had taken on religious significance because of their constant use and because they cover the entirety of the scalp. The ministry of education considers the bandanas to be an evolution of religious symbols.

October 25, 2004:
The French paper Le Figaro gave a lot of attention to a book by French finance minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Describing himself as a practicing Catholic, Sarkozy reevaluates the 99-year old laws on secularism that have been used to justify banning religion from public life. While Sarkozy upholds the loi laïc as a protection for republicanism, he opines that France will need to make some exceptions to secularism in order to integrate Muslims into French society. Sarkozy carries a lot of weight in France--he is expected to become the next head of the conservative UMP--and his opinion will be taken seriously.

November 16, 2004:
Chirac and Raffarin are rejecting Sarkozy's suggestion that the 1905 secular laws should be moderated to let religion (especially Muslims) come into French public life.

November 22, 2004, at the ceremonies for the liberation of Alsace:
Many of the speeches attempted to strike notes of cultural reconciliation. Some described the final expulsion of the Germans as the moment when rapprochement between France and Germany could truly begin. Raffarin, adding a little bit of contemporary politics, compared the oppression of the occupation with the current religious intolerance against Jews and Muslims.

January 14, 2005:
Kai Littmann at EUROPEUS believes that the hate crimes being perpetrated in Alsace are not merely expressions of racism. The graffiti left behind at a recent incident — the attempt to burn down the home of a spokesman of a regional Islamic organization — suggests that the larger issue is migration and crossborder movement.

The two words "Araben raus," painted on a nearby wall, was written to look as if Germans had attempted the arson. As Littmann points out, the words could not have been written by a German because, in two words, the author makes several grammatical mistakes — it should be written "Araber ‘raus". Moreover (and most importantly), racism in Germany is not directed at a group known as ‘Arabs.' Rather the ‘Turks' are the objects of hatred.

January 23, 2005, concerning a study of racist groups in France:
The right no longer looks at communists as their "worst enemy" -- that is position is now taken by Jews and Americans, and increasingly, Muslims.
La grande majorité de ces groupuscules est islamophobe : ils confondent islam et islamisme, le premier étant selon eux incapable de modernisation et portant en germe le second. Mais cela ne signifie pas pour autant que l'antisémitisme a disparu chez eux, comme l'a montré la vague de profanations l'an passé, dont une bonne partie peut être attribuée à la mouvance d'extrême droite.

July 4, 2005, concerning the novel Le ventre de l'Atlantique:
In Senegal, powerful media images of opportunity in the West transfix the youth of her home village. France is a nation of easily-won wealth and luxury. In particular, the adolescents obsess over 'foot' (soccer/football). They gather around the sole television in the village to watch Africans playing in premiere league teams, and even on the national team. The African players are not just wealthy, they are portrayed as men who have been accepted by France as members of the nation. The adolescents dream of establishing themselves in French clubs. ‘Foot' is the only means that they see of escaping poverty, and it defines their desires.

The television, of course, shows only one side of reality. The misery of immigrants, which would be understood by French audiences, does not come to light. The rupture plays out in another medium, the telephone. Sankèle receives calls from her brother Mandiké. He calls her for one reason: to talk about soccer matches. He presses her to put him up so that he can pursue his dream of joining a French club. Instead Sankèle tries to educate him about the dangers of immigration and urges him to stay home: France would not be a land of dreams for him. He reproaches her: she is not helping him. Rather his sister has become a greedy ‘individual' who has lost her sense of obligation to family and community.
"If you think it is better to get by here in the country, why have you not come back? So come, prove yourself that your ideas are right."
Salie realizes with great pain that she cannot communicate the reality above the televised image.

September 16, 2005:
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.

October 11, 2005:
The centennial [of the laws of secularism] could not have come at a worse time. As girls are being suspended from schools for wearing headscarves, Muslims are clinging to religion in its most traditional form as a form of resistance. Nikolas Sarkozy, perhaps the next president of the republic, has suggested that the law must be revisited to give Muslims the ability to assimilate and France the ability to assimilate them. Chirac, mindful of the tensions, has recommended that commemoration of the law be kept to a minimum.


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